Home Magazines Cover Story On Their Shoulders – In Praise Of The Forest Guards Of India

On Their Shoulders – In Praise Of The Forest Guards Of India

On Their Shoulders – In Praise Of The Forest Guards Of India

Rundan Katkar, a Range Officer from Kolsa, is one of the unsung forest guards who works with grit and determination to protect Tadoba. Photo: Anuradha Marwah.

When Anuradha Marwah and Varun Thakkar suggested to Sanctuary that they would like to spend two weeks living with the forest guards of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) to document their role in wildlife protection, we instantly and enthusiastically agreed. We then contacted Praveen Pardeshi, Principal Forest Secretary, Government of Maharashtra, and within moments a message had been passed on to the Field Director, Tadoba, G.P. Garad, asking that all possible help and cooperation be extended. What follows is an outline of their interaction with some of our country’s true foot soldiers, on whose shoulders virtually all wildlife conservation in India stands.

On the road running through the buffer from Moharli to Chandrapur, a few metres beyond the Kalapani Puliya, is a broken down shack under the shade of a huge tree, the only shelter Eshwar Maruti Srirame, a van mazdoor, and his helpers have in the peak of Central India’s summer. Eshwar is a veteran and has been in the service of the Maharashtra Forest Department for the last 31 years. He has patrolled the length and breadth of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve and currently mans the protection hut at Moharli Buffer. In these three decades, he has witnessed the changing face of this reserve, braving the heat and rain, working long hours and walking forest trails in the service of the tiger and its co-inhabitants. Incredibly, his spirit and enthusiasm remain that of a fresh recruit’s.

There are many such soldiers, ranging from veterans like Eshwar to young 22-year-olds who patrol many miles to protect their turf, collect data, pick-up samples, monitor camera traps and waterholes and keep outside human interference to the minimum. Armed with little more than a stick and an axe, these forest guards brave untold hardships and quietly make history each day… unsung. You have to get to know them to realise how unquestioningly they perform their duties, with sincerity, passion and pride. Most love and revere the forests they protect as their annadata (giver of sustenance).

A lone van mazdoor monitors a ‘controlled burn’. This management technique is employed to remove flammable undergrowth that can spark and spread devastating forest fires. Photo: Amol Bais.

STRENGTH IN TIMES OF ADVERSITY

A call from Sanjay Thakre, the Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) of Chandrapur circle, led us to Manora village. A 42-year-old woman entered the forest, stumbled upon a pregnant tigress and was mauled to death. She was the only sister of a beat guard, Majid, who has been with the Forest Department for over a decade. Majid doesn’t blame the tigress for his sister’s death. He said in a philosophic tone that she had entered the tiger’s domain knowing what the risks were. He has encountered many tigers on foot in his day and confirms that unless provoked, the big cat would take the path of least resistance to slink away. Even as he mourned his sister’s death, he has been actively educating villagers on the precautions to be taken to avoid another fatality. When he spoke to us, he said, “The tigress is expecting. It must be difficult for her to hunt.” His task was to prevent more incidents as that would endanger the life of the tigress, because his own village might retaliate.

Bramhapuri, just outside Tadoba’s buffer, is a flourishing forest with over 20 adult tigers reported. Meet Soni Pandhare, a 23-year-old woman, who braves all odds with grit and determination on a daily basis. One of the many women enrolled by the Forest Department, she bristles at the thought of anyone suggesting that she might not be able to execute rigorous patrols as well as the next man. Undoubtedly, the Forest Service is male-dominated, but things are changing. Night patrols involving long, lonely walks, sleep-deprivation, the cold of winter, or the heat of summer… nothing deters Soni. Not surprisingly, she has already won the grudging respect of her village and is proving to be a catalyst in tempering the runaway human-animal conflict that Tadoba’s buffer is renowned for.

Another equally passionate and committed forest guard is Avinash Bhaskar Amwar, who has served five full years in the Brahmapuri Range. He mans the Sindhboddi area, and his love for wildlife is palpable. Over the past two years he too has been instrumental in helping reduce man-animal conflict by convincing villagers to cooperate. Many villages suffer crop damage from wild herbivores, especially during monsoons. Avinash used rustic village logic to tackle what seemed to be an intractable problem by planting pulses and vegetables in the Thakabai area, a stone’s throw from the village on no man’s land. This ended up reducing herbivore raids on peoples’ farmlands. Predators follow the trail of their prey and in tiny graduated measures a solution seems to be emerging. Avinash did other things, not exactly taught in the school of wildlife conservation! He put up earthen pots in trees near the lake and discovered to his delight that many were accepted by species such as the Indian Roller, to bring up their young. It’s not an earth-shaking initiative. Just one that reveals the creative desire of an ‘ordinary’ forest guard to make a difference, without grants, or funds from any source.

There is more. Avinash helped nab poachers selling wild pig meat in the open market and discovered that they were routinely trafficking other game and body parts in Chandrapur’s Mul area. He named colleagues involved with the poachers, and was instrumental in having them arrested. He was threatened, as expected, and needed police protection for a while. But he glows when he speaks about his success.

Veteran range officer S.L. Balpane sets up a camera trap in the Moharli beat. Photo: Anuradha Marwah.

BUFFER PROTECTION

While the attention of the world is on the core areas of the parks, generally free from village impacts, the buffer zones are largely being hammered. But they are critical to our conservation strategies and are possibly the key to the effective protection of the core of any forest. But administration of buffer zones has huge challenges, primarily the relationship with local communities that must somehow be able to meet their own survival needs without destabilising the ecological base of the forest. Forest Departments do what they can to balance conflicting demands, with few successes and many failures. In recent times, solutions have emerged where locals were able to share revenues from gate money, and vocational skills helped young villagers to improve the quality of life of their families through better nutrition, health and sanitation. There is probably no better way to overcome the existing trust-deficit that exists than by genuinely enabling locals to benefit from the restoration of biodiversity.

All this is easier said than done but in Tadoba we saw from the ground up that the presumed antipathy to wildlife was showing tentative signs of improving.

However you look at it, the business of managing relationships between people and parks is a daunting task, and in most protected forests it is really left to the forest guards manning buffer zones to deal with the issue, without effective policy or institutional support.

Apart from their regular patrolling duties, forest guards must also monitor the entry of villagers and their cattle into forest lands, deal with fuelwood collection, cajole villagers to avoid risking life and limb by entering the forests and then, be blamed when tragedy strikes.

Walking with Death

On July 14, 2014, Budhaji Jadhav, a forest guard from the Kalwa division in Rabale, was murdered in cold blood. In the line of duty, Jadhav had confronted a man encroaching into the forest; enraged, he fatally attacked Jadhav, pummeling him over the head with a heavy object. In the same month, a forest ranger and forest guard were found dead in a government quarter of the Panna Tiger Reserve. Both had had their throats slit.

Statistics made available by the International Ranger Federation reveal that India loses more forest rangers each year than any other country in the world. The numbers are a cause for alarm. In 2012, India lost 34 rangers, while the U.S., second on the list, lost only six. Similarly in 2014, India has already recorded 24 forester deaths, while Kenya has recorded just ten.

Studies show that poachers are responsible for most murders, while the rest can be attributed to other factors like wild animal attacks and diseases. Clearly, protecting India’s forests is a dangerous job, but there is little support that is extended to these green warriors.


Tadoba’s dominant male tiger Wagdoh, his mate, and their young cubs have a territory that includes the Moharli beat. Range Officer S.L. Balpane inspects their pugmarks.
Photo: Varun Thakkar.

ECOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT

Fortunately, some particularly good officers have been posted to Tadoba. Sitting and listening to Gajendra Narwane, Divisional Forest Officer, Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve buffer, for instance, made us think how policy makers in New Delhi should be made to spend time in the field with such dedicated officials, before passing diktats that often have little connection with field realities. Narwane’s mission is clear, but complex. He wants buffer areas around the park to meet the economic needs of villagers through economic upliftment, and livelihoods that help ecologically restore the buffer that it is capable of sustaining tigers and their co-denizens.

When it was originally conceived in the Kanha Tiger Reserve in the 1970s, the word ‘eco-development’ was automatically understood to be ‘ecological’ development. But then the World Bank arrived with a bagful of money, which it poured into Project Tiger for commercial projects that the project’s non-official members unanimously opposed. This was the early 1990s, and soon the term eco-development in a twisted manner came to mean ‘economic’ development. This was a formula for conflict and that cardinal error is still at the root of the massive people and parks problem that besets virtually every wildlife reserve today.

Narwane and other enlightened policy makers in Maharashtra are trying to restore the original meaning of the term ecological in ‘eco-development’. Narwane and his team are trying to help 20 villages sustain themselves from low-impact tourism, which is able to deliver high-quality visitor experiences, in exchange for decent incomes from community-owned homestays, run by some of India’s finest tourism professionals. Such experiences include walking trails, machaan vigils, photography from hides close to waterholes, night patrols with forest guards, and more.

He is working to establish cottage industries for another 55 villages based on existing village skills. He is also trying to arm the youth in villages with basic education, vocational training and employment opportunities. He feels this will spur them to look outward, away from the forest biomass, for their livelihoods. By reducing their direct dependence on forests, he feels they will actually be able to lift themselves from the poverty trap that has eroded their security and dignity these many years.

Some short-term measures that have been welcomed by locals include the distribution of LPG connections to as many as 3,500 families, rotational grazing zones for cattle, and prompt compensation for cattle kills. None of these policies would have had a ghost of a chance of success on the ground if the forest guards we met had not put the plans effectively into practice.

Roti, kapda aur makaan: struggles of the daily wagers

A large percentage of India’s forest force comprises daily wagers. These individuals perform the same task as regularised forest guards but lack the security of a permanent job. They earn a paltry salary that often isn’t paid on time, out of which they are also meant to meet their basic needs. Many are posted at remote chowkis that lack electricity, network coverage, easy access to drinking water and medical care. Some are cut off from civilisation for months during the monsoon.

In the face of these hardships, it is ignorant of us to expect the daily wagers to perform their duty to their full potential. Yet, despite having no insurance and no incentive, they battle for India’s forests, everyday. It is time that the country recognised the invaluable service they provide in protecting our wildlife, and regularises them into the system.

 

Soni Pandhare, just 23-years-old, is a key agent in mitigating the human-wildlife conflict that afflicts Tadoba’s buffer.
Photo: Anuradha Marwah.

THE GUARDS OF MOHARLI BUFFER

Forest guard S.L. Balpane has been in service for the last 10 years and now manages the Moharli beat. The buffer area has an expanse of around 514 sq. km. and every beat guard has eight square kilometres to cover. Balpane says the duties increase manifold in the buffer. There are regular patrols and waterhole monitoring, which includes taking digital images of each visit along with GPS readings. His most crucial responsibility is to keep an eye on the villages. A dominant tigress and her mate Waghdoh moved from the core to the buffer and are now bringing up a new litter of three cubs. Balpane and his colleagues have had to therefore redouble their patrols. Waghdoh meanwhile has been lifting cattle regularly and Balpane works 24x7 to ensure that the villagers’ applications for compensation are promptly processed to reduce any chance of retaliation. This also means setting up additional camera traps, and stationing van mazdoors near any such kills to watch over his tigers.

Meanwhile, the Joint Forest Management Committee (JMFC) of buffer villages is redirecting tourism to the buffer areas. This will effectively alleviate tourism pressure in the core, while helping to generate revenue and employment for villagers. But buffer zone guards will now have the added responsibility of managing tourists and their vehicles too. So, they must invest more hours a day to ensure that their patrolling tasks are not left unfulfilled. But Balpane says that this is for the greater good of the forest and villagers. Many young men and women from buffer villages are earning a decent wage from tourism duties and some have been recruited as guards or van mazdoors. This includes women such as Priyanka Jawde from Agrazeri village, who now manages the Agrazeri beat in the buffer, near Moharli.

One of the most important tasks of the forest guards is to ensure that villagers’ applications for compensation, for cattle killed by wild animals, are promptly processed to minimise retaliatory measures. Photo: Anuradha Marwah.

TOURISM – BOON OR BANE?

While tourism brings in opportunities, it is also a huge source of pressure on forest officials. As much as 40 per cent of their time is now devoted to managing tourism. And it is a thankless task, because visitors inevitably complain that they have not been granted enough time with tigers, or the specific route they asked for. We want tourism to instill a love of the tiger and the forest in the public, but without rules that force respect for the animal in the wild, tourism would run riot. After spending two or three hours ‘managing tourists’, the forest guard must return to his other patrolling, monitoring, tracking and reporting duties.

It’s a tough life that most city folk would give up on within a week.

What impressed us most in Tadoba was the close working relationship between junior staff and the park management and the Chandrapur Forest Division. Much of the credit for this must go to Praveen Pardeshi, IAS, Principal Secretary Forests, Government of Maharashtra, for helping to improve staff morale and winning political and administrative support for the Greater Tadoba Landscape. Sanjay Thakre has also helped change the very way the department operates outside the buffer. The result is that more and more communities have begun approaching the Forest Department, once their sworn enemy, to work with them.

From what we could see, provided policies are not changed and staff continue to be supported, buffer tourism will have a new look and meaning when the season opens in a few weeks. More than anything else, villages outside the park will see prosperity from tiger tourism. The Deputy Divisional Forest Officer, Buffer, G. Narwane and Field Director of TATR, G.P. Garad are out-of-the-box thinkers who are genuinely working for the socio-economic development of communities as a strategy for conservation.

H. Bhaskar Bhatt, an officer from the Nimbada Range, monitors a waterhole from the Ghanta chowki. Photo: Varun Thakkar.

THE MANY FACES OF VALOUR

Satish Shende, Range Officer, Moharli, is well-known to the regulars of Tadoba. This friendly officer largely manages tourist traffic. However, few know of the many poachers and notorious villagers he has apprehended. Fearless, yet bashful, he confessed with a smile that the only tiger that scares him is Waghdoh. Shende joined the Forest Department he says, because, that is what every male member of his family has always done. He will have to move when his daughter is old enough to go to school, because Moharli has no school in which his little girl can be enrolled. Yet he is happy because for now he plays a vital role in ‘mid-wifing’ tiger cubs and protecting them until they reach adulthood. He says his fondest wish is for his daughter to have the same love for tigers as he does.

We also met Santosh B. Pendam, a man of few words. Posted at the Dewara beat in the core zone, he is a Bachelor of Science graduate and an avid butterfly enthusiast. Santosh has photo documented a significant percentage of the flying jewels of Tadoba and rattles off their scientific names with ease. He is particularly interested in grassland development and has successfully transformed barren landscapes into lush grazing meadows for herbivores. He was also the first to begin taking GPS readings of all waterholes, paths, machaans, posts, and he maintains a meticulous log that he is training others to replicate. This led to a GPS-tagged beat map that is already a key scientific aide to monitor the forest. Every beat guard now follows this practice and the data collected is uploaded daily onto a virtual map that serves as an online guide for the internal use of the Field Director and his team.

Another firebrand young member of the Forest Department is twenty-two-year-old Hitesh Madhvi, a powerhouse of enthusiasm and passion. Hitesh, the only son of a Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra employee, belongs to a poor tribal family from Chinchpalli. He applied to the Army, Navy, Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), and to the Maharashtra Forest Department. He passed every test, and got job offers from each employer. But he chose to follow his heart and signed up with the Forest Department. His first posting was at Sironcha in Gadchiroli, on the Maharashtra-Andhra Pradesh border, currently afflicted by Naxalism, and vulnerable to the illicit felling of trees and bamboo. Hitesh was given weapons and intelligence training, and has already apprehended several timber smugglers, tiger skin traders and their middlemen. This shy boy has already been involved in an exchange of fire when he and senior team members were attacked by poachers. In the three years he has spent at Sironcha, he has understandably made a lot of enemies. After facing a slew of death threats, he was recently transferred to TATR.

He says he misses the ‘field action’, but also welcomes the change of pace. Sitting back in his sparse protection hut in the evening, he pours over his books as he studies for his third year Bachelor of Arts final exams. Speaking about his stint at Gadchiroli, he narrates how he had to undertake foot patrols early each morning, head back to camp and then rush to appear for his first, then, second-year finals. After that he would hurry back to the camp to head out on his patrolling duties. Once he graduates, he hopes to become a senior officer in the Forest Department so he can continue to work for the wildlife of India.

For every person who finds the job tedious or dangerous, there are so many in the department who have time and again shown determination, grit and passion and who refuse to give up on protecting our wildlife. The list is endless – Rundan Katkar from Kolsa, Padwe from Agrazari, R. O. Yerurker from Tadoba, H. B. Bhatt… it was an honour and privilege to meet them all.

Many of us have been visitors to parks, but few really spare a thought for the behind-the-scenes action that allows tigers and other wildlife to survive in a nation starved of political will to save our natural heritage. Even fewer people truly understand what Protected Area management really entails, or how tough life is for these uniform-clad officials and personnel whose service to India is no less than that of our Army, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard.

Through Sanctuary Asia we hope to reach out to the lakhs of people who genuinely love our wilds, and weld them into a force in support of those faceless people who work day in and day out to protect our last precious pockets of wildernesses. We want those who visit our parks to think beyond their favourite routes and getting the ‘best’ sightings they hoped for.

Until we pursued Sanctuary Asia’s initiative on conservation photography and began to look beyond safaris and tigers, to dwell deeper into the lives of our forest guards, we too were clueless about the hard life and massive contribution our foot soldiers were making on a daily basis. We hope this account wins these earth heroes many friends and we hope it influences people to offer them some very well-deserved support.

From left to right: An unnamed daily wage worker, van mazdoor Eshwar Srirame, Range Officers Priyanka Jawde and Nand Kishore Padwe, Kalli Fullerton Doubleday, with authors, Anuradha Marwah and Varun Thakkar. It was while assisting Doubleday, a PhD student from the University of Texas who is studying human-animal conflict in the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, that Marwah was inspired to learn more about the invaluable contribution of India’s forest guards to wildlife conservation. Photo: Varun Thakkar.

A DAY WITH THE CUSTODIAN OF VIDHARBHA – S.L. BALPANE, MOHARLI

He woke up earlier than usual that bright, sunny morning, and was glad it wasn’t raining. He had to ride his bike to the closest town, for a court hearing on a wildlife crime case that had occurred in his beat a few months ago, to give an official statement.

There was much to be done even before driving to town. The Divisional Forest Officer-Buffer was surveying the buffer zone to finalise plans for extending tourism opportunities here, involving a few villages. His responsibilities and hours would increase once the plans were implemented. However, he was glad that the Forest Department was offering new avenues for earning, and also for allocating revenues to community development activities.

He sighed as he got moving. There would be no time to take his usual beat walk through the forest. At the back of his mind he wondered where the resident tigress from his beat had disappeared to with her cubs; there had been no sign of her in the past two days. It was a worry that had begun to nag him. He would need to go check on the camera traps he had placed two days ago.

On his long drive back from town, the list of tasks which urgently required his attention had increased. His thoughts drifted back to the tigress and her cubs – “Where could they be? Was she hiding them? Did she feel threatened? The dominant male in the area was the father of the cubs, a tiger to be reckoned with, so she shouldn’t have to worry about stray males.

He slowed his bike to check for mobile reception and saw 10 missed call alerts from the van mazdoor in his beat. With his heart in his mouth, he returned the call. It wasn’t his tigress, but her mate, the large male Wagdoh, that had made a cattle kill sometime late last night and was sitting out in an open field adjoining the buffer and core zone. The entire village had gathered at the spot. With no time to grab lunch, he sped down the tar road, quickly reached the protection hut and after a brief from the van mazdoor, made his way along the forest track to reach the field.

He came upon a sight that any forest guard dreaded. A village mob and cattle kill could easily turn ugly. This village was, however, friendly and cooperative. He approached the forest staff in the vicinity and took stock of the situation. Wagdoh had killed a young bull in his prime and sat in the open fields, oblivious to the audience he had drawn. The fields adjoined the buffer on one side and a dirt track was the only thing that separated the fields from the core zone.

He approached the village mob, looking for the owner of the cattle, taking down his details and that of the slain animal; later, he would have a whole lot of paperwork to process the cattle kill compensation. Speedy reimbursements had become a norm in the last two years, this was a major reason the resentment levels on the part of the villages had reduced, in spite of dissatisfaction over compensation amounts.

He asked the villagers to maintain their distance to avoid any casualties and then instructed his team to keep an eye on the tiger and place a couple of camera traps. The Forest Department is expected to monitor the scene of a cattle kill until it is completely finished. This is to ensure that there are no instances of poisoning.

Shortly, Wagdoh effortlessly dragged the kill from the field, into a ditch across the dirt track and into the forest cover in the core zone, and disappeared within a matter of minutes. With the tiger moving away, the crowd dissipated. Having given his final instructions to the van mazdoors and coordinating with the core zone guards, he decided to head back; he would return in the morning to check on the situation. The tigress was back in his thoughts. Too late to collect the camera traps he had set, he made a quick detour to check at the protection hut if there was any news. The van mazdoor informed him that there were fresh pugmarks and that she might have crossed the main road and moved into the buffer on the other side toward the lake area. Unable to resist, he turned his bike to the dirt track to go see her tracks.

The draft of the wind blew a faint smell of a decaying carcass, probably a kill. He would come back and investigate it in the morning. And then the rustling of the bamboo caught his attention and a sense of relief washed over him.

The light was almost gone, his energy drained as he drove back to his modest, two-room living quarters, looking forward to a humble, yet much-needed meal. With droopy eyes, he painstakingly completed the paperwork for the compensation, and updated his beat diary, with GPS coordinates. He lay in bed; his thoughts on the events of the day, the male was making regular cattle kills. Now that he had moved out from the core into the buffer, the tigress, his mate, would soon join him once the cubs became more demanding. Cattle after all is easy prey. The new policy implementation would mean better employment for the villagers, benefit to the communities; perhaps the kills wouldn’t be much of an issue, and the villagers would still remain tolerant, considering the benefits from the community development activities. Tomorrow would be another day in the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve.

Photo: Anuradha Marwah.

Related Stories: Meet Ramrao Nehare – Nature Interpreter And Wildlife Guide From Tadoba.

Meet Poonam And Harshawardhan Dhanwatey – Tadoba Tiger Reserve’s Most Persistent Defenders.

Meet Roheet Karoo – The Man Behind The Umred-Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary.

Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve.

First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia Vol. XXXIV No. 5, October 2014.

 
 
 

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Valmi Shah Shirodkar

October 9, 2014, 04:40 PM
 They are the real reason our wildlife is safe in those forests. Thank you such an amazing article
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Anil Johri

October 8, 2014, 04:43 AM
 Hi Its really good to see the Grass root soldiers of the Forest dept getting some kind of recognition from The Top Environmental Magazine.The Forest Guard rank is applicable to the Lower most Uniformed custodian of this vast Resource.If its a Van Mazdoor then it refers to the Casual contractual employees who also bear quite a burden of the responsibility along with the Forest Guards. As pointed correctly they continue to be employed consistently, since they know the terrain better than most.