Janelle De Souza
Since its inception in February 2021, the Hunters’ Search and Rescue Team has helped to bring closure to many families by finding 98 people and 30 bodies.
Founded by team captain Vallence Rambharat, 58, of Rio Claro, the group’s activities include land, river and sea searches for drownings, murder victims, suicides, natural deaths and missing persons.
Rambharat explained, “Sometimes persons wilfully run away from home. We engage the families and try our best to get the persons back to those families.
“We are the only organisation the embraces searching for all types of missing persons. Our mission is to work with law enforcement to assist families and citizens to achieve closure when their loved ones go missing.”
He told Sunday Newsday the formation of the group began when he learned the police were searching the forests of Sangre Grande for 22-year-old Andrea Bharatt, who went missing on January 29 after getting in a taxi in Arima.
He called then commissioner of police Gary Griffith to offer the hunters’ assistance. Griffith agreed, so Rambharat called some of his hunting friends together to help the police.
The police found Bharatt’s body on February 4 in the Heights of Aripo.
But two days later, Rambharat got a call from deputy CoP Joanne Archie asking the 17 hunters to be a part of a police operation called Aripo Sweep to look for any more bodies in the area.
“Coming out of the Andrea Bharatt search, the members were distraught and heartbroken. And after that operation, the hunters who were gathered decided they wanted to continue. So it was out of these emotions that the organisation was born.”
The Hunters’ Search and Rescue Team now has 27 members from all over TT. It includes four teams – a three-member team in Tobago headed by Kester Jerry, a seven-member team in north Trinidad headed by Shamsudeen Ayube, a four-member team in central led by Ramnauth Ramcharitar, and a 13-member team in south led by Johnny Maharaj.
It has worked with several police teams, including the Anti-kidnapping and Special Investigations units, the Inter-Agency Task Force, National Operational Task Force, Coastal and Riverine Unit, all police stations, the Coast Guard and the Fire Services.
In 2021, the group carried out 38 search and rescue operations. They found 14 people alive and 16 bodies. Eight people were not found.
This year, up to June 1, they have been involved in 147 missing-persons cases. Eighty-four people were found alive, 14 were found dead and 49 have not been found.
Rambharat said people usually ask for help through the group’s Facebook page. They receive information there, or people use the contact number on the page to WhatsApp message or call the group.
Most of the members are retired, own businesses or are self-employed. As a result, at any given time, the group could have 11-14 people involved in a search, depending on its location and nature.
Rambharat himself was an educator for 38 years, as a teacher, principal and school supervisor.
“When I see young people go missing, I know the challenges, I understand them, I understand dealing with children, and what they go through.
“That is what motivates me to actually continue to lead and plan and push this thing forward.
“I think children need protection, support and the love of the adult population. From my experience, they deserve to be properly spoken to and engaged. The result could be a change in behaviour.”
Rambharat said many of the skills necessary for hunting easily transfer to a search.
For example, hunters are usually fit, have strong legs, sharp eyes, a keen sense of smell, are accustomed to spending long hours in the forest, can go for long periods with no sustenance other than water, can maintain their concentration for long periods of time, and can track.
“When we search there are usually thick, high bushes around. Somebody has to breach those bushes in order to dump a body.
“So we don’t go searching every single bit of bush. We track them, because you must break a branch or leave a track, and that is how we are able to find people.”
He added that they do not use hunting dogs in their searches, as the animals are not trained to find cadavers. Instead, many times, they work with the police K9 unit.
Hunters can also differentiate between the smells of carcasses of different animals, and are definitely able to tell the difference between a dead animal and a dead person, which he described as distinct and nauseating.
Yet, he said, they continue to do it in service to TT.
Not only do they want to continue, but the hope is to expand.
The Hunters’ Search and Rescue Team is already planning to be on standby to assist during the rainy season.
“In most cases we will be able to retrieve persons from homes that are flooded and land them safely to the nearest safe spot. What we also do is, prior to flooding, some citizens, mostly the elderly, need help lifting appliances and furniture off the floor to place them on blocks in their homes, and we would assist them.”
Further plans include registering the group as an NGO, gaining more members, getting proper equipment and search tools like drones and boats, and doing more training in searching techniques and equipment.
By the end of June, the group would like to start a voluntary programme for prospective university students and other young people to work with them for some time. They would be taught search skills in various landscapes including mountains, grassland, forests, rivers and coastlines; how to handle ropes; and safety while searching.
Rambharat said the programme would be the group’s contribution to youth development in.