In allowing forest staff to fire on poachers, Maharashtra’s stated objective was to protect its tigers. The challenge in meeting that, however, is to curb the means that poachers use on tigers, those working on the ground say.
Forest Minister Patangrao Kadam said last week he had issued orders to provide forest staff with firearms and decided to protect them from criminal proceedings should they use these against people caught poaching or smuggling forest wealth. “Poachers are out for supari killings of 25 tigers,” he told The Indian Express. “Now if we don’t prevent poachers from killing tigers, what are we expected to do? Officers raised the issue of problems faced by them in the field. By shooting freedom, I meant the officers have to take the call proportional to the situation and use guns if the situation warrants it. We will protect them if they have used guns as per prescriptions, and will not protect them if a magisterial inquiry reveals unwarranted firing.”
Some of the supporters of the order have cited the need to contain timber smugglers, who are often armed. Tiger poachers, on the other hand, never use guns, said Nitin Desai, Central India director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. This is because bullet holes would make the tiger skin unfit for the target market.
“The ground-level staff need basic training in understanding how poachers work,” said Desai. “Poachers have generations of knowledge of how to finish off a job without getting noticed. They are not only experts in locating tigers but also thorough in understanding tiger behaviour, with contacts for intelligence and active help from locals.”
Saving the tiger
“Training is key,” said principal secretary (forest) Pravin Pardeshi. “We have recruited nearly 1,200 new guards. All are being trained in foot patrolling with experienced guards and through training schools.” He stressed the need to involve local people in vigilance.
Of all animals poached, only two in every 10 are shot dead. According to the findings of the WPSI, which works with states across the country, four in 10 animals are killed by electrocution, two by trapping and the remaining two by poisoning.
Electrocution can be curbed only with joint monitoring by the forest and electricity departments. “[It] should lead to immediate tripping of electricity and the location should be easily found by electricity officials,” Desai said. “But in many cases tripping doesn’t happen, putting a question mark over how technically foolproof electrical installations are.” He cited the recent electrocution of leopards at Pench, over which the forest department has registered offences against Mahavitaran, the distribution agency.
Mechanical traps are not difficult to locate, said principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) S W H Naqvi. “Forest guards can use a stick they can go about tapping along the trail to detect traps.” But Kishore Rithe of Satpuda Foundation said, “The department has been donated metal detectors for iron traps but hardly uses them.” Poonam Dhanwatey of TRACT, or Tiger Research and Conservation Trust, suggested having many waterholes instead of a few, which would give tigers options and deny poachers an easy kill at a select spot.
Poisoning is done mostly by villagers to protect their cattle from carnivores, besides their crops from herbivores. The prescription is to make fodder available in villages, which would prevent cattle movement into forests and leave enough for the herbivores there.
B Majumdar, former principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), cited another problem. “Most tiger deaths have happened outside reserves, in buffer areas where wildlife management remains neglected,” he said. “A penchant for focusing on source areas has taken a heavy toll on tigers, which know no boundaries and have come to stay and grow as source populations in areas the National Tiger Conservation Authority loves to call ‘sink’, in a sense meaning doomed.”
Timber smugglers are among those who do carry arms. Said Pardeshi, “... Some staff pointed out [at a meeting with the minister] that in Gadchiroli, armed gangs are resorting to teak smuggling from across the border, and in Yawal (Jalgaon), land-grab mafia is systematically setting fire to and encroaching upon on forests.”
Divisional Forest Officer Shri Laxmi’s team has been battling armed smugglers in Sironcha, Gadchiroli. “We need the power to fire and immunity at least as a deterrent. Large gangs armed with axes, spears and boulders routinely challenge us to fire at them,” she told The Indian Express. “They throw boulders at us and our men routinely get injured... They have denuded vast patches of forest and the government is losing teak worth Rs 5 crore annually. How do I do enforcement without a gun and the power to use it?”
Arrests are not always a deterrent, with few cases going to court. Other concerns include a nexus between some forest staff and poachers, and a growth in the business of forest animals’ meat. A WPSI note to the forest department in January said meat is now supplied to towns using mobiles and a motorbike delivery system.
Those who welcomed the order included conservationist Bittu Sahgal and NTCA member-secretary Rajesh Gopal. On the other side of the debate, Valmik Thapar, a member of a Tiger Task Force set up for Sariska and Ranthambore, stressed training, while Majumdar, the former principal chief conservator, said, “There are thousands of people moving in the forests. How will you pinpoint who are the poachers? And most of the poachers have no guns. Controlling them without having to fire is possible.”