Revive the defunct Special Tiger Protection Force

Revive the defunct Special Tiger Protection Force

Animals

Owing to the rampant poaching of herbivores and carnivores, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in 2009-10 advised important tiger states to recruit and train special police personnel for patrolling the forests to safeguard tigers, co-predators and prey animals as well as to protect habitats. 

The expenses were to be borne by NTCA. State Forest Departments being averse to intrusion of police personnel in their domain, persuaded NTCA to allow them to recruit front line forest staff like Range Forest Officers, Foresters and Forest Guards for the force. On the feedback from several states, NTCA accepted the request to recruit forest staff and upgrade their skill in handling arms, commando operation etc in specialised police training. 

A total of 112 was sanctioned for Karnataka. Initially, the breakup was one Assistant Conservator of Forest, three Range Forest Officers, 18 Foresters and 90 Forest Guards. The Karnataka Forest Department recruited the entire sanctioned strength of Foresters and Forest Guards. 

This was done along with the regular recruitment to avoid any clash in seniority. The personnel received foundation training in forest training schools. The policy of NTCA was to keep the newly trained personnel in Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF) for eight years and thereafter post them to man regular departmental positions.  

Some 63 Forest Guards and 18 Foresters, after completion of forestry training, were posted in STPF in 2010-11 where B J Hosmath, Field Director, Mysuru, guided and groomed them appropriately. The remaining 27 posts of Forest Guard fell vacant as persons left forest training for other jobs. Those who reported for duty were divided in three companies and stationed at Mailkamanahalli near Bandipur, Handpost near H D Kote and Thithimathi in Kodagu to patrol in Bandipur, Nagarhole and BRT Tiger Reserves. 

I was the Chief Wildlife Warden of the state in that period. With the support of Principal Secretary (Forest) Meera Saxena and DGP (Police Training) S T Ramesh, a 13- week capsule course covering the use of weapons against armed gangs, anti-smuggling, anti-Naxal, commando operations etc were organised at the Yelhanka Police Training School. A high standard of capability and physical fitness was achieved by each of the trainee. After completion of special police training, everyone was posted back to same places. 

The presence of STPF made a lot of difference on the ground. The personnel continued to patrol the vulnerable location in forests. Offences like grazing, illicit cutting of trees etc, came down substantially which resulted in the visible recovery of the habitat. Later, newly recruited Forest Watchers were also posted in STPF against 27 vacancies of Forest Guards. The complete strength was very useful in protecting forests and wildlife. 

The level of fitness is maintained when a proper physical regime is followed. During April 2013, I toured Nagarahole as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and took the opportunity of jogging with nearest available STPF platoon. The level of fitness in STPF personnel was going down and quite a good proportion was not patrolling the forests adequately. 

With the passage of time, the personnel were further rusted as their physical activities were inadequate. They became sluggish and were not fit enough to provide the same level of security to forests and wildlife. Many of them used political pressure and got themselves transferred out of STPF. 

The original condition that such personnel would stay there for eight years was relaxed in every case. The vacancies were also not filled up for a long time.  As no one was recruited for STPF, there was no question of providing special police training.  

In fact, the police training to Foresters and Forest Guards recruited for STPF was provided for first and last time in 2011-12. The recruitment and forestry training followed by special police training should have been a regular phenomenon so that the force can be filled with young blood. Gradually, our STPF became defunct. 

The leadership of the department has to take the blame for lowering of the fitness level of the personnel. If forest patrolling is left to the lower level staff, no one does it. Senior officers have to lead from the front. A total of 27 watchers in STPF are due for promotion and new recruits with specialised police training are not kept ready to take their places. The department should proactively think about it and help to revive STPF.

Joint patrolling

B J Hosmath, who was chief wildlife warden, even after his retirement, has shown a commitment to revive the force. Present strength of Forest Guards is 25 against the authorised strength of 63. Also, these personnel have not received police training. Out of his personal interest, Hosmath approached big wigs of the Forest Department and organised a trip for 15 of them to Kaziranga National Park, for exposure and joint patrolling exercises with Assam Forest Protection Force.   

The Government of Assam has taken many measures for effective management of wildlife in the state including legislative changes, bringing Wildlife (Protection) (Assam Amendment) Act, 2009 for strict enforcement in handling wildlife crime including poaching of rhinos. 

“Anti Rhino Poaching Task Force”, a Special Task Force comprising of district police of Golaghat, Nagaon, Sonitpur and Karbi Anglong districts as well as Forest personnel of Kaziranga National Park, was established in 2014. They have arrested many poachers in the series of commando based raids.

Additional support for control of poaching in this park is provided by placing 535 personnel from Assam Forest Protection Force with as many .303 rifles, 200 SLRs. Services of 125 home guards are also available.

Despite such stringent measures, poaching of rhinos do take place. If these measures are defunct, poaching cases would rise. We, in Karnataka, cannot afford to allow our STPF to be defunct. We must pull our socks and take appropriate measures to revive. 

(The writer is former Principal Chief Conservator Forests, Karnataka)

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