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Dharti Rakshaks Of Melghat

Dharti Rakshaks Of Melghat

Rizwan Mithawala, a conservation writer with the Wildlife Conservation Trust, shares the stories of four commendable forest guards who have dedicated their lives to protecting the tigers of their beloved Melghat Tiger Reserve.

Protecting wildlife and its habitats through GPS-based patrolling, tracking poachers with the help of sniffer dogs, conserving water in the forests till the summer months, catalysing the rebirth of grasslands – a forest guard wears many hats. Here are three extraordinary stories from the Melghat Tiger Reserve.

Aatif Husain is part of a mobile squad that works to detect poachers and wildlife contraband. Here, he is seen with Jayni, his trained German Shepherd partner on the squad. Photo: Vishal Bansod

Aatif Husain, 28

Dikh gaya to maar diye… ke aaj shaam ki sabzi ho jaati (If spotted, they kill, thinking this is tonight’s meal),” Aatif Husain says, the strains of despair evident in the young man’s voice. He is narrating an incident where an Asian palm civet was bludgeoned to death with sticks and stones, in a territorial forest village in the Chikhaldara taluka in the Amravati district of Maharashtra. This was a case of opportunistic hunting for consumption; just one of the many motives that drive poaching in Maharashtra. Aatif is part of a mobile squad (also called a dog squad), which includes him and Jayni, a female German Shepherd trained to detect wildlife parts and products, and to track and identify poachers. Working as a team since 2015, the duo has cracked 19 cases of wildlife crime.

Aatif shares another poaching case, an important milestone in his career, that also moved him deeply, and strengthened his resolve to bring wildlife poachers to book. “I usually don’t get upset while investigating a crime scene,” he says. But a sloth bear-poaching case in October 2017 shook Aatif. When he reached the crime scene, he saw a full-grown adult bear, lying lifeless in blood, paws axed and missing. What was the animal’s crime? Crossing an agricultural field to reach a dam in search of water! The bear had been crossing the field at the same time for around 10 days. It would quench its thirst and leave, returning the way it came, back into the forest. Aatif’s informers in the village told him that the bear had never harmed or charged at anyone. Yet, alarmed by its presence, or driven by the ill intention of making money by selling its body parts, a group of men, armed with sticks and stones, cornered and bludgeoned it. Called at the crime scene within hours of the incident, Aatif immediately put his dog to work, who traced the scent to the culprit’s house in the village. The killer was caught; and he led the Forest Department to 13 others who were involved in the killing.

Aatif’s passion for stopping wildlife crime is driven by empathy and compassion for all life forms. But he also tries to understand what drives people to wildlife crime, especially for personal consumption. To ensure that criminals don’t get away unconvicted, he emphasises the need for a deeper understanding of various sections of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. He also plans to develop a robust informer network to tackle poaching in a proactive manner.

Dinesh Kendre, a forest guard posted in the core of the Melghat Tiger Reserve, is living his dream of doing work that truly makes a difference. Photo: Rizwan Mithawala 

Dinesh Kendre, 23

Wahan jayenga to bandar ka piye wala paani peene ko milenga (If you go there, you will have to drink the same water that the monkeys drink),” his colleagues would tell him discouragingly. But Dinesh Kendre had made up his mind. He requested a transfer from his posting in Buldhana district to Koktu, one of the remotest areas in the interiors of the Melghat Tiger Reserve. Dinesh had given up Engineering to pursue a career in one of the ‘forces’, as the khaki uniform had a special appeal for him. In 2015, he was appointed a forest guard in the ‘Territorial’ Division. His job was largely administrative, with little exposure to wildlife. On the plus side, his location offered all the comforts that come with living in an urban area. “Lekin dil nahi lagta tha wahan. Soch liya tha ki kaam karna hai toh tiger reserve core mein hi karna hai. (My heart was not in it. I had decided that I would work only in the core of a tiger reserve),” he tells me. So, he sent a special application to the Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF), Amravati, requesting to transfer him from the Territorial Division to the Wildlife Division. He was transferred to the Dhargad (West) beat in 2017. Working on water conservation, propagating palatable grasses in grasslands that were once agricultural fields, and collaborating with tribals who work as forest watchers, he now enjoys every moment of the dream that he has made come true.

Dinesh sits down to talk on the edge of a half metre-tall wall built on a stream bed. It is barely four metres long. The compartment created by two such walls opposite each other is filled to the brim; and the water overflows into the next one, and so on. The stream has become a ‘stairway of water’, reflecting the emerald forest like an impressionist painting. Every stream in Dinesh’s beat has been transformed into a green water stairway with these small dams that are called Vadaar Bandharas. M.S. Reddy, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Field Director of Melghat Tiger Reserve, who oversaw the construction of these small dams, likes to call them ‘Melghat Bandharas’. These dams that cost a mere Rs. 4,000 each, conserve water in the streams, and make it available in the dry summer months.

I count nine such dams as far as my eye can see. There are more beyond, Dinesh says. While walking on the bank of the stream, I see tiger scats. Dinesh smiles knowingly. We are both happy to know who has been coming here for a drink. He takes me to another natural waterbody called Jithpani, where such small dams have raised water levels, and shares details about his moving encounter with a tigress and three cubs there. Dinesh and his assistants were perched on a machaan overlooking the waterbody. The tigress, cubs in tow, gingerly approached the water for a drink, and then stopped. She had seen them. “We gazed at them in admiration for around 10 minutes, before realising that our presence had dissuaded the tigress from bringing her cubs to the water. We climbed down the machaan and left. The next day, when we downloaded the images from our carefully positioned camera traps, we saw the entire family had drunk its fill soon after we left!”

Dinesh’s passion to serve wildlife has also made him a seed collector and disperser. He gives me a guided tour of a fenced grassland, where grasses favoured by wild herbivores are allowed to grow, so that their seeds can be collected and dispersed in other areas. He explains how he and his assistants look for gaur dung to add natural fertiliser to grass seed balls, and choose the best times to disperse the seeds of different species; all this to ensure that maximum seed balls turn into seedlings, and seedlings turn into tall grass that gaur and deer can munch on.

At the end of the fenced grassland, we reach an enormous well. The grassland was once an agricultural field owned by the sahukar of the village, who also built the well. The village has been relocated, and the well water is now used to fill the waterholes built by the Forest Department. Parakeets and langur monkeys relish the fruits from the mango and guava trees planted by the sahukar on the edges of the field. Humanity has stepped aside here, and nature is slowly reclaiming its paradise. But we need to give back a lot more of what we have usurped. As dusk falls and we walk back to Dinesh’s quarters, I think about the Wild Foundation’s Nature Needs Half initiative, which was endorsed in the shape and form of E. O. Wilson’s 50:50 proposal (see Sanctuary Vol. XXIV No. 1, February 2014) to set aside half the surface of the Earth for nature. “Aaj Forest Owlet nahi dikha apne ko,” Dinesh says, and breaks the silence. The next moment, Yellow-footed Green Pigeons call one last time after settling to roost on a nearby Peepul tree.

Forest Owlet ka call kaisa hota hai (What does the call of the Forest Owlet sound like?),” I ask.

Sargam jaisa (Like music),” he replies.

The forest guard husband-wife duo of Sunita More and Dnyaneshwar Shinde work in the Dhargad range of the Melghat Tiger Reserve. Also seen here is their one-year-old son Samarth who often joins his parents on forest patrols. Photo: Rizwan Mithawala

Sunita More and Dnyaneshwar Shinde, 24 (Both)

One-year-old Samarth loves to talk on the walkie-talkie. His father, Dnyaneshwar Shinde, prompts him to repeat after him, “Bori calling Dhargad,” and the toddler attempts a gibberish version of the message. Dnyaneshwar, a forest guard in charge of the Bori beat in the Dhargad range of the Melghat Tiger Reserve, and I, have just returned to his quarters after a patrol.  Even as I wonder about the toddler’s care in Dnyaneshwar’s absence, a young woman, dressed in a crisp forest guard uniform, emerges from the modest house. Sunita More and Dnyaneshwar Shinde were recruited as forest guards as part of the same batch in 2013; they married in 2016, and were assigned charge of adjacent beats.

Sunita is on her way to install a camera trap. Samarth, whose love for the outdoors I was to discover during the course of the day, insists on joining his mother. Father decides to accompany them. I follow the family.

The duo take four-day turns to patrol their beats and complete the 30 km. of patrolling they are required to put in each week. They take turns caring for their little anklet-wearing boy (the jingles help the parents track his movements). “Char din ye sambhalte Samarth ko, main track pe jaati,” (For four days, he looks after Samarth when I go on patrol) she says. This summer will be the couple’s first ‘fire season’ after the birth of their son. As Central India’s deciduous forests shed their papery leaves and turn bone dry in summer, vast stands become vulnerable to human-caused fires. A single matchstick, thrown recklessly or maliciously, can turn the finest wildlife habitats into fiery embers that may take days to douse. This is the toughest time of the year for forest guards. Fires sometimes spread over vast expanses and take two to four days to bring under control. Guards camping in remote, inaccessible forest areas must sometimes survive largely on groundnuts, forest fruits and water for days. With water sources drying up, summers are harsh on wildlife too. Dnyaneshwar and Sunita have a special interest in waterhole management. They regularly build and maintain, in their respective beats, ‘eco-friendly waterholes’, which, unlike the cement and concrete ones, have a more natural, sandy and pebble strewn surface, far more welcoming to hoofed animals that slip on concrete slopes. They refill each waterhole every three to four days, remove any algal growth with sticks and fallen branches, and regularly check the water to see that it has not been poisoned.

Disconnected from the outside world, for this family, the forest, its streams, meadows and waterholes, and the wildlife that makes this their abode, is their world. As they walk the forest trail, child in arms, in harmony with nature, harbouring in their hearts a strong will to protect nature, they paint a picture that seems too ideal to be true. But they also discuss with me the inevitable – that they will consider getting a transfer to a place that is less remote, has better connectivity to health services, and where their child can get a good education. “Hum yeh jagah kabhi chhodna nahi chahenge (We would never want to leave this place),” Sunita tells me. “Lekin jaana padega, bacche ke liye (But for the sake of our child, we will have to leave),” Dnyaneshwar adds.

The dilemma that Sunita and Dnyaneshwar are facing is not unique to them. Staying away from city-centres denies such families of even the most basic healthcare and education. Part of protecting the forest must include ensuring postings with such facilities available in nearby towns for the women and men who safeguard the biological wealth of the nation.

Fortunately in Melghat, a sensitive management takes these needs into account. Recently, all forest guards from Melghat were provided health insurance. The Melghat Tiger Reserve is now equipped with a WiFi network that covers even the most remote, core areas. “Apart from using the WiFi for official work, they sometimes use it to speak to their families via voice and video calls. This keeps them emotionally stable,” says M.S. Reddy, a Field Director who is both sensitive and effective.

“If health and education facilities for our forest staff are brought at par with what is available to families of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guards, thousands of young women and men will queue up to join the Forest Department,” says Dr. Anish Andheria, President of the Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), which strives to improve the living and working conditions of forest guards across the country.  As we sit in the silence of the forest, he softly adds, “WCT does these brave people no favour by equipping their Anti-poaching Camps (APCs) with solar power,  water-filters and patrolling gear. They are the Dharti Rakshaks (Earth Protectors) who defend the vital organs of the nation – our forests and rivers.   If these vital organs begin to fail, what would be left for our armed forces to protect?”

Author: Rizwan Mithawala, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Volume XXXIX Issue 4, April 2019


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