Forest guards working in different national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across Assam lead a hard life which mostly goes unnoticed. In Kaziranga National Park, the forest guards deployed have a hectic work life with a lot of pressure to protect the one-horned rhinos. But they only ever get attention when rhinos fall prey to poachers and more often than not, they are blamed for not doing enough. To show another side of the conservation story, we speak to one of the guards who is working in Kaziranga to get an insight into the life of a forest guard.
Haren* (name changed) has been working in Kaziranga National Park for more than 20 years. He shares, ‘The responsibility of protection and safety of wildlife vested on the forest guards is huge, because if a single rhino is threatened, it puts tremendous pressure on us, and saving one single rhino is actually a mammoth task.’
Every Day a Challenge
His day starts with an early morning shift. Patrolling is done area-wise by different teams assigned for different areas. ‘We walk in 20-30 km radius for suspected activities. The primary job is to keep an eye on any kind of poaching activities. Also, we need to keep track of the movement of animals.’ During all this, it’s difficult for Haren and his mates to actually find time to eat in peace. ‘We do not have a proper timetable for our meals. Our life is always in a hurry.’ It’s even more fast-paced after the sun sets. ‘Mostly during the night, we keep receiving alerts about poaching, and we need to reach the zone we have been informed about immediately. Ambush is kind of a regular activity in the park,’ said Haren. Unlike what the media may say, forest guards actually treat every poacher alert as a ‘do or die’ situation. They have to hurry to get to the most vulnerable places in the park where most ambushes takes place. Even villagers in the fringe areas are called into the action to give the guards a hand.
If that wasn’t challenging enough, they also need to be on alert when the park is flooded. When the park is filled with water, patrolling is done outside. The rescue teams with specially trained guards even have to travel to the interiors as chances of poaching increases inside the park. ‘Veterinary doctors and volunteers from NGOs work with us during the floods.’
It can be said that you need the right gear to defeat a powerful enemy, and so it is heartening to see that the frontline forest guards are provided with sophisticated arms consisting of 272 INSAS rifles, 954 self-loading rifles, 133 12-bore pump action guns, 209mm pistols and 91 Ghatak rifles. But life-saving gears are woefully missing. ‘Basic life-saving gear like helmets, and bullet-proof jackets are not provided to us,’ lamented Haren.
Adapting to the Environment
Haren wasn’t always a forest guard, he used to be part of the Assam Police Forces Department. ‘Not everyone can work in forest and wildlife. It is physically tough, and at the initial stage, it is tough to cope. We need to traverse all sorts of terrain, irrespective of the weather. Though the life of a forest guard is hard, we have become accustomed to it.’
There are four camps in the interior and exterior of the Park. The guards are often shifted from inside to outside, switching up their job roles. The security forces in Kaziranga comprises of forest guards, forces from the Assam battalion and home guards. More or less, the job role and responsibilities are the same.
Haren, may not have chosen this career path but after having spent so much time close to nature and wildlife, he has become attached to both. ‘Working as forest guards for many years, we feel more connected to wildlife. It is indeed a privilege to work here as it is a World Heritage Site. We have also become attuned to the behaviour of animals. We can feel the instincts of the animals and can recognize their distinct odours. We choose our directions depending on their directions,’ informs Haren.
Silver Lining on the Horizon?
For the guards to actually be able to protect the rhinos and other wild animals inside Kaziranga, they need more manpower. ‘We need more people to function properly. We work double shifts due to the lack of manpower. And at times, it gets very difficult to cover the entire region. Also, the camps we stay at were constructed years back. It is time to renovate the same.’
In order to bring down poaching, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal recently asked the Forest Department to provide better uniform to the forest guards and also give them training on how to tackle poachers and use modern arms.
Aside from minimal facilities and low remuneration, the forest guards who work in Kaziranga are hardly given any importance. Haren reveals that he does not even get to see his family on festivals. Another colleague admits that it does get monotonous at times. ‘There is no system of transfer for us. Working in the same place for so long makes it dull. If we can get transferred to new workplaces, it might help keep the guards motivated.’
Haren also feels that forest guards need to be appreciated more. ‘Though it is a good place to work, there should be enough facilities provided to the forest guards. We too have families to look after.’
Despite the low pay and numerous challenges, they continue to protect the animals. These wildlife warriors are not doing their job to earn a million likes on Facebook or become famous, they are in the park, come rain or shine, to ensure that no harm comes to the innocent animals under their watch. Numerous forest guards have protected the park and after they retire, there will be others who will follow suit. It is important that we do not forget their contribution towards conservation and give them their due importance because being a forest guard is a thankless job but it shouldn’t be, not anymore!
*the name of the guard has been changed to protect his identity