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Guns and guards, a lonely vigil

PABITORA WILDLIFE SANCTUARY, 09/08/2010: Rekha (L) and Kabita (R) out for their regular patrolling duty at the Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary in Morigaon district of Assam on August 09, 2010. Rekha and Kabitaare among the 35 women forest guards and 21 women foresters who are currently working in different wildlife divisions in Assam. It is for the first time that the women are being recruited as frontline staff by the Assam Forest Department. Young, energetic, educated and equipped with the latest GPS technology, these women are now part of a 6,000-strong Forest Department staff which until recently appointed mainly senior male personnel. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar   | Photo Credit: Ritu_Raj_Konwar;Ritu_Raj_Konwar - Ritu Raj KOnwar

‘Killing for Conservation’, a recent documentary film on the Kaziranga National Park in Assam by the BBC, has seen the government serving a showcause notice to the BBC and suspending their filming in tiger reserves for five years.

In the documentary, the BBC asserts Kaziranga holds a “dark secret”, that forest guards and staff are “given extraordinary powers”, they learn “ruthless patrolling strategies” and “ambush” — in short, that people are being killed for the conservation of the highly poached flagship species, the Indian one-horned rhino. The documentary alleges there is a ‘shoot at sight’ order in Kaziranga, due to which a host of people have been shot dead by forest guards.

At the heart of the matter is the issue of conservation through guns — and forest guards holding those guns.

Guns and guards

The first thing to be clarified is that unlike what the documentary claims, there is no ‘shoot at sight’ policy in any Indian tiger reserve. The park has a policy of giving limited immunity to guards — the idea is that they should be able to defend themselves in Kaziranga while carrying out their duties.

That is the limit of the “extraordinary powers”. Armed poaching is a constant in Kaziranga, and despite systematic effort and patrolling, poachers still manage to kill rhinos and shoot at forest guards. To reduce the issue of Kaziranga to shooting — or to depict the forest guard as a trigger-happy Rambo as the BBC has done — is to do disservice to the issue.

The difficulties and disempowerment forest guards experience need to be factored into the analysis of an extraordinary situation like Kaziranga, which sees rhinos shot nearly every month (18 were poached last year). Forest guards douse forest fires, often without protection, respond to human-wildlife conflict, walk beats which are bigger than that of a policeman, check illegal mining, combat flooding, plant trees, and deal with poachers who use arms rather than snares.

In Kaziranga, forest guards also face guns apart from these other duties. This does not justify killings. But it begs the question of how much the state is willing to do for them. It would be unfashionable, but not inaccurate, to say that difficulties may be leading forest guards to shoot; this is possibly because of defence rather than indoctrination.

‘Killing for Conservation’ also says villagers, not poachers, have been killed for conservation. It asserts that people have been shot during eviction drives from the national park. Last year, two villagers were killed in an eviction drive. Crucially, these shots were fired by policemen. While they were done for the purpose of securing habitat, the method was not prescribed by conservation. Policemen shooting at unarmed protesters tragically occurs throughout the country, it is not dictated by conservation or specifically by the ‘Kaziranga model of conservation’.

The real issue still burns

If we are to start solving some of conservations problems, we must stop reducing them to just gun battles. The state of stress in Kaziranga is different from that of other reserves, but sadly the problems faced by the forest guards are the same.

Many personnel in uniform — policemen, paramilitary forces, army men — have a tough time, and may be feeling demotivated or isolated. But the forest guard stands out in that his or her work is far from the public or societal gaze — or acceptance. There are barely any witnesses to forest fires being put out, or averting the illegal killing of an animal. In the case of policemen or army men, ‘supreme’ sacrifices are depicted in an institutionalised manner, and through a consumable ceremony — a bust, a medal, a commemoration, a plaque — all state-sponsored.

Very few legends are created for forest guards. Protected areas are low on state priorities — and most tiger reserves run for all purposes on centrally sponsored funding. The levels of demoralisation in forest staff — even upwards of forest guards — are very high, compounded by the poor infrastructure they inherit.

In February this year, 28-year-old Murigeppa Tammangol was fighting a fire in Bandipur National Park. Forest guard Murigeppa died while trying to douse the flames. He didn’t appear to have equipment — he was reportedly stomping out the fire. Three of his colleagues were injured.

The forest guard needs support. He or she needs guns, but also an institutional mechanism that will empower her more than a token arm. As it is wrong to judge Kaziranga’s conservation efforts only on the numbers of rounds fired, it would also be wrong to imagine just a gun empowers a forest guard.

Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal

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