Another day in the woods
The forest guards behind Jim Corbett's success story are ignored and doomed to live in extremely sub-human conditions. They complain that they are considered no more than chowkidars and successive governments have turned a blind eye to their apathetic state
Akash Bisht Ramnagar
A khaki clad Ramesh Kumar Ratnakar, a forest guard, greets tourists with a smile at the Amdanada gate in the Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR). He patiently informs them about the key points that one needs to remember while venturing into the forest, and shares stories of his encounters with the tigers in the wild. Children surround him and carefully listen to his rendezvous in the wild. After sharing couple of jungle tales, he says goodbye to the children and his colleagues and with great pride starts heading towards the forest for patrolling-a job that he has been doing for the past 25 years. Almost half his life has been spent in these woods.
Considered as the heartland of tigers, CTR is undoubtedly a success story of tiger conservation in India. It boasts of the densest population of wild tigers in the world; the park officials take pride for being able to sustain a healthy tiger population and keep the hope alive for the survival of this noble and great species of India.
By contrast, the real crusaders - forest guards - behind this success story are ignored and doomed to live in extremely sub-human conditions. The forests are fraught with danger. There are animals in the wild, man-eaters sometimes, and also the armed gang of poachers, out to kill the magnificent beast.
For the conservationists and the forest officials, these faceless people are a crucial cog in the wheel for the survival of wild tigers in India. While a wash of money is being pumped into various tiger reserves, these forest guards subsist on abysmally low salaries, lack of basic amenities and bereft of recognition.
Experts reflect that if the fate of these men does not change, the tiger conservation plans in India would not yield any favourable results. "If the base is not strong, how can you expect anything to sustain for a longer period of time," says Ratnakar.
He is one of the several guards who have dedicated their lives to protect the flora and fauna of the forests. He calls the reserve his home and has vowed to save the animal he loves the most. However, he rues that they are considered no more than chowkidars and how successive governments have turned a blind eye to their apathetic state.
Ratnakar accepts the fact that his job is not an easy one and demands lots of sacrifices on a personnel level, but he puts it to his destiny.
He adjusts his khaki cap and wipes off drops of sweat trickling down his forehead before narrating his dincharya (daily chores). For him the day starts at 5:00 am. He cooks a heavy breakfast, which he reckons is sufficient fuel for the whole day. He then heads into the forest on foot. Everyday he covers nearly 2,486 hectares. While patrolling the forests he is focussed on anything that raises suspicion. "In the buffer area we check whether any harm has been done to the forest produce or if there has been any human presence. We look for footprints, bicycle or vehicle tracks and if we do find any of these we follow them to ensure that no harm is being done to either the forest or animals," he informs.According to him, poachers operate between 10:00 pm and 4:00 am and it is this time that the forest and animals are most vulnerable. He follows any unwanted sound that echoes from the forest during these hours.
While patrolling he examines tiger droppings to know what the tiger has eaten, whether the pugmarks are all uniform or is the tiger resting more often than required!
He believes that such information helps him in assessing whether the tiger is in the pink of health or not. Absence of these crucial signs turns him a worried man and he immediately informs his bosses who, in turn, carry out an extensive search to locate the tigers.
Ratnakar has had several encounters with tigers in the wild and can easily recognise the two females and one male that live in his beat area.
Of course, he is not scared of the tiger, except for one incident where he almost lost his life and even decided to quit his job before his colleagues coaxed him back. "In 1986, we were taking some ration to the Sultan rest house in the CTR where I was posted at that time. On our way we saw some movement in a bush and we all thought that it was a wild boar. We didn't pay much heed to it and threw a stone to scare away the animal. Seconds later, a tigress jumped on us. The tigress was coming towards me at a full gallop. I ran and fell in a 30-feet deep ditch and fainted. People accompanying me ran away and thought that the tigress had killed me. One of my colleagues told me that the tigress came very close to me and showed no interest in eating me. I still get nervous when I think about that incident," he narrates.
Ratnakar reckons that the tigers don't attack without provocation. With dreamy eyes he looks towards the forests and tells that the tiger is the most beautiful animal to walk on this planet and his forest.
"We lead a very hard life but we derive solace when we see this great animal moving around in the forests that we guard. These animals are like my own children. It is my duty to care for them and protect them," he says.
However, he does miss for not being with his family who he feels never had his support and guidance. He has two daughters and a son who live in Ramnagar. His children are pursuing their studies to do something different. He reflects that government cares a hoot for the people who guard these forests risking their lives for the safety of the natural resources that are pride of this country.
He rightly remarks, "We are not asking for too much. We need schools, hospitals, better salaries so that we can concentrate on the forest and stop worrying about the future of our families." Ratnakar also mentions how he is still better off than most forest guards who patrol the core area where there is a dearth of water, threat from wild animals and poachers and absolutely no mode of communication. "One of the guards was killed by an elephant in the core area and later his body was eaten away by scavengers. No one knew about it and later on only small patches of his clothes were retrieved," he mentions with grief.
He says that the monsoon season is the most nightmarish as the forest is inundated with water, and it becomes increasingly difficult to patrol it. "We collect rainwater for drinking as everything else contains mud and dirt," he says. But, it is the monsoons when the poachers are active and this makes patrolling even more important. Ratnakar told Hardnews that he has vowed that till the time he is in service, he won't allow a single tiger to be poached from his beat area.
"I have dedicated my life to these forests and its animals; I would not let anyone harm them. These animals are the source of bread and butter for my family and I can't betray them. I just wish that the government could think about us like we think about these animals and forests," he concludes with a smile and walks towards the forest to start a new day in the service to the woods and the striped cat.