Heroes of the Wild Frontiers: Krishnendu Bose documents lives, challenges of India's forest guards.
Sep 21, 2019 09:46:26 IST
An Indiaspend report published in May 2018 noted that India accounted for nearly 31 percent — 162 of 526 — ranger deaths in the world; it was, the report noted, “one of the world’s deadliest countries for forest rangers”. In an article for The Guardian, Sean Willmore, president — International Ranger Federation, and founder-director for The Thin Green Line Foundation, wrote: “...two to three rangers die each week in the line of duty...in the last decade, more than 1,000. About 65-70 percent of those who die are murdered by poachers seeking to steal our collective heritage.”
It is these forest rangers — the unsung heroes of the wild — who are the subjects of acclaimed wildlife documentary filmmaker Krishnendu Bose's latest docuseries, Heroes of the Wild Frontiers. It has been shot in some of India’s most beautiful wildlife habitats including Kaziranga National Park (Assam), Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park (Andaman), Hemis National Park (Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir), Pakke Tiger Reserve (Arunachal Pradesh), Sundarban National Park and the elephant corridors surrounded by Apalchand, Gorumara and Chaprami forests in North Bengal.
Bose has been working extensively in the field over the past 25-30 years, making wildlife conservation films. “I have come across people who, despite their repository of knowledge, experience and behaviour, get no recognition at all. People don’t even know they exist. When we talk about tiger numbers in India rising to 3,000, people rejoice, but none of them knows why they [the big cats] are still there,” he says.
Despite having made several wildlife documentaries in India, filming Heroes of the Wild Frontiers was an eye-opener for Bose. He spent nearly six months living with them closely. “Their work is almost 24*7,” Bose says. “One of them told me he couldn’t go to his child’s annaprashan [a ceremony where a toddler is fed rice for the first time]. Then, there was another guard who told me his father had passed away but he couldn’t go unless his superiors permitted him leave to complete his father’s last rites. At the same time, there were also some funny stories which resulted from living so deep inside the forests and not going home for months altogether. There was this forest guard whose wife thought he was having an affair, and that caused some serious tension at home!”
There are provisions for families to stay with the guards within the forests, but many choose not to. As one of the forest guards pointed out: “Where will my children go to study? They will remain uneducated.” So their families usually live in the nearest city or town, while the guards stay in the forest quarters alone.
The high-risk, low-paying job profile means that almost 70 percent of the positions in the forest department remain vacant. Additionally, the insurance schemes or governmental protections are almost negligible. As a result, a number of daily wage contract labourers are employed to make up for the lack of manpower. At times, over-qualified candidates apply due to the dearth of other opportunities, but the hardships mean they quit within months.
In a June 2017 article, the Hindustan Times reported how several NGOs have stepped in to support these forest guards in the wake of any untoward accident, injury or death. “In 2017, World Wildlife Fund-India launched an ex-gratia scheme for frontline staff in partnership with ICICI Prudential and has partnered with Apollo Hospitals to provide medical treatment to guards and other forest staff on a case-by-case basis. The Wildlife Trust of India also has an ongoing ex-gratia scheme, which was launched in 2001 and has benefited 115 families in 23 states,” says the report, while noting that many of these schemes are limited in scope.
“At the macro level, the environment, forests etc get very little investment from the government. It is not a current or recent phenomenon, this has been a general observation,” says Bose.
According to Bose, most of the forest guards he interacted with during the course of filming the docuseries, were locals. They had their houses either just at the periphery of the park or in the nearest villages/towns around 20-30 km away from the forest. As a result, most of them knew the ground reality of the place, the culture and the vocabulary.
"Since a lot of forest guards are from the region, for them, it is easy and difficult at the same time. While they do know the language and are familiar with the community, there are also times when they need to police their own people," says Bose. "I think it is a delicate balance to maintain, especially among the lower ranks (forest guard, ranger) who deal with the day-to-day activities of the forest."
Regular policing and monitoring of the forest comes under the standard operating procedure of these forest guards. Catching poachers is a dangerous operation that generally extracts casualties on both sides — a ‘war zone’ Bose has attempted to capture in his series.
Bose adds that over the last 25-30 years, there has been a shift in approach in how forest rangers engage with local communities. “Earlier if you entered a forest reserve, whether you were a poacher or a local farmer who wanted some leaves and branches to feed his cattle, you would invariably be frisked, beaten up and thrown out. Now there is understanding, sympathy and a lot of conversation," he says.
For Bose, maintaining a balance between the narratives of the wild and of the humans was vital. "You may have the greatest of shots, but it wouldn’t be consumed without a great story. So if people indeed like our series, it will be because of the characters, the stories we have been able to gather from each park,” he says. “That’s when the heroes really come out strong and add to the narrative."