National Forest Martyrs’ Day: What can be done to protect forest guards against armed poachers?

The remoteness of the location helps criminals escape the crime scene, and the law

September 09, 2022 11:27 am | Updated 12:09 pm IST

National Forest Martyrs’ Day is observed every year on September 11 to salute forest guards killed in the line of duty.

National Forest Martyrs’ Day is observed every year on September 11 to salute forest guards killed in the line of duty. | Photo Credit: Anish Andheria

I had raised my hands in surrender, yet he fired at me,” said Satish Shendre over the phone. A forest guard with Maharashtra’s Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF), posted at the Pench Tiger Reserve, he was recounting his close shave with death in October 2014.

Also Read:Martyrs’ Day: a tribute to saviours of the wild

In addition to his STPF duties, Shendre was assigned a beat that abutted the Madhya Pradesh border. One night at the camp, he heard gunshots. He prepared himself for the worst, and waited in the forest for the first rays of the sun.

At daybreak, he and two forest watchers headed in the direction of the State border, and soon heard another gunshot. Following the sound, they came face-to-face with two men carrying shotguns. A chase began. When Shendre was about to apprehend one of them, the man turned and fired. A shrapnel pierced Shendre’s collarbone, and he fell down, bleeding.

Mr. Shendre is lucky to be alive. Another forest guard from neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, Deepu Rana, died in a similar encounter in May 2020.

National Forest Martyrs’ Day is observed every year on September 11 to salute forest guards killed in the line of duty, often by poachers.

A memory stone for forest guard P.D. Majhi

A memory stone for forest guard P.D. Majhi | Photo Credit: Anish Andheria

Preventable deaths

Why is it so easy for a poacher to fire at a forest guard? Part of the answer is the challenge of law enforcement. The remoteness of the location helps criminals escape the crime scene, and the law. Eyewitness testimonies are rare, and witnesses often turn hostile. All this leads to reduced chances of conviction and punishment, emboldening criminals.

Arming forest guards in all protected areas (PAs) is tricky. They are duly armed in rhino and elephant country as they have to tackle armed poachers and scare the large animals away during patrols. However, in other PAs, a gun-toting guard can be perceived to be anti-community, spoiling the relationship between the forest department and the people who live in and around the forest. Forest guards don’t enjoy the same legal protection as police officers, should they use their weapons in the line of duty.

The deaths of forest guards can be prevented. Improved conviction rates and speedy trials leading to strong punishments for wildlife crimes will restore the deterrence value of the law. When the rate of crimes against wildlife goes down, attacks on forest guards will automatically reduce.

Death toll
Forest ranger deaths recorded from June 2021 to May 2022:
Global – 150
Asia – 60
India – 33
Source: International Ranger Federation

“With environmental degradation, poverty and unemployment on the rise, the rate of crime against forest guards is likely to go up,” says Wildlife Conservation Trust president Anish Andheria, who has spent decades studying the life and work of forest guards. “In addition to equipping and training them to face life-threatening situations, if small cameras are fitted into their garments, it would help nab criminals,” he says.

In many instances, the killer or attacker is a repeat offender who has escaped the law several times. Forest guard P.D. Majhi, who was at the forefront of anti-poaching efforts in the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, was shot dead in an encounter with poachers in April 2007. Field biologist and researcher Nandini Velho wrote in  Down To Earth in 2010 that a person employed at the reserve told her that he ‘did not have the heart to go to the market anymore’, as he saw Majhi’s killer in the market. If a forest worker sees the murderer of his coworker roaming free, how secure will they feel about their own life? Securing the lives of these guardians of our forests and biodiversity is going to be an uphill battle. When those who point guns at forest guards start going behind bars, we will have gained some ground.

The writer works with the Wildlife Conservation Trust.

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