I am just back from Manas Tiger Reserve,  where I met with forest guards. Gobindo Boro is one among many who have served this tiger forest for over 20 years, through its decade of insurgency, maintaining ground even as  some of their colleagues were killed, their quarters burnt to the ground, ‘department’ elephants shot, and wildlife massacred.  Binoy Samphramari is the fresh new face—having joined service three years back. He is full of hope, excited to see the elephants a few furlong away, committed to protect Manas, curious to see other parks, full of questions. It gives me much hope—this determination, and dogged commitment, even in the face of adversity-yet,  I worry on its resilience, given the challenges they face-and the bleak conditions they must endure.   

In far off Central India, Budh Singh spends his days in the scorching summers perched on a flimsy platform some 50 feet above the ground, on a tree in Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha Tiger Reserve. This is where he stays 10-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week to keep vigil at one of India’s best tiger habitats and alert park authorities in the event of a fire, which could potentially destroy Kanha’s fine meadows.

On 18th October , 2013 daily wager Rakesh Sharma, was mauled by a tiger when on patrol duty on atop a remote ridge (a likely spot where traps are set by poachers) in Corbett Tiger Reserve. Dev Singh, another daily wager accompanying him, bravely fended off the tiger, but it took over 12 hours to reach a profusely bleeding Rakesh to the hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries.  Precisely a month back, a group of tribals who had allegedly encroached on forest land, hacked a forest ranger to death at Tanda, a village, in Andhra Pradesh’s Nizamabad district, apart from maiming seven forest personnel

The above instances may help understand the challenges that the  frontline forest staff faces.  They serve in remote forests, and more often than not they are lone sentries guarding their patch of forest without even basic facilities such as decent housing, clean drinking water, toilets, electricity (solar), communication systems, protective clothing, medical aid, etc. They have no fixed working hours or holidays and are on duty 24×7. 

Their task is risky, their lives on the line not just from wild animals, who can sometimes be unpredictable and strike when surprised, but mostly from poachers, timber smugglers, mining mafias––and the fury of encroachers and mobs in several situations, particularly those related to human-wildlife conflict.

There is little scope of advancement in their job—most get just one promotion through their career, if that.

Even worse is the plight of the daily wagers—who work on a contractual basis for years, even decades, with no job security, or the promise of a permanent job.  They are the backbone of our first line of defence, but more often their not, their paltry wages are delayed for months.    

One particular worry is that in most states when forest staff  take on battles in the line of duty, they do so at their own risk and personal liability. For example, in case of injury, or death of an offender, in an encounter with say, timber smugglers, the government doesn’t take up their legal battle—it is their personal responsibility. There are many such forest personnel, caught in the legal quagmire––and up against a powerful opposition that thrives on illegal market for timber and wildlife contraband. In Rajaji National Park—three forest staffers are facing a charge of murder (Sec 302) for having accidentally killed a person when they fired in self-defence against a gang of armed miscreants who had illegally entered the National Park at night. Why should forest personnel face such harassment for carrying out their duty? Why would they go out on a limb to implement protection laws, when they are not supported in their task? 

They are India’s unsung Green Army, the men on the front to whom we owe the tiger—and other rare wildlife-the forests and the rivers that flow from them.

If we are to protect our wildlife,  it is imperative that we instill a sense of pride in their task, and ensure that their guardians are enabled, equipped, motivated and backed by the country they serve. 

This article was first published in ‘Saevus’ Magazine