With wildlife crimes rising during lockdown, Anti Poaching Watchers of TN are on high alert but systemic problems persist
The nationwide lockdown imposed by the government as part of the efforts to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, has now become a lived reality for many.
One of the fallouts of a nation under lockdown has been a marked increase in wildlife crimes across the country. The state of Tamil Nadu, with its diverse habitats, has historically had to deal with wildlife crimes ranging from marine wildlife along the coasts to the large cats in the state’s tiger reserves.
In April 2020, a study flagged Tamil Nadu as one of the hotspots for trafficking of the pangolin, one of the intermediate hosts for Coronavirus.
In the months since lockdown began, there has been an increase in meat poaching of smaller animals like hare and deer in Tamil Nadu due to a combination of more people moving into the forests and an increase in demand for meat.
According to department sources, in the almost two months of lockdown, close to 155 cases have been registered in Erode, one of the designated red zones, with close to 60 of them restricted to the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR).
Addressing this has required increased vigilance and surveillance from the forest department, including from the crucial cog in frontline defence - the Anti Poaching Watchers (APWs).
In hierarchy, the APWs rank below watchers in the forest service. The APW scheme began as a means of converting young men from the fringe villages of Protected Areas who had taken to poaching in the absence of alternative livelihoods into APWs.
Each anti-poaching camp is typically comprised of a team of seven to eight APWs and usually a week spent in a camp would mean a different assigned route to monitor each day, seven in total.
During the course of these routes, an APW monitors for not just unusual or suspicious activity but also records sightings, logged in a camp register each day.
Dr Rajkumar, naturalist and member of the Tamil Nadu State Wildlife Board, notes that APWs are indispensable in securing the Protected Areas, owing to their expert knowledge of the terrain and that they have played a crucial role in the Forest Department’s admirable efforts to clamp down on poaching these past two months.
The APWs program, however, is in urgent need of two major systemic reforms, the first being the regularisation of services. The demand for recognising seniority and regularising services through formal full time employment was first initiated by Plot Watchers, those engaged by the government for social forestry programs.
Protests in the 1990s led to an additional non-regular cadre of Plot Watchers in the forest service who were absorbed into the regular watcher cadre. The practice of direct recruitment of watchers versus the absorption of senior APWs into the service has led to discontent and legal battles where the latter claim seniority based on experience and number of years served.
In July 2019, APWs went on a hunger strike demanding withdrawal of the direct recruitment process. A cursory glance at public records of the Madras High Court returns over 1000 cases filed by Plot Watchers and APWs seeking regularisation of service and adjustment of pay scales based on seniority.
This has led to a situation where APWs retire after over 20 years of service but without government employment and its allied benefits, unlike in Kerala where the APWs are a separate government cadre.
This undermines one of the main motivations behind becoming an APW, that of job security.
A second larger and recurring problem faced by the APWs is in the irregular disbursement of salaries. The current monthly salary has been the result of a series of mobilisations and protests demanding better pay. In 2018, the pay was revised from Rs 6750 to Rs 10,000 which was further increased to Rs 12,500 in 2019.
However, these are not paid in regular monthly cycles but more often paid in consolidated amounts. For tiger reserves that fall under the ambit of Project Tiger, a central program for tiger conservation where fund sharing is 50:50 with the state governments, payments are made according to the financial year and through the Tiger Foundation as mandated by the program.
In these cases, when the fund cycle ends in March every year, the months of April to June are usually lean months where payments are absent or nominal payments are paid by the state till the committee reconvenes and approves funding for the next financial year.
Post approval, payments are made in consolidated amounts. In Protected Areas that do not fall under central programs such as Project Tiger, the entire salary responsibility falls with the state where once again, payments happen in consolidated amounts as and when funds become available.
In light of these erratic payments, APWs are at times forced to take up agricultural work in the lean months or altogether move to Non Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) collection since it assures a higher income.
The lack of a monthly secured income makes it difficult to meet obligations like rent and puts them in precarious financial stability.
One of the primary prescriptions for securing against the onslaught of the Coronavirus involves following a nutritious diet. In the course of the lockdown, while the Tamil Nadu Forest Department has ensured the supply of essentials such as rice and pulses, the procurement of nutritious foods comes at a cost at a time when funds are not at the dispersal of the Department.
The Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, for instance, has a total of 32 camps with seven to eight APWs per camp. According to an estimate provided by an anonymous official source, an amount of Rs 10,000 per camp would be ideal to procure food rations fulfilling the nutritional requirements and Personal Protective Equipment and this would be needed for the next three months to act as a buffer till the next round of Project Tiger funds are disbursed.
At present, a limited mobilisation is being done by civil society groups through COVID response funds and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) grants.
During the course of the lockdown, the APWs have continued their regular fieldwork, with increased vigilance in light of the spike in wildlife crimes, the only difference being restrictions on entering neighbouring towns.
Their role in these times has also heightened due to the fact that monitoring the demand side of wildlife crimes would require collaboration with the Tamil Nadu police who are fully engaged in enforcement and monitoring of the lockdown.
The work done by APWs, often referred to as “guardians” and “foot soldiers” of the forest, is proving invaluable.
It also presents an opportune time to work towards larger systemic reforms to ensure that a vulnerable community does not continue to be at larger exposure to risks from external shocks.