Risking their lives, with little money, to protect India’s forests

WAYANAD, India – Armed with only a bamboo stick, Bijesh TK is part of the team searching for a tiger that has escaped from a wildlife sanctuary. But it was the tiger that saw him first.

“It tried to bite my neck, but luckily the helmet protected me,” he said, describing last year’s attack near Wayanad, in the southern Kerala state of Kerala. “Its jaws are so wide that my whole head can fit in my lap.”

There was nothing his colleagues could do. They tried to scare away the tiger, but it clamped its teeth into Mr. Bijesh TK’s right arm, refusing to let go, before returning to the wild. His arm was permanently injured.

Mr. Bijesh TK and hundreds of other part-timers across India risk their lives every day for a frontline job vital to the conservation of the country’s forests but often pay less than minimum wage.

They battle poachers, gangs of criminals, fires, and other disasters, and in this part of the country, where jungles mingle with villages, they are de facto peacekeepers between humans and wildlife.

It’s a broad mission that includes preventing wildlife from eating crops and livestock near protected areas, while protecting both the lives and livelihoods of local residents and wildlife. may face retaliatory attacks by the community.

This part of southern India has largest contiguous tiger population in the world, with more than 720 tigers stalking prey in a biodiversity hotspot in the Western Ghats, moving among at least five tiger reserves spanning three states.

The area also has the largest population of Asian elephants in the world, and wild elephants are a common sight.

Lalitha, 72, who uses one name, said: “The cows cross our yard at 7:30 p.m., several days a week. “We cannot plant anything here. If elephants don’t destroy it, deer or wild boar come to eat our fruits and vegetables. We can’t step out of the house at night.”

Forest watchers, who report to employed defenders at the state level, are often ill-equipped to deal with such situations. They are often members of local communities and indigenous tribes, who have traditionally helped with tasks such as patrolling protected areas and fighting wildfires.

Bijesh TK, 38, received his helmet and safety vest just days before he was attacked. That meager protection was a hasty response to Another tiger is attacked by the same tiger.

But as a part-time forest watcher, he was not eligible to receive compensation from the Kerala ranger agency following the attack. The government helped pay for his treatment and continues to pay him a monthly salary of $108. The $334 he received from a nonprofit group was used to pay for medical expenses.

Vivek Menon, founder of the Wildlife Trust of India, said: “Forestmen should be treated with the same respect that our armed forces receive. more recognition for frontline workers members.

“They protect large swaths of India, our entire ecological heritage, but many of them are temporary employees who don’t even have life insurance in case they die. at work,” said Mr. Menon.

Before the attack, Mr. Bijesh TK’s main source of income was a bricklayer – a job he could no longer do. So, despite his injury and the relentless nature of his work, he signed up to be a full-time forest watcher. But his salary – just $143 a month – remains hopelessly low and he struggles to provide for his family of 5.

Every night, he chases away the wild animals that feed in the neighboring villages – mainly elephants, wild boars and deer, but sometimes tigers and leopards. He equips a flashlight and some cannons to scare away the animals. During the day, he has to check the electric fence to keep the elephants out and prevent forest fires in the summer.

Most forest keepers are hired as contractors, receiving a portion of the wages and benefits earned by permanent government employees. Many people spend decades working part-time.

Interviews with staff in different parts of the country reveal a similar story of a system in dire need of an overhaul. While some senior officers talked about how they were trying to improve the working conditions of frontline workers, they expressed frustration with a system that appeared to be designed to make it difficult for them every day. anytime and anywhere.

Gaurav Sharma, a forestry officer in charge of two million acres of land in Panna, Madhya Pradesh state, said: “Forest workers should be formally appointed as frontline workers across the country. “We are not even prioritized for vaccination when other frontline workers like the police force are getting vaccinated. Many of my employees caught Covid in a devastating second wave last year, and I lost four or five members of my team.”

There is little data on serious injuries to rangers in India, but the country has recorded at least 318 ranger deaths since 2012, according to the International Federation of Rangers. International Ranger.

In India, many forestry workers die in incidents that occur in remote areas miles away from medical assistance. The sentinels and sentinels often lived in field posts set up inside the forests for weeks at a time. Each span guard is responsible for 1,200 to 3,700 acres of land.

Depending on the budget, there may be one or two supervisors to assist each guard. They are required to patrol the area on foot and are given only four days off each month to visit family. Often the pylons do not have electricity or running water.

In Wayanad, government funding is scarce in part because it is not an official tiger reserve – however, with 120 tigers, according to the 2018 census, it has more animal species than many sanctuaries tigers in the area. Some Wayanad residents objected to this designation out of concern that they would be forcibly relocated beyond the confines of the park.

Many followers complain about only getting paid for 10 or 12 days a month despite working almost 30, not to mention overtime. In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, more than 1,200 forest guards recently applied to the Supreme Courtsay they haven’t been paid for over a year.

Foresters say they are sometimes frustrated by the lack of support from the communities they serve.

“People need to realize that our work is very important in maintaining biodiversity. Everyone wants more tigers, but nobody wants them in their own backyard,” said Sharma, an official in Madhya Pradesh.

When Mr. Bijesh TK goes out at night to do his job, his family worries about his safety. With his injured arm, he might not have survived another animal attack. He has applied to become a regular forest watchman, which will give him a better salary and benefits, but he has not received any word so far.

“Every time I close my eyes, I can see the tiger rushing towards me,” he said. “But I don’t have a choice. I need to support my family.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/21/world/asia/india-forest-rangers.html Risking their lives, with little money, to protect India’s forests

Fry Electronics Team

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