In a few minutes, the sun will go down over the hills around, its reflection in the water receding. Chella (name changed to protect privacy), 54, watches the horizon as he sits on a rock in the forests of Naniyala of Ramakuppam mandal in Chittoor district. There are swashes of red across the now yellow-orange sky. The forest watcher looks in the direction of Tamil Nadu, at the trees silhouetted against the landscape, the dry deciduous forest now green after the rains. It’s been 20 years of work, without a holiday — no weekend, no Deepavali. At any time now, he hopes he’ll get a call, saying he can go home.
Hit by malnutrition after years of toil in the Koundinya Wildlife Sanctuary that is spread over about 360 sq km, coupled with the adverse effects of alcohol, he believes he is fit enough to work a few more years in the dangerous job of chasing away herds of wild elephants back into the wilderness of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
Employed by the State Forest Department, he and 25 other base camp watchers or trackers in the Ramakuppam mandal of the Kuppam forest range, drive away elephants that often pillage fields or attack habitations for food. They also keep the pachyderms away from ground-level transformers and low-slung overhead exposed cables installed by the Southern Power Distribution Company Limited (SPDCL), the government electricity department.
The men, in their late 40s, belong predominantly to the Scheduled Tribe communities of Yenadis and Yerukulas, originally forest dwellers. Together, they cover the vast area of the sanctuary.
Dreamers and doers
The previous night, Chella’s wife had repeated her week-long request: “Don’t forget to bring money to buy provisions.” The image of a 10-year-old grandson with torn shoes flashes across his mind. The one-year-old promise to replace them with a new pair comes next. Then the guilt. And the helplessness.
He also remembers an old dream of his youth to go to Delhi. Now, that is “impossible”, on second thoughts, “not even necessary”. Suddenly he gets a call on the mobile from his boss, a senior forest watcher, also a temporary worker. “You can’t go home yet. We have to finish the job of driving back a new herd of elephants tonight.”
Chella feels like quitting right there, but he has mouths and an addiction to feed. His tired body prepares for an extra 10 hours of a high-risk assignment. He has already been up and on duty since 6 a.m.
During the peak harvest, during both the rabi and kharif season, and on hot summer days when the temperature can soar to 42 degrees Celsius, the workforce stands guard. It’s a dangerous job — keeping at bay more than a 100 wild elephants, including loners, bachelors, and herds, that raid from all directions from the forests of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
The sanctuary, also called the Koundinya Elephant Project, came into existence in 1990 and is spread across Kuppam, Ramakuppam, Gudupalle, V. Kota, Baireddipalle, Palamaner, and Bangarupalem mandals of Chittoor district. For a decade now, the wild herds have forayed further — towards Punganur, Yadamarri, Puthalapattu, Irala, Sadum, Somala, and Tavanampalle mandals of the district.
There is an old adage that speaks about the greatness of the pachyderms: an elephant whether dead or alive is worth ₹1 crore. In reality, when an elephant dies, mostly due to electrocution, it gets buried in a giant pit and is forgotten about by dusk. The forest watchers have a bond with the wild elephants though, because “they give us food, clothes, and a status in society,” says Chella.
In the last 12 years, more than 20 wild elephants have escaped the surveillance of the forest watchers, to meet their horrifying end by electrocution. Each time a casualty takes place, the watchers are anguished, and demand that their numbers be expanded. “We have just got two legs to run in the vast forests,” says one. A revelation of his name would mean he could lose his job.
Narayana, a 75-year-old former tracker in Ramakuppam mandal, says when he first saw a migrating elephant in the area in the 1980s, he sensed their numbers would grow. “I felt our area would become like the Mudumalai sanctuary or Kodaikanal elephant valley, and that youth of Kuppam mandal would get jobs in the forest department,” he says. “From one elephant, their presence grew to more than 200 in four decades, but we have not got even one government job. Instead, there are just two dozen temporary jobs, which are given at the whims and fancies of top officers,” he adds, with a sarcastic laugh.
Kannan (name changed), 48, talks about the tragic death of three wild elephants on the Chittoor-Bengaluru national highway at Jagamarla village near Palamaner on June 15. “Until a couple of hours before the tragedy, we were observing the movement of a herd along the highway. We were just seven members, so we thought that as usual they would cross the road and move to the other side. But, they continued right in the middle of the road. Due to utter darkness and the stretch being a curve, they faced road rage and were rammed by a truck. Their deaths made us speechless,” he says.
The watcher life
Over the last five years, three watchers have been killed on duty by violent attacks from elephants. Their kith or kin took over the job; nothing changed for them. Many times, they are injured, and while treatment at the government hospital is free, they are not entitled to special care in corporate hospitals with better facilities.
A majority of the watchers admit that liquor has become part and parcel of their jobs. Each watcher earns about ₹11,000 a month, for work seven days a week. “Since we are not permanent employees, we have no fixed hours. Our regular timings are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. In case of emergencies, like the movement of herds close to fields and human habitations, we do 24-hour shifts very often,” says one watcher.
“We have to arrange for our food, petrol for transport, and footwear for safety,” he says, adding that repeated appeals for shoes have been ignored. “It is not fun to chase away giant wild elephants in wild environments without shoes,” said the 35-year-old watcher from Kuppam mandal.
Watchers compare their kits to those of their counterparts in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. “There, the watchers get shoes funded from personal or specially raised money. They are also supplied with liquor bottles during action time. Some rich landlords also help the watchers in cash or kind,” he added.
A Kuppam-based journalist, Lakshmi Narayana, whose friendship with the elephant watchers dates back to the 1990 when the Koundinya Sanctuary came into being, recalled an escapade in the early days of the first batch of watchers.
“Two decades ago, the watchers reached a valley near Kuppam with great difficulty because of the terrain. A 28-member herd of elephants was camping there, moving closer to the surrounding villages. It was around noon. In a foolish act, one among us flashed a torch at them. In a split second, they dashed toward us. We ran uphill, climbed a 6-foot-high rock. The elephants surrounded us and trumpeted through the night, trying to get us with their trunks. A rescue team from Kuppam arrived at dawn, and we were somehow saved,” he says.
Following similar escapades, the watchers were given crude training: never to wear white clothes, never to run in a straight line when an elephant attacks, but run sideways; never to climb a mound or hill, but to move towards slopes as the animals can easily trek up hills.
Except for these tricks, the watchers received no further knowledge from the forest department. Over the years, the watchers learn the tricks of the trade from their own experiences and by observing the behavioural pattern of elephants. As they age, they share their experiences with their kith and kin, so they can take over the job.
On one hand, they’re proud of their knowledge, on the other, “We don’t know why we are working with no happiness in our families. Our children and grandchildren don’t get to study beyond class X. They end up as migrant workers in neighbouring States, or take on our jobs when we retire or die on the field,” said a watcher.
A 60-year-old farmer watcher in Palamaner range lamented that at present none of his three sons and a daughter care for him. “During my stint with the forest department for over two-and-a-half decades, I did nothing for my children, except for feeding them. Now, I have no moral right to demand any support from them,” he says.
Heads and tails
Responding to the woes of the field staff, Forest Range Officer (Kuppam) Y.C. Reddy admitted that there is a shortage of the force. “We need an additional force of at least 15 more watchers in our range alone. Our men are the best, with a decade or two of experience. When casualties occur, their kin are given compassionate placements,” he says.
Reddy says that a batch of watchers approached Andhra Pradesh Minister for Forests P. Ramachandra Reddy during his recent visit to Kuppam, with a plea for enhancement of their wages and other benefits in case of casualties. “This has to be dealt with at the higher level,” Reddy said.
The forest official said that electric fencing work and new trenches were under way at stretches along gaps abutting the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka forests. “Once these are complete, the movement of herds will be controlled,” he said. He says that it was true that the watchers in their 50s would be asked to leave. “We take all care to see that the watchers are agile. We can’t allow them to face the risks with sagging energy levels,” he said.
The sun has set over the Koundinya Wildlife Sanctuary. The sounds of insects and a rain-fed waterfall cascading down rocks can be heard in the darkness. Chella prepares for the next 10 hours. He takes a swig of liquor, and waits.
“Since we are not permanent employees, we have no fixed hours. Our regular timings are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. In case of emergencies, we do 24-hour shifts very often”A watcher
“We need an additional force of at least 15 more watchers in our range alone. Our men are the best, with a decade or two of experience. ”Y.C. Reddy Forest Range Officer (Kuppam)