On 8 May, Rampal Saini, a forest guard in Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, died after being mauled by a tiger. There were no witnesses, and many versions of the circumstances in which the guard was attacked and which tiger killed him are doing the rounds.

Tigers and other big cats generally do not attack or prey on humans, but accidental encounters do happen.

This writer had opportunities to be on foot patrol with forest guards and has sighted tigers on a few occasions. Whatever be the weather—blazing hot or freezing cold—forest guards are out on patrol every day of the year on their designated beats in tiger reserves and national parks, with just a stick in hand for defence.

To honour the foot soldiers of our National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, the Hem Chand Mahindra Wildlife Foundation (HCMWF), a trust which works towards protecting our fragile ecosystem and conserving wildlife, and Saevus magazine set up the Wildlife Warrior Awards in 2014. In its second year, the Wildlife Warrior Awards 2015 will be held on 27 July at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mumbai.

The natural heritage of India is guarded by people from poor backgrounds, many of whom never get to see glossy wildlife photo books or documentary films that the more privileged wildlife lovers have access to. The forest department uses daily wage workers as forest guards for conducting patrols and to compensate for the lack of sufficient personnel in field positions.

Here, Mint profiles one such worker, Dev Singh, one of the winners of the Wildlife Warrior Awards 2014 who showed exemplary courage in the line of duty.

Dev Singh, 45, has been working with the forest department in Corbett National Park and Tiger Reserve as a daily wage worker since 2010. Before this job, he worked as a labourer, doing odd jobs that came his way. He may be poor, but does not lack heart, as he demonstrated.

It was at about 1:30pm on 17 October 2013. Singh and his colleague Rakesh Kumar, also a daily wage worker, were on patrol inside the Kalagarh Range, a part of the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Singh heard a thud behind him. He turned around and saw that Kumar had been grabbed by a tiger. A frail man weighing less than 50 kg, Singh went to Kumar’s rescue, armed with just a bamboo stick.

After a few blows from the lathi, the tiger left Kumar and retreated, growling, to the undergrowth. Being face to face with a tiger can be unnerving, but standing a few yards away from an angry tiger can scare even the daring and fearless. Though nervous, Singh did not lose time. He gathered his wits and quickly started a fire by gathering twigs and leaf litter to keep the hiding tiger at bay. By now Kumar was bleeding profusely from the scalp, where the tiger had mauled him. Singh tore off a part of his uniform to bandage the wound and check the bleeding.

They were deep inside the forest, with no resources to call for help, no mobile phones, no wireless handsets or vehicles. This part of the tiger reserve, where the attack took place, is dense, hilly and difficult to negotiate. Kumar weighed almost double that of Singh, but the latter had no choice. He lifted him on his back and started walking, stopping numerous times to build a fire to ward off wild animals. The ordeal went on till dusk. Singh says he carried Kumar for at least 3 km on his back; at one point he reached a ridge from where he was unable to go down because of the steep slope. Singh put Kumar under a big banyan tree, lit a fire and kept shouting for help.

His shouts were heard by some people working below for the irrigation department adjoining the southern boundary of Corbett Tiger Reserve. They relayed the SOS to the forest staff at Saddle Dam Chowki, who in turn informed the range officer of Kalagarh, Brij Bihari Sharma.

Sharma set off with reinforcements. After a series of calls, echoing across the forest, the rescue team managed to figure out where Singh was stuck and climbed the steep hillside, slashing through dense undergrowth. By the time the rescue team reached Singh, it was 7pm.

But the tiger was not willing to give up. Even after the firing of gun shots in the air, it lurked in the nearby bushes, growling all the while. “We couldn’t see much around and with great difficulty carried Kumar on a makeshift stretcher, there was no path or trail and we kept slipping and getting entangled in the bushes," says Singh.

The road head was almost 7km away and the rescue team carrying Kumar managed to reach a vehicle at 11:30pm. After first aid, Kumar was taken to the Kashipur government hospital and later in the night to the Sushila Tiwari Government Hospital in Haldwani. Kumar succumbed to his injuries on 20 October 2013.

Today, Singh continues to walk the same trail, patrolling the forest from morning till dusk, still armed only with a lathi. Dev Singh and Rakesh Kumar are the unsung, invisible heroes of the forests.