Chimmony, Kerala : The Chimmony Wildlife Sanctuary is a speck on Kerala’s map, a 'Protected Area' spread across 100 sq km of the Western Ghats in the Nelliyampathy slopes of Thrissur district. Its forest-filled terrain is rich with animals and birds, ranging from majestic elephants and tigers to diminutive beetles and frogs. Wildlife enthusiasts have recorded sightings of as many as 142 species of birds and 160 species of butterflies here, and though the sanctuary is nowhere as famous as Ranthambhore or even its state counterpart Thekkady, the diversity of animal and plant life to be found in its forests is unmistakable.

For an area declared as a 'protected' one by the central government -- on the basis of a recommendation by the state government -- way back in 1984, Chimmony woefully lacks protection. There aren't enough guards to patrol its expansive borders and poaching is common. With its relative obscurity comes inadequate funding, even though its well-known counterparts are able to bask in the attention of organisations such as the World Bank. Combined with political interference in the running of the sanctuary — a given in almost all protected areas in Kerala — the forest officials are having a tough time ensuring that this animal territory remains solely with its rightful owners.

Unguarded forests

Sources in the state's forest department reveal that officially, not a single forest guard has been appointed for Chimmony. All the forest guards are state government employees (the sanctuaries are under the jurisdiction of the state government), with only the higher rung Indian Forest Service officers being part of central government cadre. Currently, four guards from the Peechi Wildlife Sanctuary, which runs contiguous to Chimmony, have been deputed to do the job. However, as a forest guard says, "We don't have any housing quarters here. Unless there are some basic facilities, how are we expected to patrol the sanctuary?"

Pic: Deepa A A 10 sq km lake in the Chimmony sanctuary. Pic: Deepa A.

As a result, the guards say they make only occasional visits to the sanctuary, and admit even these are ineffective because of three factors. One, four is an inadequate number of guards for an area spanning 100 sq km, full of dense forest cover and difficult terrain. A lake makes up 10 sq km in the middle of the sanctuary. The sanctuary shares a border on one side with private rubber estates and settlements. Once a poacher reaches a rubber estate, it is easy for him to hide from the guards. Therefore, "We need at least 10-25 people to do the job properly," says a senior forest guard, who requested his name not be used.

Two, the guards say they usually have only one gun between them, an old model that is inferior to the state-of-the-art firearms that most poachers flaunt. Due to lack of funds, they also do not have equipment for communication, and often end up being cut off from the rest of the world while facing armed poachers.

Three, forest officials claim the laws about firing at poachers are loaded against them. As a senior official in the forest department explains, "Guards are allowed to use weapons against poachers in self-defence. However, this is followed by an elaborate enquiry about the reasons for firing at poachers, and on most occasions, forest officials are needlessly victimised." The police department, which conducts the enquiry, often adopts a line of questioning that forces forest guards to conclude that they are better off not stopping poachers, he adds. "The whole process needs to be simplified," emphasises the official.

The politics of poaching

Poachers, admits a forest guard, are emboldened because they know very well that Chimmony lacks adequate protection, and that the guards themselves don't have the weapons or the wherewithal to stop them. While the larger elephants such as elephants and tigers have been spared up till now, the poachers usually target animals such as the wild boar, gaur or sambar for meat.

"In four towns close to Chimmony — Angamali, Chalakudy, Mangala and Vadakkancherri — there are actually clandestine markets for wild meat,” says a forest official. "This is an organised network of people, and there are one or two gangs who do the hunting in the sanctuary. The meat is transported to the markets by another group, while a third group does the selling." Someone with the 'right contacts' will be able to get in touch with the person selling the meat to buy it. "The selling is usually done in early mornings," says the official. The meat of hunted animals (called vetta erachi in Malayalam) is considered tastier, which explains the demand for it. It is much more expensive than regular meat.

Forest officials say the gangs comprise "well-networked" individuals, or in other words, people with political connections, who have more often than not made monetary contributions to a political party. "It is common for us to receive calls immediately after we nab a poacher," says one official. "It will be from a minister, or a local party leader, telling us that the poachers are from their party and hence should be freed, and that we should not register any case against them." They are even asked to return the vehicles they have confiscated from poachers.

Resisting such calls isn't easy. Those who do not comply are targetted with the ultimate weapon in the hand of politicians: transfers. "Transfers in the department are notoriously arbitrary. Ideally, a wildlife warden should be allowed to spend some time in a particular area, to get familiar with the region, to work towards its betterment. But that never happens, as transfers are always on the whims and fancies of politicians," says another senior official.

Court notes harassment threat

While hearing an anticipatory bail application of the six accused in the Palakkad sandalwood theft case, the Kerala High Court said that it was clear that they had "direct access" to the then forest minister, K P Vishwanathan. Justice K Padmanabhan Nair, who heard the case, even held that the accused would use their connections to harass forest officials if let out on bail.

Soon after the order in February this year, the minister resigned. He has approached the Supreme Court for expunging the remarks made by the High Court.

Also, people have been known to bribe their way into certain posts, and honest wildlife wardens are usually unceremoniously dispatched to ornamental positions where they have little say. In one such recent instance, the Palakkad Conservator of Forests, Amarnath Shetty, who sealed a timber factory run by a politician in Palakkad district — after discovering that it was using illegally felled sandalwood — was shunted out after a false vigilance case was slapped against him. He had to approach the administrative tribunal to get a stay on the order. "There is the very real fear of victimisation even afterwards," says an official.

The big picture

As in most sanctuaries in Kerala, many problems in Chimmony can be traced to attitudinal problems in the forest department. As a wildlife enthusiast who organises expeditions to forests explains, "Most staff members in the forest department aren't keen on conserving nature. For them, it's just a job they have to do to earn money. Ideally, the government should conduct an aptitude test to see if people are really interested in the work before hiring them." (The enthusiast requested to not be named.)

Compounding the problem is the fact that Kerala doesn't have a separate wildlife cadre, with staff exclusively working in protected areas, as in Madhya Pradesh, for example. "In the forest department itself, you will find that most people aren't interested in sanctuaries, that they prefer to work in reserve forests," says a department official. This is because unlike in sanctuaries, there is scope for generating revenue by 'exploiting' reserve forests. "Most Protected Areas, apart from ones that make money from tourism such as Thekkady, don't generate revenue. So these are seen as dead investments," says the official.

It's all about the money

Money, of course, eventually decides how well managed a sanctuary is. In Chimmony, there aren't enough funds to set up housing quarters or to buy vehicles for patrol. John Augustine Nirmal, the wildlife warden of Peechi and Chimmony, says that the annual fund allocation for Chimmony in the year 2004-2005 was Rs 48.38 lakh, of which Rs 33 lakhs was received in hand. The administration had requested for Rs 80 lakhs.

The money would have gone into setting up the infrastructure required by forest officials in Chimmony, including facilities such as housing quarters and vehicles to patrol the forests. A vast sum is spent on working with the indigenous community in the area and in providing monetary incentives to the members. This is important because it has helped to transform protected areas such as the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

At one time, Periyar was known for poaching and illegal felling of trees. Under a programme organised with World Bank funding, the local community was involved in the conservation of forests, and alternative livelihoods — mainly in the eco-tourism sector — were found for a people who were largely dependent on the forest. Many of the erstwhile poachers are now forest guides in Thekkady, and its success story has now achieved legendary status. But, as forest officials point out, it would not have been possible to wean away a community from hunting and scouting for firewood without the funds to offer them alternatives.

Pic: Deepa A Pic: Deepa A.

The silver lining

A similar initiative is underway at Chimmony, modelled on the one in Periyar. An Eco-Development Committee (EDC) is active here with around 80 families of the indigenous Malaya Community as members. It envisages a partnership between the forest officials and the local community to conserve the forests, a key strategy considering the underlying tensions between both parties. The local community usually makes use of the forests for firewood, meat, timber and growing crops, and as the human population increases, it heightens the stress on the forests. The EDC is expected to address these concerns, mainly by making the community an integral part of the conservation process, and by focusing on providing other livelihoods for the people, so that they don't have to rely on forests. In Chimmony, as in other areas, eco-tourism has emerged as one of the main alternatives.

The EDC has an executive committee to manage its affairs, comprising 11 members elected by the tribal community. The committee secretary is always from the local forest department office, and the chairperson from the community. The forest department works in tandem with the EDC, evolving new ways of sustainable development for the community and the area as a whole. Funds are disbursed in the beginning for small projects and activities that the community can take up.

Committee members are actively taking part in implementing the eco-tourism programmes. While Chimmony is not so much on the tourism radar as Thekkady, a start is being made here, with the tribal community members helping out with camping and trekking expeditions in return for monetary payments. The camps are often set up in places that were once used by poachers, and the presence of people also serves as a deterrent to poaching.

Chimmony is not so much on the tourism radar as Thekkady, but a start is being made. Tribal community members are helping out with camping and trekking expeditions in return for payments.
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Other livelihood projects are happening. "In Chimmony, some women knew sewing, so we bought sewing machines for them," says Nirmal. The women have got together now and have set up self-help groups, and they save a certain amount of money every month, specifically to utilise it for a bigger project later.

This year, the community members have been roped in to be 'fire watchers'. Earlier, forest guards would bitterly complain that most forest fires — which cause tremendous damage to the forest — were started off by careless tribal community members looking for wood or water. Now, at least five groups of the community members patrol the forests, trying to prevent fires. Not only are they aware of the damages caused because of the fires, they are also active in literally stamping out sparks. As a result, the sanctuary has seen lesser incidences of forest fires this year, says Nirmal. Moreover, the 'fire watchers' are able to keep a lookout for poachers and thereby reduce poaching incidents. The watchers are paid amounts comparable to government fixed daily wages, around Rs 175 per day per person.

What lies ahead

The success of an EDC, or for that matter a conservation effort, lies not just with the people involved, but also the person at the helm of affairs. "The success of the Periyar project was not just because of the availability of funds, but also because there was a team of dedicated officers who put in their best efforts," says an official organising eco-tourism projects in Protected Areas. In sanctuaries where the top honchos are disinterested, it still hasn't taken off, point out wildlife enthusiasts.

In a situation where there is little government regulation, involving the local community seems to be the only way to conserve forests such as Chimmony. But even for this, adequate funding is necessary and politicians need to follow a hands-off policy when forest officials deal with poachers. It's a tall order, but for the sambar and the mouse deer to be safe in their own homes, it may be the only way out.