Forest Guards : An Endangered Species
The plight of the Forest Guards in our National Parks has often been ignored or forgotten. The very survival of the denizens of the wild depends on their commitment and dedication. The Wildlife Warrior Awards by HCMF is a step towards building a positive future for our wildlife warriors.
Forest Guards are the frontline defence for the protection of our wildlife — be it the Desert National Park (DNP), the Manas Tiger Reserve or anywhere else in the country. They are the first to know of breaches in the form of poaching, illegal grazing or other unlawful activities that may be taking place. At DNP, for eg., they work under desert-like, inhospitable conditions where temperatures may soar to higher than 50-degree C in the summers. There is, however, an acute shortage of Forest Guards, and chowkis are often managed by only one guard. This scarcity spells doom for the safety and survival of the various species they can watch and protect.
Let’s take the Great Indian Bustard (GIB), the state bird of Rajasthan (called Godawan locally) that is under threat of extinction. The Central government, through a tripartite MOU with the Rajasthan Government and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), has set up the GIB species recovery programme. The WII, with nearly 17 researchers under the able leadership of senior scientist Dr. Sutirtha Dutta, are doing a commendable job under inhospitable conditions. I had a long interaction with some of the researchers and found them passionate about their work involving the GIB. Currently it is estimated that there are only about 40 GIBs in the Desert National Park (DNP) and nearly 60 left in other parts of Rajasthan, making this species critically endangered. In reality, the numbers may even be less.
At the GIB Conservation Breeding centre in Sam, researchers were operationally looking after the current population of nine chicks artificially hatched from ten eggs, collected within a six months’ time frame — a remarkable success . One chick — the only male – was even named after the eminent scientist Dr Asad Rahmani (former Director of BNHS) as it was born on his birthday! Apparently the GIB lays only one egg a year in open dry grasslands. The mortality rate in the wild is about 40% because of predators, like foxes, crows, wild boars, lizards, mongoose, cattle, and free ranging dogs. As the first-generation chicks grow up, they will start laying eggs after three years of rearing. I was informed that from the progeny of this base stock of GIB, the second-generation GIB will be specially reared for release, in groups, into the wild. This is obviously a long-term project. The creation of a viable stock of GIB at the Conservation Breeding Centre is however, only part of the solution. There are also plans to tag at least 15 GIB individuals to know their movement and ecology.
The threats are, nevertheless, many. As you drive from Jaisalmer to Sam, the entire landscape is filled with windmills. These first came up in 2001 and now represent the largest wind farm in the world. These windmills are built on revenue land not under the control of the forest department. The GIB is disturbed by the constant whirring of the blades of the windmills and also the network of cables that supplies the power generated in the mills to the grid.
As one of the heaviest flying birds in the world, weighing as much as 15 kgs. and with low flight paths, these obstacles are hard for the GIB to see and negotiate. WII researchers are estimating the mortality rate of the GIB due to high voltage power distribution lines by picking up the carcasses from under the windmills and power lines, to meticulously record the number and type of birds killed as a result of collisions. Based on such scientific data, it is extrapolated that nearly 1,20,000 birds are killed each year in DNP and the areas surrounding it. Some wildlife conservationists have argued that the need of the hour is to place the existing transmission lines underground, urgently and immediately, and that no new transmission lines in critical GIB areas should be permitted.
This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand we are trying to generate power which is termed clean, but on the other hand this green technology is playing havoc with bird populations. But no development comes without a cost. The need of the hour is to scientifically assess the issue of windmills and its impact on bird populations and to urgently find solutions which are compatible.
The Government has issued guidelines to windmill developers and operators to take risk mitigation measures by putting up bird diverters on the windmills and transmission lines and to paint the vane tips of the windmills an orange colour to avoid bird hits. Researchers in the WII are working on the effect of bird flight diverters and on the basis of data collected there appears to be a 20% reduction in bird deaths.
A large number of resorts have sprung up around the village of Sam, about 45 km from the city of Jaisalmer, catering to tourists who visit the sand dunes nearby. Despite this, no tourism is permitted inside DNP. No independent information is available about the DNP other than from the Forest Department. Many remember that it was tourism that initially identified that the tigers at Sariska, Rajasthan and at Panna, Madhya Pradesh, had disappeared completely through poaching. Many experts have suggested that regulated tourism should be permitted inside DNP in order to know exactly what is going on inside the park.
Several breaches in the fencing around the enclosures by villagers and their livestock has resulted in illegal grazing and farming. The Thar desert is the most populated desert in the world. There are nearly 73 villages and many settlements inside the DNP. The established enclosures should at least be free from human interference.
Apart from that, there is a growing population of wild pigs and invasion by free-ranging dogs. It is estimated that there is nearly a 30% loss every year of the Chinkara population because of free-ranging dogs. Two dogs were collared by WII and from this, it was ascertained that one of the collared dogs killed about 22 chinkaras in one year. The acute shortage of field staff or Forest Guards, only exacerbates these threats.
In Manas TR, a place of ethereal beauty, we see visiting nature lovers seek peace and harmony, general tourists on a day out with their families, researchers who study the wild species and go back to writing their theses, and senior forest officers who come for a fixed tenure and then move out to towns and cities with better civic amenities. Those who remain and continue to serve the wild denizens of these protected areas are those innumerable forest frontline or foot soldiers – the unsung heroes — who patrol these remote areas, away from their families, with minimum basic amenities, for days, months and years together. Some have spent a lifetime, as if ‘institutionalised’, in these forest camps. We may salute them for their dedication and hard work, but it is now time to seriously reflect upon and ascertain the challenges faced by these foot soldiers.
The forest camps, in Manas Tiger Reserve, only have basic facilities such as a hand pump for water, a room with a camp cot, a kitchen and a toilet. Due to their remote locations, electricity and running water are luxuries and may not be available. Dry rations are stored and there is limited scope to have fresh vegetables, milk, and meat-based proteins. Malnourishment, exposure to malaria and water-borne ailments are some of the causes for concern from prolonged stays in these camps. There is the threat of poachers, timber smugglers, graziers, and various armed groups. Unlike the police and the paramilitary that camp and move in small companies of at least 10-15 persons, forest camps are usually manned by 4 personnel. The compulsion to use 0.303 rifles or DBBLs as the only weapon of defense, make them extremely vulnerable while defending their territory against a mob of encroachers or militants.
Finally, the backlog in filling the vacancies in government positions, vis a vis the continuation of contractual employees, has been the biggest impediment towards continuing with any motivation. Lack of routine transfers or a roster for regular employees from wildlife to non-wildlife areas is also a demotivation for any staff to join these cadres. Training and refresher courses for newly recruited or midcareer staff is almost negligible.*
Hem Chand Mahindra Foundation (HCMF) has decided to take a step towards motivating and strengthening this crucial group of individuals. To support the plight of the Forest Guards at DNP and at Manas Tiger Reserve, they have introduced a Hardship Awards Scheme to reward the meritorious guards selected by an eminent and independent jury. HCMF has selected DNP because it considers the situation extremely perilous as the GIB is staring at extinction; while at Manas, the little to no amenities is leading these brave men dangerously close to disaster. It is hoped that this gesture by HCMF of awarding Hardship Awards to meritorious guards will be reciprocated by the Rajasthan and Assam Forest Departments by introducing a Hardship Allowance for all forest guards at DNP and Manas TR.
Note from the Editor:
The HCMF Wildlife Warriors Awards were instituted by Hem Chand Mahindra Foundation in 2014. The awards were started by Mr. Ashok Mahindra, Founder and Trustee of HCMF, with the vision of honouring the unsung heroes of India’s protected areas. Saevus magazine has been a partner in all editions of the awards.
In 2014, the inaugural year, 15 Wildlife Warriors were awarded from five well known national parks of India – Ranthambhore, Corbett, Kaziranga, Gir and Nagarhole. The event, held at Ranthambhore, was attended by senior forest department officials and eminent conservationists from around the country.
In 2015, the second edition of the awards, held in 2015, focused on foot soldiers working in lesser-known sanctuaries of the country. Away from the limelight of media attention and tourists, the forest department employees working in such sanctuaries have been rarely recognised. The sanctuaries chosen were Dibru- Saikhowa NP, Ushakoti WLS, Brahmagiri WLS, Papikonda WLS, Bhimashankar WLS, Cotigao WLS, Aralam WLS, Dalma WLS, Nandhaur WLS and Kutch Bustard Sanctuary. 12-foot soldiers from these parks were awarded at a well-attended function held at BNHS, Mumbai.
This year, the third edition of the awards are being launched to recognise the hardship and merit of foot soldiers working in remote parks in challenging conditions. The parks chosen are Desert National Park and Manas Tiger Reserve. The total number of awards are 12 – four awards will be given away for DNP and eight for Manas TR. Forest guards in DNP are coping with insufficient staff and harsh environmental conditions while trying to save a species on the brink of extinction. Manas, which has been a magnet for wildlife poachers and timber smugglers, also spells immense hardship for the forest guards as basic facilities, health amenities and ammunition are difficult to come by. The forest departments at DNP and Manas TR should consider introducing a Hardship Allowance for all forest guards at these two locations.
The total number of awards by HCMF in these three editions will be 39, making these awards for forest guards one of the most prestigious in the country for this category.
Acknowledgements : Indebted to Sonali Ghosh for inputs on Manas Tiger Reserve
Image credit for all images: Dhritiman Mukherjee
This article was first published in the September 2020 issue of Saevus magazine