On June 19, a farmer from Nilgiris district disappeared into the forests near his residence. Neighbours who were farming in the field adjacent to his, saw him running into the thick foliage, claiming that he was under attack.
When his family alerted the police, a team immediately went in search of 48-year-old Radhakrishnan who had intellectual disabilities. For two days they scoured the thick forest hoping to find him but to no avail. The neighbours gave the informed the police about what he was wearing and which direction he ran. But not much else could be extracted from them.
"We didn't know which way to go and then there is the possibility of running into some wild animal as we go through the foliage," says Vijayan, the sub inspector who was handling the case. "We were really not sure how to proceed," he adds.
And that is when calls were made to bring in Hopper, a specialist who has sniffed even poachers within the deep reserves of the forest. For the last three years he has been helping the forest department track down illegal hunters and retrieve animal parts from across the district.
According to his colleagues, this sincere worker, knows no fear. Just last year, in Satyamangalam, Hopper led a team to the houses of 12 poachers and helped convict them by finding hidden snares, tigers claws, teeth, tails and even ivory.
And how does he do it?
Well, with his nose.
"Hopper is a four-year-old Belgian shepherd dog who leads our investigations," laughs Vadivelu, the forest guard who is Hopper's trainer and handler. "He trained with the BSF and for the last three years he has been assigned as a part of the anti-poaching team here. This time though, we were called to help find a missing man, " he explains.
On June 20, Hopper first arrived at the site where Radhakrishnan went missing. He was made to sniff the farmer's used clothes before he took off determinedly into the forest.
"We went in about six kilometres but heard elephants approaching. Hopper would just go on, he was not bothered. But we were afraid any conflict would lead to casualties," explains Vadivelu.
One the morning of June 21, Hopper and team took off again.
"We left at around 6 am in the morning and began to make our way through the forest," says Vijayan. "The dog led us the whole time. From the very beginning, he knew exactly where to go," adds the sub-inspector.
Soon, they found Radhakrishnan's veshti on the forest floor and knew they were on the right track.
"It took us close to five hours to get to this point. The terrain was difficult to navigate," says Vadivelu.
But Hopper knew exactly where he was going.
And soon enough lying in a ditch enclosed by bushes was the farmer, sleeping soundly, clearly exhausted by the long journey. The minute Hopper found him he began to bark and growl aggressively, startling the man.
"Hopper thought he was a poacher. But that is my fault, I didn't tell him what kind of search it was," laughs Vadivelu.
But on observing the others helping the farmer and giving him first aid and water, the dog understood that they were looking for a victim.
"He was then playing with him and licking him," says his handler.
"Without Hopper, it would not have been possible to get to him so fast. The dog pretty much saved his life," admits the sub-inspector.
The forest specialist however is unfazed by the praise coming his way.
"It was just another regular day for Hopper," says Vadivelu. "He helps us expecting nothing in return."