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Conservation, Interrupted?

Conservation, Interrupted?

Chandni Gurusrikar stands strong in support of the Cauvery Forest Department as she delineates the circumstances of the shootout that took place between forest staff and suspected poachers in March 2017. Aggrieved by the neglect endured by forest staff in our country, she questions the indifference that those responsible for defending our forests are subjected to.

Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary Photo: Anjali Anantharaman.

The Shootout

Around midnight on March 16, 2017, forest watchers of the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary’s Sangama Range heard gunshots in the forest. Led by a guard, the watchers set out to investigate and soon confronted four suspected poachers.

In the cross-fire that followed, one suspected poacher was killed on the spot while three others fled. A single barrel muzzleloader gun, a sachet of gunpowder and a battery operated head torch were found on the deceased. The bodies of two scheduled animals, a chital and a porcupine, were also recovered from the site.

The following morning a mob entered the forest and violated the crime scene. They took away the gun and the sachet of gunpowder. What followed next was beyond comprehension! An incensed mob, reportedly instigated by local leaders, set fire to five anti-poaching camps, a forest department jeep and other vehicles. They even attacked a police jeep ferrying the Deputy Range Forest Officer (DRFO) and the guard who was present during the shootout incident. Later, a crucial and sensitive check post called Bendagodu was set ablaze and gelatin sticks used for quarrying were ignited to bring the check post down.

Worse still, political pressure and public agitation compelled the police to file a FIR against the DRFO and the guard under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code – culpable homicide amounting to murder.

This action against their colleagues has demoralized the entire range staff. Most of the temporary watchers have abandoned their posts, while several permanent staff including guards from Sangama and Halaguru Ranges, and two other DRFOs have applied for “en mass leave”, seeking transfer from these ranges, citing “unworkable conditions” and “threat to life” as the main reasons. Simultaneously, the sub-divisional Assistant Conservator of Forests (ACF) also put in his resignation, due to his inability to provide security to his staff.

Carcasses of chital and porcupine recovered from the site Photo: Venkatesh T.C.

Issues in the New Landscape

The Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary is the largest protected area in  Karnataka state and covers 1,027 sq. km. over three districts. The sanctuary is a major catchment area for the river Cauvery which flows for 101 km. through it. Home to several unique and threatened species such as the grizzled giant squirrel, four-horned antelope, honey badger and hump-back mahseer, this forest also forms a crucial elephant corridor in the Eastern Ghats, connecting the forests of Bannerghatta to Male Mahadeshwara Hills and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserves. The Cauvery Sanctuary is part of a 2,000 sq. km. Eastern Ghats landscape, pivotal in providing much-needed space to large mammals like elephants, leopards and tigers.

A massive reorganisation in 2012 saw this forest double in size from 510 sq. km. to 1027 sq. km. This meant that most villagers who earlier had access to these reserve forests were now restricted from entering the sanctuary. This change has come at a cost. Regulation of entry, banning of fishing, prevention of logging, the arrest of poachers, establishment of anti-poaching camps and rigorous patrolling have given rise to everyday conflicts between villagers and the department. Though effective protection has ensured a significant increase in the wildlife population, it has also led to human-animal conflict on the forest fringe.

Vanodaya, a Bengaluru based wildlife conservation organisation that works for the protection of this sanctuary,has recorded systematic assaults on forest department staff and destruction of forest department property by angry mobs on several occasions. It has also documented many instances of violence when accidental deaths due to chance encounters between humans and wildlife occurred, when local leaders were arrested for forest offences and when villagers setting fire to the forest were caught.

Forest Department Jeep burned down by protesting villagers
Photo: Vanodaya.

Attacks on Staff:

On November 29, 2014, based on a tip off, watchers surrounded a gang of poachers in the sanctuary. In the ensuing scuffle, Siddaraju, a forest watcher, was shot in his pelvic region. The close proximity of the barrel and the impact of gunpowder set his pelvic region on fire, blowing his buttocks off. Miraculously, he survived.  After undergoing multiple surgeries, he now works as a check post watcher with a disfigured hip.

Working on another tip off, the DRFO in July, 2016 led a team of forest staff into a village and caught a hunter with wild-pig meat. In retaliation, a mob of 70 to 80 villagers assaulted the staff, leaving the DRFO with serious injuries.

The police force, judiciary, media, government departments and a large section of the local society have largely been supportive of the cause of conservation and habitat protection. However, habitual offenders and anti-social elements with access to unconditional political support fuel and exacerbate conflicts between the forest department and the public creating an atmosphere of mistrust.

Guilty as Charged?

Is it not injustice when a government servant acting in the line of duty—defending government property while risking his or her life—is booked for murder? Where is the motivation for the forest staff to save our forests and wildlife if they themselves are vulnerable to legal action when they act in its defense?

Isn’t it time for all top government officials, media, judiciary, NGOs and interested individuals to come together and ensure that a fool proof system  is put in place to  avoid similar situations in the future? If necessary action is not taken, all offenders inside the forest will use their political clout to embroil honest and hard working lower-rung staff in complicated legal battles. India’s forest staff forms the frontline in the defense of our natural resources. Their contribution to India’s security needs to be viewed at par with other national forces such as the army, and violence against them ought to be dealt with seriously.

Speaking to Sanctuary's Anadya Singh about the issue, Advocate Kartik N Shukul said: "Most States have extended the protection under Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code to Forest Officers. If the protection under Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code is applicable to the Forest Officers of the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, in the state of Karnataka, then no prosecution can be initiated against the Forest Officers, since the acts alleged against them were in the discharge of their official duties. In fact, even an FIR cannot be registered against the said officers without the sanction from the appropriate authority. However, if the protection under Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code has not been extended to the Forest Officers, then the Police Authorities shall be at liberty to initiate appropriate action.”

While no arrests have been made so far, a magisterial enquiry into the case is underway. In response to the attacks on the forest department, several conservationists have come forward in support of the forest staff, and appeals have been made to the Assistant Commissioner of Ramanagara District, Karnataka to take all evidence and circumstances into consideration, and ensure a free and fair enquiry into the matter.

Chandni Gurusrikar is the Academic Coordinator for Master's program in Wildlife Biology and Conservation offered in partnership by Wildlife Conservation Society-India and National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru. A committed volunteer at Vanodaya, a Bengaluru based NGO, she has been working towards protecting Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary and resolving conservation conflicts by working with local communities and forest officers.

Author: Chandni Gurusrikar


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