Activists decry lack of safety to forest staffers

Karnataka: Activists decry lack of safety for frontline forest staffers, officials blame poachers

BBMP Forest department workers (Representative image/DH Photo)

A day after two forest personnel drowned while trying to catch persons engaged in fishing at Kabini backwaters in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, environment activists said the incident highlights lack of safety equipment for frontline workers fighting to save forests and wildlife.

Mahesh and Shivakumar, the two forest watchers, were killed when the coracle in which they were chasing the poachers capsized in the Kabini backwaters in Gundre Forest Range in Karnataka on Saturday.

A wildlife conservationist said the death highlights the risk the frontline forest staff face everyday. “Assault by poachers, timber smugglers and encroachers have become common. Despite these attacks, they have risked their lives to conserve the natural heritage of this country. Incidents like this will demoralise the entire forest cadre and in the future, there will be little or no interest in joining the forest department. This will only increase the threat to the country’s forests and wildlife,” he said.

Activists noted that one of the deceased staffers was a temporary watcher. "There are no medical facilities, no insurance and no ex-gratia is paid to their families during tragic incidents like these. Apart from bringing the accused to justice, the government should extend benefits such as medical, insurance, jobs on compensatory grounds, and ex-gratia payment to all temporary forest department staff. The same has to be extended to semi-permanent staff such as those employed under the Kshemabhivrudhi scheme,” an activist said.

To a question, Field Director at Bandipur Tiger Reserve T Balachandra said the staffers took the coracle instead of the regular boat as its operator was not available at the time. “It’s an unfortunate incident. All the safety equipment is available. We are still investigating whether they were wearing it and what went wrong,” he said.

Asked about aid to the kin of the deceased, he said families of both the staffers will get insurance as well as ex-gratia of more than Rs 10 lakh each.

A source in the department said the staffers on the anti-poaching operation were killed because the miscreants engaged in illegal fishing capsized their coracle. “They got tipped off about poaching at 10 pm and reached the site around 11.30 pm. While they were in water, poachers in eight or nine coracles surrounded them, attacked them with paddles and also capsized one of the coracles. One person was caught in the nylon fishing net and drowned. We suspect another person might have got his legs caught in the silt,” the source said.