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.
STPF staff looking for snares during the walk
An eyeopening conversation