A forest guard’s life is tough

Thursday 15 July 2010

Conserving biodiversity at the ground is different from buzzwords of today’s conservation science

imageTangru Miji lives on the border of Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh. He used to be a skilled hunter until the park authorities recently convinced him to be a part of their anti-poaching efforts in the reserve.

Like other forest guards, Miji leaves for patrolling in the morning and returns at sunset. When there is a tip-off on the movement of poachers the guards camp in forests. Sometimes for several nights at a stretch.

Their lives are not easy, they told this author as she spent several evenings at anti-poaching camps, sitting around a campfire with them. The men, mostly under 35, belong to the Nyishi community that lives near the park’s boundary. The average age of patrolling staff elsewhere in India is above 50.

In a part of a country where community identity is paramount it is always a challenge to balance one’s job with this identity. For example, a forest guard celebrates a festival with people whom he might have to take action against some day. And if he does his job it does not win him accolades or appreciation from the community.

An even more challenging task is tackling extremist groups such as the National Democratic Front, a Bodo militant organization. Organized gangs of poachers and their families usually liaise with the militant organization if there has been an anti-poaching encounter. The extremists demand park authorities divulge the name of the forest guards involved in encounters so that they can take revenge.

Most forest guards, therefore, change to plain-clothes before leaving work. They prefer their identities not disclosed.

Some are killed. An elephant trainer told this author that he did not have the heart to go to the market anymore. He sees the poacher who killed P D Majhi, the trainer’s colleague and guide, at the market.

Moreover, a difficult terrain and malaria make it tougher for the guards—70 per cent of all staff have suffered from the disease in the past three years. Park authorities spent 3 per cent of their annual budget, Rs 1.38 lakh, to treat malaria last year. Not all bills are reimbursed on time.

There is also the risk of losing jobs. Called contingency staff, the guards earn Rs 2,500 per month and are usually the first ones to be sacked in case of a financial crunch.

imageLuckily, the guards and Pakke have a leader in the divisional forest officer, Tana Tapi, considered a living legend of the tiger reserve. A dynamic leader is seen more as a bonus than necessity in the country’s national parks. If the forest guards do good work they are assured that Tapi would mobilize resources to keep them going and stand by them even in times of need.

It is also because of forest guards that researchers, this author for example, can return to the park every year to study wildlife. They are the real everyday heroes who never make it to the spotlight. It is a shame that a formal framework to keep the frontline staff provisioned and motivated does not exist in the country.

There are only donations: Wildlife Conservation Society has donated uniforms to forest guards and a private company has donated medicated mosquito nets.

What it takes to conserve biodiversity at the ground level is very different from the buzzwords of today’s conservation science. Carbon credits and global warming require long-term strategies. By the time carbon credits and payment for ecosystem services becomes reality, there would be nothing left to conserve. The threats from poaching and habitat loss are pressing concerns and need immediate action. Not looking after the well being of forest guards and keeping them motivated is failure to recognize that these foot soldiers have been instrumental in protecting wildlife. Miji, the author hopes, will never go back to hunting.

But he just might if their lot continues to be ignored.

Nandini Velho is a junior research fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. Her interests lie in plant-animal interactions and wildlife conservation


They also serve
Forest officials kept eyes thightly shut
Once poachers now guards
Fights for space
Conservation's uncelebrated foot soldiers

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  • I really liked this article

    I really liked this article especially since more widely read magazine like DTE have started to publish about topics related to wildlife biology.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • These are the realities from

    These are the realities from the front-line of conservation. I admire the author for bringing out these issues.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Very well written!

    Very well written!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Very nicely written! True,

    Very nicely written! True, things in the field are faaaar away from what is discussed in policy making chambers. And I hope people like you will bridge that gap!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Very precise and

    Very precise and to-the-point, capturing on-field issues particularly well. Thank you for a good, thought-provoking read.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Very well written...Issues

    Very well written...Issues like this need to be highlighted

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Lovely article

    Lovely article Nandini!
    However good conservation policies look on the paper, it is the zeal,concern and the morale of the on-field staff that ultimately decide where our conservation efforts are heading.
    Write more!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Ground realities Very well

    Ground realities Very well brought out by Author..

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • A timely article highlighting

    A timely article highlighting an issue of great concern. Across the Indian landscape, protected areas are becoming mere 'paper parks' due to lack of ground staff. It is these guys who are the front line men bearing the brunt of on ground conservation problems and need more support, logistical, economic and moral, both from the Forest department and the general public.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The article eloquently

    The article eloquently depicts the ground realities especially in places like Arunachal Pradesh. As conservationists it is important that one comes up with both sides of a story.....good work Nandini...really appreciate the way you have expressed the concerns of conservation in today's world

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • An article written straight

    An article written straight from the heart.

    It is lovely to see a research fellow in the life sciences have a foot in both worlds: doing her needed research in her own field on one hand, and, on the other hand, making the time to write about issue, such as conservation, that involves all of us.

    Hope to see more such links on Facebook!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Very well written, and it

    Very well written, and it gains importance since people (including us) working in the field watch it happening all around the country, but very few give them a voice.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Important yet ignored..The

    Important yet ignored..The few places I've been to, I've noticed this increasingly. Even watchers and guards from the more 'catered to' Tiger Reserves have similar stories. Nicely written. Very well highlights the apathy towards the lower levels of management, even though they are the most important!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • excellent article - one of

    excellent article - one of the few where ground problems are highlighted in a level headed manner.
    Keep writing Nandini...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The article has touched upon

    The article has touched upon a critical issue we are all missing - in our search for long term solutions to secure our ecosysytems through market solutions (monetizing the values of ecosystem services and the carbon markets- we must remember that markets and exchanges have never until now delivered market prices to the targetted subjects)we are forgetting that the rate at which our ecosystems are fast disappearing (thanks to our insatiable appetite for land and mineral resources which we see as the only way to achieve prosperity)we will have nothing left to secure through the stretegised market solutions....

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • An excellent article.Thanks

    An excellent article.Thanks for highlighting plight of these foot soldiers,who protects our forest & wildlife.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Your articles are very inspiring and informative. Appreciate your brave efforts to support this cause.

    To reduce pollution at the ecosensitive locations, I have developed a "Kit" which can convert a Gypsy to full electric. The kit comprises of a very powerful motor, which enables Gypsy to traverse any terrain. This work of conversion can be done by any mechanic in remote area. The battery can be charged by solar panels or any normal power source. Shall much appreciate your views about how I can take this project forward and any contacts if you can share. Thanks and Regards

    Posted by: Rajeev Ranadive | 10 months ago | Reply
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