Fire in the mountain, Run Run Run!

In 2012, while trekking in the mountains of Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) over a span of 3 days, I got to interact with several forest officials and locals. They shared with me their eventful and uneventful days whilst patrolling the forest as part of the Anti-Poaching watchers Squad. One such experience they shared left me thinking of the plight of our forest guardians.

Shaktivel, a forest guard, told us of the time when he was scaling this very same peak (that we were trekking) with Karrapuayya, a local, a few years back. As members of the Anti-Poaching Watchers (APW) squad, they were scouting for any illegal activity that may be happening in the peaks. It was around mid-day when they heard some sawing and crunching noise from one area. Karrapuayya who knew the forest well, asked Shaktivel to come from one side and he himself would enter from the other side, thus surrounding the source of sound. Karrapuayya was correct in guessing that there were timber smugglers in that location and they were cutting down trees from the reserve without permission. On carefully and silently reaching the place, armed with nothing but their sticks, Shaktivel and Karrapuayya sprang at the two men who were logging down the tree. Seeing them, the two smugglers fled. A chase followed and the smugglers were out-running the forest guards.

The smugglers had managed to reach a safe distance from the Karrapuayya and Shaktivel when he lit a match and threw it in the dry grass below. A fire broke and Karrapuayya and Shaktivel started running downhill. The fire spread and the wind caused this spread to increase multi-fold. They ran for their lives but were no match for the fire…They reached a rocky patch (just like the one we were resting on, while he told me this story) and occupied the centre of that rock. The surface area of the rock was approximately 10 feet by 10 feet. They sat shrivelled at the centre surrounded by fire. Shaktivel distinctly remembered thinking that he would be facing death that day…they removed their shirts since it would catch fire by the passing wind carrying fire.

The rock patch we rested on, while Shaktivel narrated his story.

They remained like that for several hours before the forest around them had been burnt out and the fire subsided. Till this day, Shaktivel and Karrapuayya say that they are thankful for that rocky patch. If it were not for that patch, they would have been burnt alive. The smugglers of course escaped.

Kalakkad, according to locals, is lucky since it does not face hard core poaching activities like other reserves in India. When asked, how come poaching is not that prevalent, they said:

Poaching usually requires local help. And the local communities here are rivals. If an individual from one community is involved with such poaching activity, members from the opposite community immediately would call out the involvement of the rival community person to the forest officials. In this way, poaching is kind of kept in check.

As told by the Forest Guards

But despite that, timber-smuggling does happen in these hills. Often the smugglers come from outside [of this region] also. Since the money involved is very high, expert climbers are sought after, who scale these mountains, saw-down trees and carry them on foot! (A recent incidence reported here). The forest officials told us that their own ability was nothing compared to those smugglers.

Imagine, climbing and getting down this steep mountain path carrying tree barks on you. And here we are, armed with nothing but a bamboo lathi that we make themselves. We are no match for these super human people, who also sometimes carry knives and guns.

Shaktivel

In order to keep poaching at bay, the forest department have also employed members of the local tribe, the Kani Tribe. They accompany the forest department’s patrolling team and report signs of poaching/ illegal activity in the forest. They also help in building permanent base camps at several locations which are nestled in the highly inaccessible forests of KMTR.

A typical representative of KMTR’s Shola Forest habitat: Grassy hills interspersed with dense forests.

Forest officials make a trip every 3-5 days, in rotation. The guards lodge at the campsites and patrol the hills at intervals thus maintaining a vigil watch for almost all around the year, for poachers, smugglers and fires!

The conditions they manage in and the pay they receive are precarious. And most often, the tribal members are not offered ‘permanent’ or secure jobs, which leaves them (understandably) upset. The only silver lining is that they receive some support from good Samaritans at Rajapalayam, Bangalore and Mysore. It is dismaying to know that people who risk their lives day in and day out, staying away from families for extended periods and battling the forces of nature and encountering dangerous people while they work- are left to fend for themselves.

References

  1. http://www.ecowalkthetalk.com/blog/2011/09/07/organic-living-culture-of-the-hill-kani-tribe/
  2. http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/131039/8/08_chapter3.pdf
  3. https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-tamilnadu/indian-gaur-population-goes-up-at-kalakkadmundanthurai-tiger-reserve/article3583312.ece
  4. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/flora-fauna/Agasthiarmalai-Reserve-gets-Unesco-honour/articleshow/51584728.cms
  5. https://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/2002/08/26/stories/2002082604260400.htm
  6. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/12-tigers-spotted-in-camera-trap-at-KMTR/article14029916.ece

Note: This note was written a few years back. While I do not know what is the current situation in KMTR, the story shared by them resonates with much of the grievances shared by locals who live around Tiger Reserves in other parts of India, as well.

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My name is Adithi Muralidhar. I am a nature enthusiast based in Mumbai, India.

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