It's no walk in the park for them

Wildlife

It's no walk in the park for them

 The total area of Rajiv Gandhi National Park is 643 sq. km and it has been divided into seven ranges for better management. DH photos

They guard the forests with just lathis and machetes. In some important ranges there are no people to guard large areas of forests. At the Rajiv Gandhi National Park, one of the most prestigious parks in the country (formerly known as Nagarhole National Park), nearly 50 per cent of posts sanctioned for forest guards are vacant.

This forest has the distinction of housing tigers, leopards, Indian Gaur and umpteen number of elephants. Shortage of staff has virtually crippled the machinery that protects the rich flora and fauna here. With the  centre leaving no effort unspared to save the remaining tigers in the country, this national park is being managed with the barest minimum staff.

Today, guards have to grapple with issues such as man-animal conflict, encroachment of forests, mushrooming of resorts and the menace of poaching. But the state government is yet to make up its mind to provide adequate staff to guard the shrinking forests in the State.

Vacancies galore

The total area of Rajiv Gandhi National Park is 643 sq km and it has been divided into seven ranges for better management. They are Nagarhole, Kallahalla, Veeranhosalli, Anechowkur, Metikuppe, D B Kuppe and Antarsanthe. Interestingly, there are no range forest officers for Kallahalla, Veeranhosalli, Anechowkur and Metikuppe. Out of 34 forester posts, 15 are vacant. Out of 35 watcher posts, 15 are not filled up and out of the total sanctioned 106 guards, 49 posts are vacant. Four ranges are without range forest officers for more than eight months. The state has never seen such a situation in the past. Foresters feel that their department is the most neglected one when compared to other government departments.

Dependent on daily wagers

In the absence of regular staff, the department depends entirely on daily wagers who are not accountable. They cannot be held responsible if something untoward happens in the national park. Out of the seven ranges, Kallahalla is the most important one, with an area of 111 sq km. There is no forester or range forest officer here at all. The RFO of another range has been given the additional responsibility to oversee things till a new person is posted. There are three sectors in the Kallahalla range and none of them have either foresters or guards.

In total, there are 10 beats and each beat is managed by a guard, a local tribal and a daily wager. Only three foresters are managing the entire D B Kuppe range which shows under what pressure the department has been functioning.

An officer who preferred anonymity told Spectrum that problems are in plenty at D B Kuppe, Nagarhole, Kallahalla and parts of Anechowkur ranges because of thick forests. In other ranges, there are dry forests which attract illegal collection of firewood and cattle grazing. Man-animal conflicts have increased in the Antarsanthe and Metikuppe ranges because of shrinking forests. The wild animals stray into nearby villages in search of food and create problems. Sometimes animals are killed at the hands of human beings.

In total, there are 26 anti-poaching camps set up in various parts of the park and they are managed by daily wagers, local youths and one or two guards. They are on duty continuously for six days and take only a day’s break. Recently, a guard who was on his rounds with a lathi was overpowered by a gang of poachers. The guard was injured. It is remarkable that in spite of staff shortage, incidents of poaching have declined in the last few years, thanks to good wireless and road network. The internal roads in the sanctuary are in good condition which helps the guards to reach the spot in the shortest time.

Arms and ammunition

The double barrel guns given to the guards are old and obsolete. Most of the fire arms are in police custody in connection with some case or the other. A few days ago, a forest guard opened fire at a poacher and injured him. The police have confiscated the fire arm and will return it to the guard only after the case is closed. Till then the staff have to protect the forests with lathis and machetes. The ground staff enter the forests with absolutely no security.

The officer points out that, according to an estimate there are about 10 tigers per 100 sq km when compared to other sanctuaries like Kaziranga where there are about 13 to 15 tigers per 100 sq km. Going by that, Nagarhole might have around 65 to 70 tigers, he points out. Unfortunately, buffer zones to ensure maximum protection for tigers have not been declared. The striped cats go in search of new habitat and it requires large areas with absolutely no human interference.

The buffer zone should comprise Mullahalla, Anechowkur, Mavukal and Devamachaih, parts of Periyapatna and Kodagu.

What the park needs right now is young and committed staff ready to work under adverse conditions. Most of the staff are old and much cannot be expected from them. But, there are still committed forest watchers and guards in the range. If only all the posts are filled up, the national park can be managed in a better manner, the officer noted.

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