Assam reinforces its frontline forest protection force with trained women guards..
Ratna Bharali Talukdar
For Swarnalata B. Baruah, a 26-year-old widow, the decision to join Assam's Department of Environment and Forests to serve as its frontline staff was not easy. Five years ago, her husband, Babul, an employee of the Kaziranga National Park (KNP), had died in a horrific incident when an aggressive rhino attacked him inside the Park.
But with a six-month-old baby boy to look after, the young woman had to overcome her trauma and support herself by working as a casual employee at the Park. Today, however, she is a proud member of the first batch of women foresters and forest guards recruited by the Department. She is posted as a forest guard at the KNP, which not only boasts the unique one-horned rhino but also has the highest density of tigers in the world.
As many as 21 women foresters and 35 women forest guards are currently working in different wildlife divisions in Assam, thanks to the Forest Department's move to recruit 30 per cent women in all posts. Says Ritesh Bhattacharya, Director, Assam Forest School, Guwahati, “It's for the first time women are being recruited as frontline staff. We have also arranged for experts from the Assam Forest Protection Force, National Security Guard Assam Police and Assam Olympic Association to provide our women recruits training in physical fitness, arms bearing, yoga and martial arts.”
This is in addition to rigorous classroom training in Wildlife Management, Forest Engineering and Social Forestry. The women have also been given the opportunity to interact with wildlife experts, legal experts and even with Union Environment and Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh, when he recently visited the State.
Young, energetic, educated and equipped with the latest GPS technology, these women are now part of a 6,000-strong Forest Department which until recently appointed mainly male senior personnel.
“When the Department announced that it was going to recruit 30 per cent women as frontline staff, I instantly decided to grab the opportunity. This jungle bears memories of my husband — of my married life that lasted barely 18 months. My son is now six years old, and fortunately I have received family support so he does not feel lonely while I am on duty,” says Swarnalata, dressed in the trademark khaki uniform of frontline staff, as she patrols the jungle with four women colleagues.
Trained and equipped, Swarnalata and her colleagues are ready to fight any threat. The challenges are many: There is widespread poaching of the endangered rhinos and other animals, apart from endless man-animal conflicts caused by animals straying into human habitations in search of food. Illegal encroachment of forestland, illegal fishing and domestic animals being led into the Park for grazing are the other problems. These women have to keep track of the movement of animals that migrate in groups, and ensure a safe passage for them. When the Brahmaputra River and the water bodies inside the Park swell during the rainy season, floods are a common occurrence and the animals cross the National Highway No. 37, which passes through the Park, to make their way to the surrounding hills.
“This is not like any other profession with fixed duty hours. Away from our families, we perform round-the-clock duty as and when required, moving in the forest with the GPS in hand, protecting the wildlife,” says Bibha Sonowal, 25, a forester in the Bagori range. As she says this, she tightens her grip on her rifle as if to underline her commitment to the tasks at hand. Bagori, incidentally, is the most resource-rich range in the KNP in terms of density of animal resources per square kilometre.
Reaching out to villagers
Sisters Anita, 26, and Namita Das, 29, who are forest guards, are happy to belong to the Forest Department. Thanks to their new job, they can now take the interest-free loans offered by the Department to buy computers. Both girls are graduates from a local college.
While the new recruits have taken up challenging assignments inside the jungle, Dibyadhar Gogoi, the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of KNP, is busy designing innovative programmes to make the best use of their potential. As a first step, the Park authorities have got the women involved in Eco Development Committees (EDC), formed along the lines of joint forest management programmes for people living in the surrounding villages.
Says Gogoi, “The authorities have identified 110 villages for the EDC programme to design livelihood opportunities for the people residing in fringe areas. Around 55 EDCs have been formed since 2008. The idea is to involve 50 per cent of the village women and generate livelihood opportunities through self-help groups. We hope our female squad will help initiate livelihood opportunities for the village women.”
Provision of alternative livelihood opportunities in villages has proved successful in checking rhino poaching in KNP. According to Gogoi, the number of rhinos killed by poachers came down to six in 2009 against 16 in 2007. He hopes that with the involvement of women guards, anti-poaching measures will be strengthened.
Kaziranga is home to the largest number of rhinos in the world. It is estimated to have 2,048 rhinos, besides 1,937 wild buffaloes, 1,293 wild elephants and 681 of the last surviving species of swamp deer. All these animals are susceptible to poaching. The one-horned rhinos are targeted for their horn, the deer and buffaloes for meat, and the elephants for ivory. Involving women in anti-poaching activities has become necessary, particularly while conducting search or raid operations, as the female relatives of poachers act as accomplices.
Safeguarding forest resources
The conservation of rhinos here — which has been billed as the century's biggest success story — has also been challenging largely due to an increase in the surrounding population and human activity, including tea cultivation and agriculture on the periphery of the Park's southern boundary. The constant erosion caused by the Brahmaputra on the northern boundary has also created new problems. As part of the conservation efforts, five women foresters and forest guards have been appointed EDCs in the Ghorakati area of the Burapahar Range, which is inhabited by the Karbis, a hills tribe.
Gogoi, in fact, considers the present number of women recruits as inadequate, given the magnitude of the tasks involved in managing the Park — from monitoring its vast animal resources to overseeing tourist activity. At present the Park has 562 workers, of which only 347 constitute the frontline staff.
Even as KNP authorities sketch innovative programmes for their female force, another five women forest guards have been assigned to the Borajan anti-poaching camp in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Tinsukia district of upper Assam. The area is home to the endangered Hollock Gibbon, the only ape species found in South-East Asia, according to Arup Das, DFO, who is in charge of the Assam Forest Guard School, Makum.
With these resolute women guarding the greens, conservation efforts have received a boost. But it is Sayarani Das, 28, who cherishes the most enchanting dream. A postgraduate in English, who has been appointed as forester in Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary, she says, “My passion to serve in the wild has pushed me to join the Department. I also want to pursue a course in Wildlife Management. I expressed my desire to Union Minister Jairam Ramesh during our interaction. He instantly agreed and assured me that he would facilitate it. I am waiting eagerly for the day when the Department sends me to pursue the course. I am determined to prove myself as a forester.”
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