Guardians of our forests
It’s heartening to note the increasing interest in wildlife parks. As safaris become popular family holiday destinations, exposing children to forests and wildlife, it bodes well for the future. Our initial search for the elusive tiger led us to appreciate all that the forest has to offer in addition to the tiger. Today, bird watching groups are more evident and there is a growing interest in the variety of flora and fauna. However, when we returned from a wildlife safari in Satpura, some tourists asked our guide – “kya dekha?” (what did you see?) He told them that we had a fantastic sighting of the “do bache wali ma”, a bear with her three-month-old twins playing on her back. We heard a tourists tell the rest, “baag nehi dekha, sirf bhalu!” (they did not see a tiger, only a bear ) not realizing that bear sightings are as rare if not rarer than tiger sightings—and with two babies!
This was the “do bache wali ma’s” third litter and she was quite comfortable crossing the road cutting through a number of vehicles. This augurs well for bear sightings in future, as the cubs will also be comfortable with vehicles and human movement. The tigress queen of Ranthambore, Machli, was very comfortable with vehicles and taking her cubs through the cars, which showed the babies that vehicles were not a threat, and generations following Machli are also comfortable with vehicles, something most animals are shy of.
With appropriate training of naturalists, guides and drivers, we can improve the tourist’s overall experience beyond just chasing the tiger, encouraging interest in the varied bird life, fauna, and foliage our forests offer. It is encouraging to see our guides and drivers pick up litter, supporting a litter-free environment and also ensuring visitors obey the rules. Internationally naturalists, guides, drivers etc. need to go through tough examinations before being allowed into parks. Has the time come for us to seriously consider the same? Guides could be made responsible for tourists in their vehicle adhering to jungle etiquette and the dos and don’ts, like talking softly, no littering, etc. For drivers, there needs to be a special test as they drive on difficult terrain and safety of tourists needs to be ensured. Also, training to ensure respect for other tourists’ sightings and photography even while showing tourists in their vehicle an animal or bird.
We have heard of an internal conflict within the forest service, where the State Forest Service personnel are at times treated like adopted children by the Indian Forest Service (IFS). Forest guards and range officers spend most of their careers on their beat in the forest. Given their grassroots experience and knowledge, it would be a shame not to include their inputs in the decision-making process.
The forest department has done good work in terms of park management—addressing poaching; handling man-animal conflict, including relocating villages out of the park; providing water holes in summer; compensating for livestock killed; maintaining roads, firelines; fighting weeds; and regulating tourist routes, entries and exits. However, a lot more needs to be done in terms of determining problems that are faced by the different stakeholders and to be more in touch with communities around the park. Unfortunately forest officials are often distracted by catering to VIPs, who often consider themselves above the rules.
Talking to different naturalists, guides, drivers and resort owners, we were surprised to learn that the forest department was not tourist-friendly. So, is there a need to educate the entire chain of forest officials as to the benefits of tourism? Effective field directors, and DFOs (divisional forest officers) periodically meet sarpanchs (village heads), resort owners, guides, drivers etc, to receive independent views on the challenges faced and their suggestions, rather than just getting the forest department’s view. The community appreciates their grievances and suggestions are being considered.
We’ve often tried to put ourselves in a farmer’s shoes whose livestock is killed by large cats, or whose crops are destroyed by wild boar, elephants, deer, blue bull etc., putting an end to numerous dreams and aspirations of the family. So, would we react like most people and tell ourselves that poisoning these animals is not right? Would we not protect our assets? This is where government and the forest department need to ensure that monetary losses are well compensated and in a timely manner. In south India, some parks have a system of recording the loss on mobiles and facilitating the follow-up paperwork that would be required. In the Anamalai Hills, they have an early warning system for alerting communities to elephant presence.
The forest department could consider extending routes to include buffer zones, and also promote regulated night drives there. This would be a novelty, and would provide free patrolling and revenue to the park. There would also be additional earning opportunities for surrounding communities especially as most parks are open for just 6-7 months in the year.
The equipping of our forest guards and attracting new recruits is in dire need of attention. The job of a forest guard, despite being government employment (normally sought after), is not a career of choice. Our forest guards, who live away from their families under very difficult circumstances, are not well looked after. Often, they don’t have protective gear like boots, raincoats and warm jackets for winter and yet regularly and diligently patrol their beat where they are also injured by animals and sometimes killed by them. Non-governmental organizations are coming forward to provide for needs like solar lights, cycles and insurance. Fortunately, walkie-talkies have been introduced, which helps in medical or other emergencies.
Recently a BBC video became quite controversial—as it insinuated that forest guards had a license to kill, which created a huge backlash. It is important to note that an inquiry is held every time a guard uses live ammunition. Also, “Halt who goes there?” won’t work and the poachers will probably shoot the forest guard. Who needs to be in the park after dark unless they are up to no good? All those that live on the periphery of the park are well aware of the rules. The guards are armed with 303 rifles of World War II vintage and take on poachers, who have the latest weapons, including AK 47 rifles and the latest communication equipment.
Poaching and trade in animal parts are known to fund terrorists and anti-national elements. A poacher, like any stealth operator, needs to know when an animal is in a poachable area. It’s not as if poachers decide one evening to pick up a gun and go on a shoot. The logistics of shooting/killing an animal, removing the body parts and getting out without detection is a complicated exercise with precise planning, and needs intelligence and insider support from villages. Drones and telephone intercepts, among other methods, can be used to hunt the poachers. Should efforts of the forest department be integrated with the police and paramilitary forces, who are the experts in anti-terrorist action?
Our forests and wildlife are only as secure as the administration that protects it. Through partnership and collaboration among all stakeholders, we could support and strengthen the effort—our next article suggests the formation of a wildlife coalition to increase the impact of individual efforts.
Naina Lal Kidwai is chair, FICCI Sustainability, Energy and Water Council and Rashid K. Kidwai is coordinator, India Sanitation Coalition.