Unknown Soldiers of the Dark Forests
Darkness descends suddenly in the deep forest. That night, with the blackness came the unmistakable, rhythmic chak-chak sound of a machete against wood. One Forest Officer and two watchers set out from an anti-poaching camp, following the direction of the sound. “It is essential to gauge how many poachers there are,” says Prabhu Swamy, a Forest Officer. After a nightlong thrust and parry, the forest soldiers won and two poachers were overcome. The anti-poaching squad does not always taste victory, however. In fact, the odds are stacked high against them.
If you think these guys are equipped and armed to the teeth to fight mighty poachers, think again. Imagine this: a 60 year-old man, scrawny and small. Carrying one double barrel gun (if he’s lucky) and a bunch of bullets in his pocket. Poachers are usually armed, with knives, rifles, and guns, and unafraid to use them. In the dark, the advantage lies with the poachers.
Bamboos grow 20m high. Dry tinder in summer months they swallow the fire and flames leap high. These same few scrawny men have to battle raging fires with no masks or helmets. Bandipur, a Tiger Reserve, the guards and watchers at least have fire-fighting shoes. They have also been given uniforms in an effort to boost their morale and foster the sense of “belonging.” But around the country, the guards and watchers in most national parks and reserves go without any equipment. These foot soldiers are our first line of defense against forest plunderers and are in dire straits.
Lack of job security
One of the biggest issues facing forest watchers all over the country is that their jobs are not assured. Watchers live on daily wages. In many parks in India, their wages are delayed by months (not so in Bandipur anymore where the salaries come in each month and are disbursed regularly). Taking any days off means lack of wages, which is not an option for most. This means there is no concept of a break. They are out there, working, almost all the year. Lack of permanence also adds to a lack of “belonging.” This wry joke does the rounds in those circles. A watcher, slightly inebriated, is supposed to have smirked to a superior who told him he doesn’t belong to the department, “Yes, I don’t belong here. I have only worked here everyday for half my life!”
A lonely, tough, dedicated life
Many of these anti-poaching camps are in the remotest of areas, deep inside forests. Watchers and guards walk everyday on their beat in dangerous elephant country, covering several tens of kilometers in a day. If they come upon nefarious activities, the onus is on them to stop it. Herein lies grave danger as, often, poachers stop at nothing.
In many cases basic amenities are hard to come by. Some anti-poaching camps in Bandipur have concrete structures and roofs that don’t leak. Most don’t even have that. Water comes once in a while by jeep, at other times they have to get it from waterholes, contaminated by urine of wild animals. In many areas food is scarce and nutrition for these foot soldiers is extremely low. Most don’t see their families for months. But still, you speak to these guys and their dedication is unwavering. Jayendra, 40, says with a smile “These are our forests and we have to protect them. I have worked here since 1987 and I am proud of what I do.”
Caught between a rock and a hard place
Especially in a tiger reserve like Bandipur, the forest by law is inviolate. Forest watchers and guards have to stop people from taking any forest resources. When watchers encounter offenders they have to implement the law. But often, these offenders are fellow villagers. They are not stealing rosewood or big trees. These are people struggling in the same way the watchers’ families struggle. For them slender branches for firewood is essential to cook a meal that day. The law disallows this.
So then, do the watchers book the offenders? If they book them, what happens to their social standing? While they might have prevented any violation of forest space, they have pretty much cast themselves as “outsiders” in their village. This often breeds contempt not only for the watchers and guards, but also for their families who have to manage alone for days on end when the man of the house is on duty and out of reach. Not easy, not comfortable.
Or should the watchers then turn a blind eye to these petty offenders and concentrate only on the big poachers? The tussle between carrying out a strict “inviolate” law, which has no provisions for ground realities, and a needy population on the fringes of forests, is rife. And the watchers and guards end up becoming the “interpreters” of the law – not by choice! This is an unenviable and yet another thankless aspect of their jobs.
There is a graver problem in the pipeline. Literally. The forest guards and watchers today are well into their 50s – some are even senior citizens, still on duty. In Karnataka, The Kumble Foundation (http://www.kumblefoundation.org/), through the Jumbo Fund for example, works with these guards providing them much needed support. They have constituted awards and programs that boost the morale and financial wellbeing of this squad. But the forest soldiers’ kids are not of the same bent of mind. The Kumble Foundation’s study has shown a drastic drop in school enrollment post seventh grade. With the head of the family away for days, the children are getting into petty theft which also weighs heavily on the mind of these forest watchers and guards. “Kids and adolescents don’t know what to do with their lives after seventh grade. A lack of counseling and mentoring for this age group has resulted in this drop off,” says Diinesh Kumble. The Kumble Foundation is looking into various ways of intervention that will help ameliorate this situation.
While civil society working in this space is doing much to help the on ground situation, a much deeper, wider systemic change is needed to make a difference in the lives of these foot soldiers. Tiger reserves are comparatively very well off, not so the smaller or lesser known, but equally important reserves. These watchers and guards are the ones that are preventing our tigers and elephants, our forests and lesser fauna from vanishing. The least that can be done is to make their jobs secure and make it worth their considerable while to carry out such an important job.