PHOTO ESSAY
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Feature by SASHIDHAR VEMPALA

A passionate wildlifer, in love with nature and wildlife, have travelled extensively through India and Africa with a sense of wildlife purpose. Founder of “The Guardbook”, an organization, which is dedicated towards supporting the forest guards of India. Due to which I work closely with certain tiger reserves supporting the guards in their conservation duties. Through my work, aim to drive a sense of conservation about nature and its precious resources.

HAATHIWAALE: THE FOREST GUARDS

A lot has been spoken about the magnificence of the tiger, and the ever increasing threats faced by this species in its fight for survival. We get 50% of our water from tiger habitats, as half our rivers flow through these habitats, also making the air healthy and breathable for us.

Spanning decades, they have witnessed the changing face of this forest, braving the heat and rain, working long hours and walking forest trails in the service of the tiger and its co-inhabitants.
They are silent guardians of nature, standing guard day and night. Patrolling the length and breadth of the forests, walking many miles collecting data, monitoring camera traps, water holes,  collecting samples, monitoring human interference, mitigating conflict, all this while they walk for 25kms each day, with a stick or an axe in hand. A Forest Guard in India braves many hardships and makes history each day, the only difference is most remain unheard of. These people have been doing this daunting task for decades because they don’t want to let go. They don’t want to give up on nature. In short, they protect what we are destroying the most. 


Photo: Sashidhar Vempala

 

This effort is credit to the forest departments and the handful of brave and determined individuals who have dedicated their lives towards protecting the tiger and the Indian forests. The forest guards of India, work tirelessly day and night in extreme conditions to ensure the safety of our wildlife. Each day, undeterred they set foot in the most daunting environments, to patrol the forests, looking out for poachers, predators, walking long hours in scorching heat, biting cold, and torrential rains. They are the true keepers of the forest and know its secrets, its rivulets, water holes, hiding places, vantage points. They watch over the wildlife, follow their movement, keep away human interference, and protect them from intruders. Their presence in the forest is the reason the tiger still survives.

 

We never give a thought about the people who work day in and day out protecting these last pockets of wilderness. We do not know our favorite reserves beyond our favorite routes and what goes on behind the scenes. We hardly know their lives; their hardships and what they do every day to ensure the tiger and other wildlife are safe in the forest. It is time we recognize their importance and work, and give them the support they deserve. 

 

The guard home or the forest camp is the most simplest of all places. Most basic infrastructure, sometimes no light for them, many still cook on firewood, sleep in the open outside their huts, but still love their jobs. It’s a humbling experience when we get into these camps and check the infrastructure.


Photo: Sashidhar Vempala


One very important wing of the forest guards are the Elephant patrol teams. The team at the camp comprises of 4-5 guards, and 2 elephants. The guards comprise of the mahouts (trainer/master/rider) and the chara-cutters (grass cutters/feeders/keepers). Off the elephants, one is the lead and other which is smaller is the scout. The elephants were brought in when they were small and have grown up getting trained with the guards. They know their language and obey every command. Over time they become family with the elephant. The elephants become the core of their work and their daily routine revolves around it. 2 guards are the keepers and for the keeper, their day starts very early to ready the elephant for the daily patrol. The elephants get dressed for their daily patrol, which lasts starts around 5:30 and lasts till 10:00 am. 



Photo: Gayatri Mathur


The elephants eat from the forests but they are also fed by the guards. Interestingly the elephants eat “roti’s” (baked bread). And these are truly giant ones, 10-15 inches. The roti’s are made with all care and love by the guards on huge tawa’s capable of baking 4-5 roti’s. made only from wheat flour, gram seeds, and salt.



Photo: Sashidhar Vempala


But why do the elephants eat roti’s, when they can forage freely in the forest? The answer lies with the guards. Since the time they have been brought to the camp as babies, they have trained and nurtured these elephants. Twice a day, they feed the elephants and the feeding ritual also includes patting the elephant all over, checking its trunk, ears, eyes, tail and some talks with each other. It reassures the love and the bonding between them and the elephants psychologically remain connected with the camps as well. 


Whether heat or cold, light or dark, dust or rain, they have to get off the protection of the hut and getting into open, irrespective of the weather. Getting into the thicket is not a duty but their own love the animals, to see if their beloved tigress and other animals are safe. The weather only adds to the challenge for them. There are days when the scouting and patrol trips are not at all fruitful and they do not get results for a few days. The anxiety and pressure mounts on them, but one glimpse, and a peep of the tigress or the cubs from the bush takes away all the pain. I have been on patrol trips with the guards and many times I have seen the guards watch the animals from a safe distance and feel extremely elated seeing these animals thrive in their natural environments. Their love for these animals also stems from the fact that they have seen them being born, seen them as babies, and grow into adults and become the protectors of the forests and its animals.


All facts stated and views expressed are by the author and are only for information and reading. The Wild Prints does not own any responsibility to the authenticity of the same and does not subscribe to the views of the author.