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It was 6pm, and darkness engulfed the forest. I lost my bearings in the innumerous twists and turns on the bouncy hill road as I travelled through the Dampa Tiger Reserve in the north-western part of Mizoram, bordering Bangladesh. The forest road ahead was picked out by the headlights, and we could see moths dancing in the beams. Nothing else was visible.

My night halt was at Tuilut anti-poaching camp inside Dampa; a large room with a makeshift kitchen at one end and a rattan mattress with a tarpaulin sheet over it at the other. Four forest guards were fast asleep, tucked inside their sleeping bags, when our group—a wildlife biologist, three field assistants/forest guards and a driver—stepped inside.

Anti-poaching camps are meagre shelters inside the forest. There is no electricity or other basic amenities. Leftover food was heated by the field assistants, a simple meal of rice, lentils and pickle, and consumed without much conversation. Thereafter, everyone retired into their sleeping bags. Geckos kept calling, chuck chuck chuck, interrupting the eerie silence; but after a hard day of travel, sleep came quickly.

At day break, groggy and partially out of the sleeping bag, I got introduced to the forest guards. Over a cup of steaming tea served in a bamboo hollow, I met Vanlal Faka. Thirty two-year-old Faka has been working with the forest department, Dampa Tiger Reserve, since 2009. He leads a mobile anti-poaching squad—a team of four forest guards who patrol pre-designated beats inside the Dampa Tiger Reserve every day. While the other forest guards took turns to cook the morning meal, Faka chatted with us in his broken Hindi and English, all the while chewing on his betel nut. He hails from the Reang tribe, also known as Bru, one of the dominant tribes around Dampa. His wife and four sons stay at Dampa Rengpui, a Reang village bordering the core area of the tiger reserve.

Field assistant Maunkima cooking the morning meal of rice and lentils. Photo: Ananda Banerjee
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Field assistant Maunkima cooking the morning meal of rice and lentils. Photo: Ananda Banerjee

Insurgency has left its mark on Dampa’s anti-poaching camps. There are around 12 camps, and some of these have been abandoned. Rumours abound that militants from both the banned outfits have a presence inside the reserve, hunting wildlife and kidnapping staff from the forest department. Ironically, 80 pairs of camera traps set up by wildlife biologist Priya Singh in December to document Dampa’s wildlife (the project finished in March) have recorded more people walking inside the core area of the tiger reserve with guns and traps than wild animals—15 pairs of cameras have already been stolen.

The presence of Border Security Force (BSF) and Mizoram Armed Police inside Dampa hasn’t improved the situation. Poachers, insurgents, miscreants and villagers all have a free run. A few years ago, Faka too was kidnapped by insurgents, or so he told us.

“It was a cold February night two years ago. I was on duty at the Chikha anti-poaching camp, close to the Bangladesh border," he says. “Around 20 gun-toting militants in camouflage barged into the camp and took us by surprise. A few colleagues from the forest department and JCB operators and I were abducted. We trekked through the forest all night and for two consecutive days, only stopping briefly for some rest, till we reached their camp in Bangladesh."

Faka (in front) on a routine patrol inside the dense forest. Photo: Ananda Banerjee
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Faka (in front) on a routine patrol inside the dense forest. Photo: Ananda Banerjee

Faka’s life remains unchanged. He continues his routine patrolling with his small team. His monthly salary is 6,100, but for the past six months he and his co-workers haven’t been paid. The forest staff is used to delayed payments and can’t recall a time when they got paid on time. A forest guard working in Dampa for the last 30 years draws the same salary as recruits who have joined in recent years.

All Faka and his motley group are provided with are rations, sleeping bags, rucksacks, a set of uniform and a pair of shoes each. One of them carries an old rifle that is no match for the sophisticated weapons used by poachers and insurgents. With this basic gear, they patrol the forest on foot tirelessly, in all seasons.

During my week’s stay at the reserve I got acquainted with the hardships these people face. Forest guards, villagers and officials face threats to their life and living every day.

A typical day in the anti-poaching camp starts at around 6am. There is frenzy inside the hut while everyone gets busy cooking the morning meal—rice, lentils and a side dish of boiled potato and squash. The meal is served at about 8am after which the team sets out into the forest. Toilet is a makeshift bamboo shack. Daily bathing is a luxury as there is no tap water.

The tropical rain forests of Dampa still hold many secrets. Few wildlife researchers have come to explore these parts. The forest is almost impenetrable, thick with tropical trees and bamboo groves. The sun’s rays do not permeate through the thick canopy, so it’s dark even during the day. One can only cover the distances by trekking on the ridge lines or walking along the many rivulets that flow down the steep hills. Despite hunting and poaching, camera traps have captured clouded leopards, marbled cats, serow (the antelope-like state animal), sambars, elephants, gaurs, leopard cats, golden cats, civets, badgers and other species inside Dampa.

Over 55% of Mizoram is under bamboo cover. I was one of the lucky few visitors to see the bamboo flower; this is a phenomenon that occurs once in 48 years. The species of bamboo that grows here is Melocanna baccifera, locally called mautak. In Mizo folklore, the flowering of bamboo is a bad omen. The flowers give way to fruits, the seeds of which are consumed by jungle rats. The rodent population explodes during this time and destroys grains.

Bamboo is a way of life for the Mizos. They use it for almost everything—from building houses and fences to weaving baskets and making tea cups. A few deft cuts with their machetes and you will be surprised what the Mizos can produce from the bamboo plant.

After surveying parts of the forest with the guards, we return to the camp at 4pm. Another round of cooking starts. The meal is the same as in the morning. Dinner is served before sundown, and everyone sits down and eats off banana leaves. This is followed by a game of cards. By 6pm, as darkness descends, all members in the camp hit their sleeping bags.

Dampa is the only tiger reserve in Mizoram and is entirely dependent on funds from the Union government’s National Tiger Conservation Authority. There is hardly any contribution from the state, both in monetary terms or effective management. The field director’s office is in Aizawl, the state capital, which is 113km from the tiger reserve. “Insurgency is always given as an excuse for not doing work at any level," says one of the officials. Lack of funds, inaccessibility and insurgency is eating away into the old-growth tropical forest of Dampa. To make matters worse, traditional shifting cultivation of vegetables and corn is getting replaced by state-sponsored oil palm plantations in the buffer areas of the tiger reserve. Oil palm cultivation is monoculture and proven to be bad for biodiversity, whereas shifting cultivation, which happens in cycles, allows the forest to regenerate. According to the state department of agriculture website, 17,588 hectares were under oil palm till 2013-14.

Dampa is like a lost continent, and its tigers have remained elusive. In recent years, although traces of tiger scats have been found at some places by research teams, not a single tiger has been caught on the camera traps. Are there tigers in Dampa? No one can answer that for now.

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