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These ‘Invisible’ Heroes Risk their Lives for Forests. Why Isn’t India Talking About Them?

Rincrinchen Norbu Wangchuk, The Better India | June 24, 2020

Read the original story here.

Last year, Dimbeswar Das, a forest guard who has patrolled the Kaziranga National Park for the past three decades to protect one-horned rhinos and other animals from poachers, won the prestigious Earth Hero Award from the Royal Bank of Scotland.

“He has faced poachers’ bullets and threats, survived charges from rhinos, wild buffaloes, elephants, and big cats, and had to move houses several times to evade threats to his family — all in the service to the protection of the national park, a national asset,” read the award citation.

Speaking to The Better India earlier this year, Dimbeswar had said, “This isn’t an easy job but I have loved every bit of it. I want to plant more trees in and around the forest area so as to prevent it from diminishing so that the animals who live here never lose their home.”

And he’s right about the forest guard’s job not being easy.

The best of them aren’t scared to face a poacher’s bullets, see eye to eye with natural predators like tigers, confront angry villagers, while also risking their lives in extreme altitudes and weather conditions, barely spending time with their families, and battling disease and extreme loneliness to protect our natural heritage.

But not every story has happy events like Dimbeswar’s.

There are many forest guards and their support team consisting daily wagers who assist them on the frontlines, who lose their lives, suffer serious injury and mental scars fighting against difficult odds.

In 2014, India was the highest ranked country when it came to forest ranger (‘uniformed service or the frontline staff of the forest department’) mortality. According to the statistics released by the International Ranger Federation, between 2012 and 2017, India accounted for nearly 31% of all forest ranger deaths in the world.

They operate under impossible working conditions, poor equipment, low pay, benefits and inadequate resources, but still manage to help pull off some of India’s greatest conservation stories like Project Tiger, the 29% spike in the Asiatic Lion population in Gir National Park, Gujarat since 2015 and the revival of the one-horned rhino population in Kaziranga.

Who Are Forest Guards?

“In India’s institutional forestry structures, the most important administrative unit is the forest division, headed by a Divisional Forest Officer (DFO),” notes a document published by the Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations affiliate body. In every forest division, there are eight-ten ranges. A forest range is further divided into subranges and beats.

The lowest administrative unit is the forest beat, which may comprise 10 to 15 sq km of forest area. In a range, there are three-four beats manned by beat officers. In every beat, there will be a forest guard or forest watcher, the frontline staff, who man these protected areas and are first responders to a case of poaching, encroachment or any kind of crime.

“During the colonial period with the Imperial Forest Service, officials heading forest departments were mainly European. They would hire local forest guards who were physically fit, and their main objective was inspecting the boundaries of forests, ensuring boundary pillars remained intact and to protect the area under their supervision from encroachment. Back then, a forest guard or a range officer used to take inspections of their boundaries to see whether it was encroached upon or not,” informs Ramesh Pandey, a 1996-cadre Indian Forest Service Officer and recipient of the UNEP Environment Enforcement Award winner last year, speaking to The Better India.

He is currently posted as Director of the Delhi Zoo.

But the subsequent increase in human and livestock population and their dependency on natural resources introduced new pressure points on forests. These points were defined by activities like illegal felling of trees, unlawful collection of forest produce, poaching animals for bush meat, etc.

Today, apart from protection work, forest guards are also involved in forestry activities like preparing grounds for plantations, raising nurseries for plantations, and protecting those plantations to convert them into jungles.

Further, in the last couple of years, they have also donned the role of interfacing with the forest-dwelling communities by either being part of joint forest management committees or eco-development committees in protected national parks and sanctuaries.

“Challenges can arise any time. In the morning, for example, he goes to the nursery and supplies planting material at a site. He’s the person in-charge of overseeing the plantation. When he gets free at say 6.30 in the evening, he is probably required to go on a night patrol to prevent any illegal activity from happening. It’s a very challenging job,” adds Ramesh.

Forest guards’ salaries vary from one state to another. In some states, they are paid as much as a police constable, but in many they aren’t even paid that much.

While the forest guards are permanent employees, they also have daily wagers, known as “watchers” who support them in the field. All of them constitute the frontline field staff.

Tough Working Conditions

Apart from facing issues related to the rising human population and consequent encroachment in forested lands, what makes matters worse is that the role witnesses massive vacancies.

According to Prerna Singh Bindra’s report for IndiaSpend in late 2018, “(Forest) staff shortages average about 30% across India. In some reserves like Palamu in Jharkhand, it has hovered around 90% over the last decade and improved only recently.”

Meanwhile, this Hindustan Times report in 2017 notes, “Forest guards, both the regular and temporary, cover large swathes of forest land. There are about 200 forest guards, both temporary and permanent at the Rajaji National Park, with each guard covering anywhere between 500 to 1,000 hectares.” Vacancies, on an average, however, stand at around 50% and during the peak season, one forest guard has to do the work of two.

Moreover, these frontline staff work in remote areas. A higher workload with inadequate infrastructural support in terms of accommodation and vehicles has resulted in an increase in poaching cases. Finally, the resources to protect our forests by both state and Union governments are not seeing an increase in budget allocation.

“The hardships were countless. First, some of the places they are posted are unbelievable. Take the Sundarbans for example. The floating camps in the middle of the core area of the forest are suffocating small, dark, dank boats that are shared by 4-5 forest guards. It’s frightening. There’s no easy access to freshwater, limited rations, no phone network, no source of entertainment, not even land to step on. Some are posted in these camps for years, on a single boat in the middle of nowhere,” said natural history filmmaker Ashwika Kapur, to Mongabay.