Equip Forest Guards to Protect Wildlife in India

 
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Chimmony WLS, April 6, 2015: Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) implemented a Rapid Action Project (RAP) wherein field kits were handed over to the frontline forest staff of Chimmony Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala. Each kit contains a bag pack, raincoat, cap, sleeping bag and an LED torch that will help the forest staff patrol the forests more efficiently. These kit bags were handed over by the WTI team to Shri Pius, Assistant Wildlife Warden, Chimmony WLS.


Viju Varghese, Wildlife Warden, Chimmony WLS, handing over the kit to staff.


Among those present for the kit distribution programme included Shri. Viju Varghese, Wildlife Warden, Peechi-Vazhani and Chimmony WL Sanctuaries, Shri Pius and WTI team. Shri Varghese in his inaugural speech thanked WTI and said, “Providing basic gear to the forest staff is crucial for the long term survival of the forests and its inhabitants. We are grateful to WTI for providing this basic equipment that will help the staff in carrying out their duties more efficiently.” 

WTI’s Sabu Jahas, Manager, WTI, briefed the Forest Department about WTI’s initiatives in wildlife conservation across the country and spoke about the importance of equipping the forest staff to ensure better protection of the forests and its inhabitants.


Senior forest officer handing over the kit to the frontline staff.


Chimmony Sanctuary falls in Mukundapuram Taluk of Thrissur District of Kerala. The sanctuary was established in 1984 with an area of about 85.067 sq. km and is part of the Anamudi Elephant Reserve (Reserve No.8) in the state. The sanctuary harbors several endangered and endemic species. More than 50% of the sanctuary is under high conservation value zones. 

“Considering the increasing threats of poaching and illegal logging, this diverse ecological hotspot needs to be well protected. This initiative by WTI will help the frontline staff in monitoring these forests more proficiently. It will not only make life easier for the frontline forest staff that work in one of the most difficult circumstances but also motivate them to continue their work efficiently,” said Radhika Bhagat, Head, Wild Aid, WTI. 

Explaining the Hejje system to the forest guards
Explaining the Hejje system to the forest guards

This is an account of a day spent with forest guards in Bandipur National Park in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

As the jeep rumbled past the small houses, the villagers of Chikkaelachetti barely paused in their chores to look at the vehicle full of uniformed guards of the Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF) and three civilians – Nagaraj Bhatt (Field Officer), Jose Louies (Regional Head-South India and Head-Enforcement) and me – on their way to the jungle. A few guards walking by raised their hands in acknowledgement and Bhatt reciprocated while maintaining a firm grip on the wheel as the jeep turned off the semi-paved village road onto the uneven path leading into the jungle.

Expertly maneuvering his way around shrubs and trees, Bhatt finally stopped the jeep at a point in the Kundekere Range and said, “This is where you get off and walk. Let me once again explain the Hejje equipment to two of these watchers who will be using it for the first time and you’re good to go.”

Hejje, meaning footsteps in Kannada, is an ingenious software which with its simple User Interface (UI) has brought together technology and tracking on a platform easy for the guards to understand and use. Using, literally, only a start and stop button, this android-based software helps guards collect information on the area they are walking in. The guards can even immediately take photographs as the software allows instant documentation of direct and indirect evidence of animal movement. Ten such Hejje units have been handed over to the STPF team as part of a WTI Rapid Action Project.

After a quick training session, Bhatt fished out a map from the back seat and laid it on the jeep’s hood. “You’re here right now. This is one point 5 km from here and there’s the second point 10 km away. You see that white speck on that mountain? That’s where I’ll meet you with the jeep.” Bhatt said, pointing to a hill in the distance.

Stopping every now and then to look for snare, Dore Naika, one of the forest watchers who could converse in Hindi, remarked, “We’ll probably not actually find a snare in this walk...” “When patrolling was started some years ago with WTI’s assistance, several hundred snares were found. And in this beat alone, we must have found some 200 snares. But it has been several months since we have found a single snare in the forest,” said Naika proudly.

“So is it just the patrolling and fear of being caught that has stopped the villagers from putting the snares?” I asked curiously, trying to gauge the sustainability of such an initiative. “Not really,” said Naika. “Take any village around here. We’ve done extensive awareness work with them and now, in fact, a number of them alert us whenever they get the whiff of any illegal activity around here. We’re not saying that no one here eats bushmeat anymore or poaches anymore, but the number of incidents are negligible compared to what they used to be earlier. A sense of pride in their forest and wildlife heritage has been inculcated in the locals. The village youth are also saying that they want to come and join the Department and help protect the forests.” Naika said exultantly. “There used to be just 11 tigers here in 1973 in Bandipur. Now the landscape, spread over 1020 sq km, is home to more than a hundred tigers!” he added with all the pride of a father showing off his child’s achievement.

As we walked deeper into the jungle, all we could hear at one point were the ‘seven sisters’ babbling away. A loud crack of a snapped twig suddenly broke into their babble and we whipped around to see a sambar deer galloping away at full speed, anxious to put as much space as possible between itself and us.

A novice in jungle trail walking, I was impressed by the STPF staff as they took on the uneven hillside like seasoned mountain goats, jumping nimbly over loose stones and deftly avoiding thickets and thorns. About 2 km inside the jungle, we decided to stop near a stream for 10 minutes. Even though the monsoons had begun in Karnataka and it had been raining heavily for days, that day the Sun God had decided to smile upon us (albeit a little too brightly!)

As everyone clambered onto the rocks to get the best seats in the house, I noticed Naika was wearing regular flip-flops and asked him where his shoes were. “Oh, they’re at home. I was in a hurry and just put these on. I’m used to walking in these anyway. Shoes have been given to us relatively recently, infact by WTI,” he said.

Naika then turned around and looked at Bomme Gowda, another watcher sitting right behind me. “It’s still ok for me, you know. I’m in a relatively okay position and can at least afford a pair of shoes and slippers on my own once in a while. But a watcher like Bomme Gowda who has been walking this forest for years still get paid only the basic minimum wage. How can he afford things like raincoats and proper walking shoes when he has a family to feed and an ailing mother in his village home?” Naika asked me.

I turned to look at Bomme Gowda. He just gave me a shy smile and looked at ripples made by a tadpole in the water below. “How far have you all studied?” I asked. Naika replied, “I have done my Bachelor in Education. Puneeth, sitting there, has even completed his Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. Bomme has never gone to school. The others have passed high school at least.”

“So does support, like the raincoats and Hejje tracking systems, help you all a lot?” I asked, despite knowing the answer. “Of course it does!” Naika shot back immediately, “Like I said, our salaries aren’t too high. The forest department does all it can for us but even they have their limitation. We need as much help as we can get. With the monsoons coming up for instance, a number of us were wondering how we’re even going to carry out patrolling since most of our salaries have gone home. But now at least, we know we won’t be catching a cold everyday and falling sick!”

Wondering how much I had tested Naika’s patience, I listened as he answered my umpteenth question, “10-15 km is our usual beat. Take this route we’re on right now – of the Chigrekadu beat for instance. Now this is a known habitat for at least 5-6 tigers and we have to make sure that it is snare-free. Even though not a single snare has been found in almost a year, even one accidentally left behind by us could mean one tiger less in our forest,” he said.

I asked if he had ever come across any tiger on his beat. “No ma’am,” he said with his ever-present smile. “It’s almost as if the wildlife of this forest knows that we’re not here to harm them. They probably do see us from the distance since we have found fresh pugmarks on occasion, but as long as we leave them alone, they don’t disturb us.” “It’s the elephants that we need to be wary of! That’s one unpredictable animal. We have to constantly keep our nosed tuned to their scent. You won’t even know that they’re right behind until it is almost too late.”

Pit stop over and we continued on our way to the final point some kilometers away. I was exhilarated at being away from the din of the city and exhausted from walking uphill in the jungle.

We found Bhatt waiting for us where he said he would be, armed with several bottles of water (“Special from a pond just here!” he claimed with a twinkle in his eye) and packets of Parle-G biscuits. All fed and watered, we clambered into the jeep. I took a last look at the trail we had just come up and wondered when, if ever at all, I would have the chance to walk the forest with these companions again.

The next stop was the STPF’s anti-poaching camp a few kilometers away. Loaded with only bare essentials, my attention was immediately drawn to a very sturdy iron chest in a corner of the room. “Surely, you don’t get thieves in the middle of the jungle?” I exclaimed. The other laughed as Naika explained, “That’s for our resident bears. We have one who loves to come and raid our supplies and this padlocked strongbox is the only solution that has worked,” said Naika handing me a plastic mug of ‘special drinking water’ as they liked to call the local handpump produce!

Bhatt pointed to the far end of the room and commented on them using firewood cookstoves (chulha). “It’s not good for them. They really need an alternative in here or they will seriously start falling sick in these closed quarters. Promising to look into this, Jose and I followed Bhatt and the others out to the vehicle. “We hope that we have been of help to you, ma’am.” Naika said with all the grace of a good host. I thanked him and the others profusely for humoring me and patiently answering my queries and, of course, waiting for me when I was too tired to climb up a hill after a point.

As I waved goodbye, I couldn’t help but marvel at the resilience of this lot who could have entered any mainstream industry, chosen any career they wanted to, but their valiance and loyalty to wildlife and nature kept them where they were, insisting and demanding to be counted among the Guardians of the Wild.

The forest guards need all the support that we can give them. As the new year begins, I reach out to you with a plea to help us empower these brave men and women who have chosen to protect our forests.

... and the walk begins.
... and the walk begins.
STPF staff looking for snares during the walk
STPF staff looking for snares during the walk
An eyeopening conversation
An eyeopening conversation
Guards on anti-snare walk in south India
Guards on anti-snare walk in south India

July 31st was World Ranger Day.

Usually when we talk about wildlife and forests, we agree about the need to protect it, to preserve it, to prevent the callous exploitation of nature’s treasures by those determined to profit from them.

What we do not talk about very often, however, are the men and women who are out there doing just that – the frontline forest guards of the Forest Departments.

These are the people who have dedicated their lives to ensure that another rhino does not fall to a poacher’s bullet, that another elephant is not poisoned, that another tiger does not find its leg caught in an iron jaw trap, or that another bough of sandalwood is not illegally traded.

They are the ones braving the cold biting winds of Kashmir, the raging floods of Assam, the scorching desert sun in Rajasthan, the searing heat of rocky Central India, and the pouring rains of the Western Ghats; often without basics such as jackets and caps! The guards consider neither their own comfort nor their convenience when it comes to doing their duty. They have only one thought on their minds – making sure that the forests and the plants and animals that find home within it are protected from harm.

On World Ranger Day, we express our deepest gratitude to these brave Guardians of the Wild. Without them, the forests and its denizens would have become a memory a long time ago.

‘Guardians of the Wild’ is one of the earliest initiatives of WTI. Over the last 15 years WTI has been striving to provide frontline forest guards with tools to support their mission. The support provided is in the form of training in basic wildlife law and crime scene investigation, equipping with patrolling and communication gear, and boosting their morale by privately insuring them against injury or death on duty.

We thank you for supporting us in our efforts to protect these very important partners in wildlife conservation and to acknowledge the heroism they show every single day while on duty.

Patrolling a Tiger Reserve in North India
Patrolling a Tiger Reserve in North India
Unsung heroes of wildlife conservation
Unsung heroes of wildlife conservation
Appu
Appu's widow Ponni with Roy P Thomas & Vivek Menon

As part of the IFAW-WTI Supplemental Accident Insurance Scheme, ex-gratia support of $2000 was provided to the family of Appu in Wayanad, Kerala. Appu was a mahout (elephant caretaker) with the Kerala Forest Department and had been killed while on duty by a captive elephant on the evening of February 13th 2014. Appu had been working in Muthunga, Wayanad with the Kerala Forest Department since May 1999 and had been shifted to the elephant squad in 2001. He is survived by his wife and three children.

The Wildlife Warden of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary remarked that with the multiple conservation challenges faced in the field, it is crucial to keep up the morale of the frontline forest staff. To this end, timely support provided to the families of forest guards in the time of their greatest distress by the IFAW-WTI supplemental accident insurance scheme under the Guardians of the Wild programme goes a long way to provide some small relief from the anguish of losing a loved one. Through this scheme, over 20,000 forest field staff across the country has been covered again death/permanent disability while on duty.

The Guardians of the Wild programme has also trained over 12,000 forest staff in more than 130 Protected Areas in over 19 states of India.

Staff on routine patrol duty in Corbett TR
Staff on routine patrol duty in Corbett TR

Rakesh was a 52 year old daily-wager working with the Forest Department in Corbett Tiger Reserve in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand. In October last year, he was part of a two-member team on routine patrol duty in the Kalagarh range of the forest. When he did not return home till late night, the range officer sent out a search party to locate the team. After a couple of hours, the search party came across the team. Rakesh and his colleague, Dev, had been attacked by a tiger and Rakesh had been badly mauled. The rescue team quickly took Rakesh to the nearest medical facility which was a small hospital in Kalagarh. After initial treatment, the doctors there recommended that he should be shifted to another hospital in Kashipur (about 2 hours away) for better treatment.

Seeing the extent of Rakesh’s injuries, the doctors at Kashipur suggested moving him to a larger and better equipped facility in Haldwani for treatment after stabilization. This was a 75 kilometer journey by road. At Haldwani, the doctors tried their utmost to save him, but Rakesh’s system was unable to cope and he succumbed to his injuries on the night of 20th October.

Rakesh is survived by his aged mother, wife and two young children. As is often the case, he had been the sole breadwinner and losing him had torn a gaping hole in the fabric of the family. Under WTI’s initiative to provide support to the frontline forest guards in case of accidents while on duty, Rakesh’s family was assisted with a sum of $2000 to give them some relief in their time of distress. While the loss of a dear one can in no way be compensated, the financial relief did help the family to a great extent and the gesture was much appreciated by the family and the state forest department.

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Leena Fernandez

Noida, Uttar Pradesh India

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