Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Unsung and Unheard

Some decisions are tough. More so when it involves walking through a dense jungle in the dark night, just to check on the sound of tree felling. One could step on a snake, slip on a rock or fall into a pit, and this is elephant – tiger country. Narrating how they walked a couple of kilometers in the middle of the night, Forest Officer Prabhuswamy recalled how they couldn’t even turn on the torch, for they could end up alerting timber smugglers about their presence. He, along with a couple of other watchers - Jayendra and Soma - recently caught a few timber smugglers. These courageous men don’t have a choice to make these decisions. It is their job, their call of duty and come what may, they will protect their home – the jungle.

40 year old Jayendra, a native of Coorg, joined the forest department as a MR (muster roll) Watcher in 1987. He continues to be an MR Watcher in 2011, with no hope of ever being promoted as a permanent watcher. Every morning, armed with a rifle and a wireless phone, he sets off with two other guards to patrol the forest and visit all the sensitive areas – forest state borders, caves and waterholes. He can get two days off once in ten days and he uses this time to visit his family in Bandipur town. His children attend school there and like all other guards, he is worried that with lack of guidance, his children too will drop out of school by the time they reach the 8th grade. 

46 year old Soma, on the other hand, is a PCP (Petty Cash Payment) watcher and joined the department 11 years ago. His young daughter was married off to the first suitable match last year, Soma says wanted to reduce his burden. He is on the same lines as a daily wage worker and is aware that he will never be added to the muster roll, he belongs to the pool of lakhs of such PCP workers across different government departments and their fate hangs on a pending bill in the parliament.  

Across 11 ranges and 38 anti poaching camps in Bandipur, there are around 250 PCP watchers and 57 MR watchers. All of them share the same plight as Jayendra and Soma, and some, worse. Their work is anything but hard, it is somewhere much beyond that - walking for an average of 15-17 kilometers each day, battling forest fires, helping villagers chase away elephants that enter fields in the fringe areas, taking on poachers and timber smugglers, to mention a few. Job insecurity, tough working conditions and the fact that they live deep in the jungle, isolated from the world and far away from their families doesn’t help the situation. These problems are magnified in the summer when the heat reaches its peak and the forest runs dry; and in the monsoon when incessant rains take over the landscape. Unappreciated, insecure and demotivated, they truly are THE unsung heroes. 

The APC (Anti-poaching Camp) we visited is one of the better ones, there is a concrete structure with a proper roof, a separate chamber to store supplies and a trench around the cottage to keep the elephants at bay. It has an approachable road and the forest department jeeps can access the APC with ease. A tiny bulb hangs there, powered by a solar panel on the roof. However, things 
that we take for granted, like water supply and toilets are still a luxury. The hand pump of a bore well installed there was damaged by an elephant, so water has to be supplied in forest department jeeps, 45 liters once in three days.  But, there are many APCs in interior parts of the jungle that are not easily accessible, especially in the monsoon. In such places, forest guards still live under leaking roofs, without electricity. 

Mr Hanumanthappa, the DCF of the Bandipur range says that the living conditions of forest guards have largely improved since Project Tiger came to Bandipur - funding improved, uniforms and shoes were distributed, salaries became regular and food supplies increased. They are now given nutritious food and food provision has been increased from Rs 20 to Rs 40 per day. They now have enough rations for two meals a day and have been provided bags and water bottles to help them carry food when they go out for their daily patrols. The DCF pointed out that the guards need binoculars, jackets and umbrellas. The fire fighting staff require shoes, knives, torches and some masks to protect their faces from the fire and smoke. He has been trying to procure these items for his staff.

The forest department maintains a list with data of unemployed youth from local villages and contacts them when they need to increase their workforce. Some children of forest guards have also joined the forest department in similar roles. But, given the working conditions of these guards, their children have no motivation to take up jobs within the forest department, which has resulted in a huge shortage of staff. Outsiders will not last in this jungle, he says.

Yes, this also means that guards in any forest range which is not a Tiger Reserve don’t receive salaries for months. They live in very bad accommodation and patrol the jungles in rubber slippers, armed with a stick. Most of these guards are tribesman or locals from the fringes of the forest, with excellent knowledge of the jungle. They can track and guess human/animal movements in the jungle through a broken branch or footprints, information that can be very valuable to a poacher. There is always a threat of loss of loyalty. Vital information could leak out either innocently or for monetary gain. Some sort of commitment or attachment to a forest officer is the only factor that keeps them going.

Many NGOs have arranged general health check-up camps and provided first aid kits. The guards did admit to us that they don't know what medicines to use, as many of them can't read. Some guards from local tribes are not comfortable wearing shoes but wearing uniforms motivates all of them, they said.

The Kumble Foundation is working towards providing long-term solutions to some of these core issues. With an aim to improve the general health condition of the forest guards, they have collected details of health and medical support requirements. They intend to set up a group insurance for all the guards including temporary employees. Proposals have been made to the government too. Diinesh Kumble says, they are keen on supporting children of forest guards so that they can get vocational training, guidance and counselling once they complete their basic education. The Foundation is also looking for genuine requirements of assistance for higher education on a merit basis. The Jumbo Wildlife Award and Jumbo Fund have been set up with an initiative to reward wildlife champions and recognize the contribution of forest staff, researchers, NGOs and civil servants towards conservation. 

In a jungle that has a rich diversity of species and is constantly in the spotlight with three states fighting over some space on the highway, it was eye-opening to meet the heroes who run the show silently. A vehicle passes by this road every 47 seconds, lakhs of people traverse the road every day. Yet, the tale of these guards is mostly untold. They desire very little - appreciation, security, family time ... and a ear if you can lend one, for, they have a story to tell. 

P.S Thank you Diinesh Kumble and Shreyas Jayakumar for facilitating this meet.

Banded and Branded

We were busy looking for Treepies and Trogons when the call came. A King Cobra had been sighted in a farm and the residents of a nearby house wanted it to be relocated to the forest. The ARRS team was off to rescue and release the King. Did we want to go along and watch? Yes, we said. A huge YES.

Belagundi is a quaint, pretty village a little away from Bidri, about 25kms from Agumbe. As we drove down the ghats, we saw Prashant, Ajay and Dheeraj stop to pick up a semi-dead Ornate Flying Snake from the road. It was a heart-rending sight to watch the tiny, beautiful snake wriggling on the road. Its slender body had been crushed by a vehicle. We drove on, the Seetanadi river flowing along the road, lush green forests and areca plantations dotted the landscape. At Belagundi, we got off the vehicle and walked into a field, a small group of 10 odd people had gathered there, mostly local residents and some workers of the farm. They led us to a tiny stream by the edge of the farm and pointed at the location where the King had been resting the last two days, but now, only the tip of the tail was visible, the King had moved into some shrubs by the stream.

As the ARRS team moved around, to get a better view of the King, it struck me that these people had waited two full days to call and ask for help after they spotted the King. There was a house about 50 metres away from where the King had been spotted, there were children in that house. Yet, they waited, patiently, without disturbing their guest. Moreover, everyone there was concerned that the King could be injured as they didn't see it move around at all. Prashant explained that it is a possibility, or, it might be resting after a heavy meal - a big rat snake maybe? They would be able to confirm only after they see the King in its entirety. The concern they had for the King's well-being was touching. My heart swells with pride when I think of how tolerant and respectful these folks were about wildlife. 

The King Cobra is worshipped in these parts, these people revere the snake. They will cause no harm to the longest, most venomous snake in the world.

Once they were able to locate the exact position of the King, they got to work. First, they cleared up the area where they would eventually bring the King out of the shrubs, so that they don't have any obstructions. All tiny bushes were removed, working space had been created. The team advised everyone watching to maintain a safe distance, not move around and maintain silence. While one person kept a constant watch on the head of the King, another held the tail and with a mild jerk, prodded the snake to move.

The King moved and we could now see more of its body, but no one had a clue of the actual length and size yet. More nudging, coaxing, pulling and the King was finally out. I gasped aloud, but I wasn't alone - a collective gasp from the crowd greeted an irritated King. A glinting blackest-black body with golden-bronze bands and a rich yellow underbelly, the 10 foot long juvenile male was a stunner, albeit in a compromised position at that moment.

He constantly flicked his tongue and moved around, clearly trying to find a way out of this ugly situation. Accuse me of being anthropomorphic, but who wouldn't get intimidated, scared and angry if they were being taken captive? Prashant held on to the tail, a tight grip and his attention was entirely on the movements of the snake. Dheeraj tried to cover the head of the snake with a bag that had an opening like a net, so that the snake would be forced to slither in and could be captured.

The first couple of attempts to get the King in the bag didn't work and that's when he started showing signs of agitation. He raised his hood and that magnificient pose is something I will remember all my life. The crowd watching this capture was enveloped in silence, no one moved, all the murmuring died down.

And then it happened, the King bared his fangs.

A sight that filled me with amazement, fear, respect, worry - all at once. Amazement, because I've always associated sights like these with Austin Steven's documentaries. Fear, well, the image explains it all. The King would not give up and go down, he would fight his way through this, Respect. Once released, would it find a safe spot away from human intervention? Would it be able to survive on its own in a new place? Worry.

Prashant and Dheeraj were finally able to coax the King into the bag. Once the snake was in, a knot was secured, ready to be relocated. They worked together as a team with superb precision and composure.

The King was then weighed and he turned out to be 8.9 kilograms. We all headed back towards the nearby forest patch, adjoining the Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary. After ensuring that the habitat was perfect for the King Cobra and that it was a safe distance away from any human intervention, the snake was released in the forest.

A relatively simpler task now - the knot was removed, some coaxing and the King headed out of the bag into its new home, or maybe it was the same old home, we will never know.

Once he was out of the bag, he moved away, graciously, down the forest path and into the leaf litter far away from us.

The entire rescue-release operation was carried out very professionally by the ARRS team. They were meticulous and followed all procedures to the last detail. Prashant said this was one of their simpler, easier rescues. Now, try and imagine a King being rescued from a well, or from a house. Goosechills. 

The love-hate relationship between humans and snakes is something we all see everyday around us. A Rat Snake in the local park gets mistaken for a venomous snake and is beaten up by an angry mob. An Indian Cobra that wanders into a township meets the same fate. Russel's Vipers get crushed under wheels all the time. Snakes are seen as bad and dangerous creatures, as villians. For most people, the first instinct upon seeing a snake is 'kill it'. Ironically, snakes are worshiped by almost all communities through the length and the breadth of the country. Yet, when the same people encounter a live one, things change drastically. Numerous and varied religious superstitions - mostly negative ones - about snakes definitely don't help the situation. 

On many occasions, people take the help of trained/experienced snake rescuers, who capture these snakes and release them in nearby jungles. The snakes live to see another day, but it is impossible to say that these relocated snakes survive. In a new, unknown location, with no idea of what kind of prey is available, disoriented, many snakes perish. If they do manage to find food, they need to deal with other resident snakes, who may not be too kind to their new visitor. So, the snakes are at the receiving end, always.

We can only hope that with more awareness, humans will start treating snakes with the respect they deserve and will let them live. We need these beautiful creatures, the ecosystem needs them, to maintain a balance. They don't need us.

P.S. Thanks Arati Rao for the title!

** I own the copyright to all the images in this post. Please do not re-use any of these images without my permission.