Voices in the Wilderness

Ranjit Lal
Forest guards, Forest stalwarts , Gir forest, life of a forest guard, indian express news

Forest guards — clad in sandals or chappals and armed with just a lathi — have to patrol huge tracts of jungle on foot.(Express archive)

Frontline (and, sometimes, back-office) forest personnel, who dedicate their lives to protecting our wonderful wildlife heritage, are largely unsung and need to be thanked. They range from the weather-beaten, tough-soled forest guards to legendary field directors, who often take on the high and the mighty.

Forest guards — clad in sandals or chappals and armed with just a lathi — have to patrol huge tracts of jungle on foot. If anything untoward happens on their beat, they are held accountable. Many love their work. For others, it’s just a job that needs to be done. The average visitor to a park or sanctuary generally only encounters these guys in the guise of guides and drivers of gypsies. Too often the fat cat from town tries to throw his weight around and demands tigers and elephants on call. There is enormous pressure on the guards to deliver, which is why we find 50-odd gypsies clustered around an irritated tiger being ogled at by tourists. Sometimes, these guards confront poachers — well armed and well organised. Often, villagers sneak in to cut wood or collect fodder or graze their animals.

Sometimes, the villagers belong to their own village — and are known to them — which makes their work even more difficult.

In several parks now, the guards patrol on motorbikes, which can cover much larger distances. Sometimes, of course, the wrong message gets broadcast: in Gir, shortly after the debacle which killed over 20 lions, teams of guards were deputed to monitor a pride of lions. The guards we came across once were lolling around near the lions, yelling at the top of their voices, while shushing visitors and hastening them away. But Gir also has a wonderful posse of women guards who look after the lions as though they were family and brook no nonsense.

Higher up the echelons are the dedicated officers, who run the parks and sanctuaries. Many of them have become legends. They’ve taken on poachers (and poaching cartels) head on, have been beaten up by irate villagers, threatened by bumptious tourists, tackled difficult wildlife-people conflicts, while dealing with reams of paperwork which must really drive them up the wall.

Often, they have to clash with the powers-that-be — and sometimes have to see their good work of years be dumped down the drain — as they are shunted out so that some more pliable successor can take over and unravel all that they’ve done. Spineless officers in charge of wildlife can be hugely detrimental: apart from permitting hare-brained government projects which involve wholesale destruction of prime forest tracts, they refuse to acknowledge “bad news” — for instance, if they’re told that all the tigers in their park have been poached. This has happened not once but at least twice in the recent past. Of course, no one was held accountable.

There are also those dedicated souls, who have given their lives to wildlife research. For years, with meagre funds, they rough it out, following the lives of the species that fascinate them, and documenting their lives. Many put in a lifetime’s work in a single park. You can imagine their heartbreak when one fine day, they’re told to shut down and get out because their findings would “tarnish the image” of the park and its authorities. Wildlife research is not the glamorous job it’s often thought to be: scientific investigation can be hard, rigorous and repetitive taskmaster, run on shoestring budgets, with daily drudgery involved in the data-gathering process. And while the heartbreaks can be huge, the rewards can be life-fulfilling: there are those, who have converted wastelands into thriving ecosystems — but again, primarily, because they were allowed to work without any interference.

There are also many ordinary people, who after, or midway through, more conventional (and boring) careers have suddenly chucked it all up and tried (and often succeeded) in doing such crazy things as growing forests on tracts of wasteland or saving swamps (which are important wetlands) from being drained. They need to be recognised and thanked equally.

What’s heartening to see is that more and more young people are getting involved in working for wildlife and taking it up academically, with a view to making careers in the field. There are also several organisations which have begun recognising their work — and handing out annual awards which again is heartening to see — but it would be wonderful if there were many more of these.

We need as many stalwarts in the field as possible: to poke their noses into the lives of secretive animals (so they can be protected better), to conceive plans to “manage” forests and to guard against poachers, encroachers and mafia. We need to listen to these voices in the wilderness and make their work easier for them.