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Guardians of the forests

Pavan Kumar H, Nov 27 2017, 21:47 IST
There are around 5,850 frontline forest staff in Karnataka striving hard to protect the forests. PHOTO BY AUTHOR

There are around 5,850 frontline forest staff in Karnataka striving hard to protect the forests. PHOTO BY AUTHOR

Doctors at the Karnataka Institute of Medical Sciences, Hubballi had almost given up on Bharmappa (name changed), a 48-year-old forest watcher at the Kali Tiger Reserve, who was attacked by a female sloth bear. His lower jaw was ripped apart and his face had several cuts. But six months later, Bharmappa was back to work, doing what he does the best: patrolling the thick forests of Western Ghats and warning the passing tourists not to smoke or litter the forest.

In February 2017, when 28-year-old Murigeppa Tammangol, a forest guard at Kalkere range of Bandipur National Park, got a call from his higher officers regarding the forest fire that had already engulfed 500 hectares of forest area, he rushed to the spot without a second thought and tried to extinguish the fire using weeds. Alas, he did not succeed, and lost his life on duty.

A day in their life

Call it compulsion or passion, every day, around 5,850 frontline forest staff - deputy forest range officers, forest guards and forest watchers - of Karnataka make sure that whatever forest left is protected.
The Forest Department also hires daily wage workers for various conservation works.

Both experts and forest officials agree that it is impossible to protect the rich forests of Karnataka without the yeomen service of these frontline guards. However, many times, their service and sacrifice
go unnoticed. "Forest protection cannot be done single-handedly. It is actually these foot soldiers on field who save the forests," says Ravi Chellam, a wildlife
biologist.

Life isn't easy for these foot soldiers, whose primary duty is not only to check the forest wealth from being plundered, but also to ensure that the green cover increases and the animals live in a better condition. Until 2015, more than 31 frontline guards have lost their lives while on duty, majority of them being attacked by wild animals. However, this risk does not deter them from performing their duty promptly.

A typical day of a watcher or a guard begins at the break of dawn. With a GPS installed mobile, they have to walk a set number of kilometres inside the forest area (10 to 15 km), holding just a stick and small knife monitoring the health of forest and its dwellers. Any incident of animal death, tree cutting and other alarming incidents will be reported to higher officials.

On alternative days, they walk through the main path and forest trails. But the real challenge awaits them at night, when they can't use light, while patrolling the area to prevent poaching or tree smuggling. "We walk through the forest at night without light to ensure that our movements are not noticed, particularly when are trying to nab suspected poachers," says forest guard Nagaraj of Udboor anti-poaching camp in the Nagarhole range. The five-member team at the camp also row in Kabini River to make sure trees are not smuggled via the river.

However, what worries them the most is the forest fire, which can take away with it everything precious that they guard. "Summer brings worse with it as there is an increase in the number of forest fires. It is a threat to both the forest as well as the guardians," said Mahesh, a forest watcher in Bandipur, which saw highest number of forest fire cases this year. He adds that non-availability of water makes dousing the fire difficult.

For better facilities

Surprisingly, these guards do not fear the animals in the forest, but are concerned about the suspicious human activities in the forests. Many times, in a bid to save the forest, the guards enter into altercations with them. Except for the few forest guards under the Tiger project, majority of them are not trained to handle human-animal conflicts. "In my 35 years of service, I never received training to mitigate
human-animal conflicts. This summer, I was asked to rescue the mighty crocodiles of Krishna River in the Bilagi range of Bagalkot
district," says Deputy Range Forest Officer B Yadavad. During summer, he rescued more than eight crocodiles.

Officials concede that it is one area where the department has to work upon. While officials claim that there has been improvement in facilities provided to these frontline guards, experts say that much more can be done. Ravi Chellam says, "By just increasing the boots on the ground, we can achieve greater success in the protection of forest wealth. There should be proper patrolling inside the forest, and the frontline guards must be strengthened in mitigating issues with the tribal people and other forest dwellers. The governments should frame a long-term policy for better conservation efforts."

Dr Ravi Ralph, former principal chief conservator of forests, says, "Karnataka is among one of the best states when it comes to providing facilities to the frontline guards. For instance, it was the first State to give guards 'slide action guns' that can fire five rounds. Anti-poaching camps at critical places make sure that all the illegal activities inside the forests are also stopped. These measures have started showing results, as there has been a drastic fall in the number of forest offence
cases."

The department provides ration and health kits to the frontline guards. Non-profit organisations and doctors volunteer to conduct health check-up camps for them but these facilities are not much when compared to the risks they encounter.

Staying in jungles, many times away from human habitation, these guards find their future insecure due to their meagre salary. Even after 35 years as a watcher, Rachappa finds it difficult to send his son to an engineering college and his daughter to a degree college.

Despite these challenges, the forest guards strive hard to ensure that the forests are well protected.

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