“I was walking back to the field camp, when a tiger decided to take the same path as me. It looked me straight in the eye and kept moving in my direction. Needless to say, the sight of the 120-odd kg weighing carnivore making a beeline towards us was enough to make me quite nervous. Muttering Bhagwan bharose (in God I trust) to myself, I kept my stride steady and tried not to show any fear. The tiger came close... and then just trotted off into the bushes,” Leelabai reminisced. Smiling, more at my dazed expression than anything else, she said, “The tiger must have seen the uniform and understood that it’s the malik (owner) out for a walk.”
Leelabai is not a celebrated ‘wildlifer’ or photographer, nor has she published any research papers or been a part of any conglomeration of conservationists. She has spent the last nineteen years of her life living in the forest, armed with nothing but a stick and sheer raw pluck and courage, guarding the forest as part of the forest department. Our paths would probably never have crossed had IFAW-WTI not conducted a Crime Prevention Training for the frontline forest staff at Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh.
Fondly called amma (mother) by her colleagues, including many officers, Leelabai will be turning 60 this December and it’ll be time for her to retire from the forest department. Looking at this brazen lady, all of us from WTI were more than just curious about her life as a forest guard, a position which in this day and age is still, unfortunately, male-dominated. Being my usual inquisitive self, I started my onslaught of questions.
What made you join the department? ... I got this job as a forest guard in 1985, after my husband was killed by some poachers. I was left all alone with four children- two boys and two girls. The department offered me the job as a means to make ends meet and I decided to take it up.
What’s your daily routine like? ... We go patrolling, at least around 10 km every day inside the forest. There isn’t an animal that we don’t come across... whether it is a tiger or a gaur, we see them all! What do you think about the tiger? ... Oh... what do I think? (Laughs) You tell me what I should be thinking about when a majestic animal like the tiger crosses my path! Simply put, it’s the pride of our forests. After all, you’re sitting in the land of the tiger and people come from all across the world to see a tiger here! So yes, I feel very proud about our tigers. Why do you think we should save the tigers? ... Well, there are a lot of big reasons as I’m sure you already know but keeping those aside for the moment, honestly, the tiger gives us a lot of employment. It’s responsible for all the tourists coming to our small town who stay in the hotels, hire vehicles and visit the park. All these things just mean more jobs and services we can get paid for.
(Bowled over by the frankness of her answers and her matter of fact tone, I persisted in my quest to know more about this fascinating lady) But other than just income, why should we save the tigers? ... The tiger is the top animal in the forest, is it not? When we save the tiger, we save other animals and the entire forest itself! If we want the future generations to see these magnificent creatures, then the burden is on us to save them. I know I want my grandchildren to see tigers in the forest; they are the pride of our nation! Where else can you see tigers in the wild like you do here? The whole world comes to my jungles to see them! Have you ever caught a poacher yourself? ... What do you think, kid? That I’ve been in this position for so long but haven’t done anything? As a forest guard, I’ve been part of quite a few seizures and seen them detaining a lot of suspects. Once, in fact, during my patrolling with two casual workers we came across a father-son duo, who were jungle fowl hunters who were setting traps in the forest. As soon as they saw us they tried to run away but we caught them easily. I gave two tight slaps to the kid and asked him why he’s spoiling his life by getting into this murky business and leading a life of crime. We went back, collected all the traps and handed them to the senior officials later. So many incidents like these have happened; it’s hard for me to recall all of them. It’s all a normal part of our life here.
So what would you want to say to the new generation of forest guards? ... I would just say that I have done what I could do and the onus is now on them to continue saving our forests from the poachers and the thieves. And make sure that you experience the magic of the forest, when you walk in it every day. Only then will you fall in love with it and there is no returning from that kind of intense, ethereal love. Got any plans for your post-retirement life? ... I haven’t given it much thought so nothing as such as of now. What I do know is that after nineteen long years, I’m finally going to take a break and spend some time with my grandchildren. But I know that I’m going to miss the forests.
Leelabai sat and talked with us for another 10-15 minutes. She told me she quite liked the training, especially the way it was conducted. It was the first time she had seen a tiger trap, during the mock field exercise and was very upset by the fact that a tiger can be killed using such simple equipment. She did wistfully say that she wanted to do more as a forest guard but that it was time for the youngsters to come and take over from her now. Leelabai ventured on to the topics that had been covered in the previous day’s training and how everyone had sat and discussed them at the end of the day. Smiling reassuringly at me, she was confident that trainings like these will help the forest staff to learn more and help perform their duties better. “You should conduct regular refresher trainings, since we rarely get such opportunities. But it sure is good to see senior officials taking care of capacity building issues,” Leelabai added.
With that last statement, she quietly got up and went to attend the rest of the workshop, leaving me to sit there alone with multiple thoughts reeling in my head after this conversation. Leelabai is symbolic of those hundreds of unknown and unheard of ‘glorified’ protectors of our forests and the wildlife in them. It’s not just a job for them but literally living in the middle of the jungles, they risk their lives every day for the cause. It’s not an easy life, patrolling for kilometres on end, living in minimalist field camps to survive, braving the harsh varying Indian weather all year round, battling against all odds to act as the first line of defence for our wildlife. Leelabai will probably never get a lifetime achievement award or actually be recognised as a conservationist by the modern capitalist and utilitarian world. Her fate, in all probability will be like that of many before her- to forever disappear into the government files as a retired forest employee, becoming nothing more than just another statistic, living on her pension as a simple retired grandparent in a small town with all her years of forest experience and wisdom kept to herself. People who will visit Kanha to see tigers will never know or understand the sacrifices made, the lives spent and the blood and the sweat shed in these very jungles to save the National Animal of India. Here’s hoping that her story and her contributions are now known to the world and will inspire more people to join forces save wildlife.
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