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Save yourself, save the tiger

 

                                                                                                                 Business Standard, Ahmedabad, 11th April, 2015


In an effort to curb the poaching of tigers, the Wildlife Conservation Trust, in association with Panthera, a global body that works for the conservation of the endangered cats, recently conducted a "site security training" for officials of the Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF), a commando unit set up by the government in two tiger reserves, Pench in Madhya Pradesh and Tadoba-Andhari in Maharashtra. The workshop at the reserves, attended by 24 STPF officers, comes at a time when the 2015 Union Budget has slashed the outlay for tiger conservation by 15 per cent. The decrease in funding will effect training of security forces. "Very recently, an STPF guard suffered serious bullet wounds while trying to nab poachers in the Pench reserve," points out WCT President Anish Andheria. "Better trained personnel will be able to minimise injuries to themselves during hostile situations."



Poaching is a serious problem across the country, home to nearly 70 per cent of the world's wild tiger population. "There is a huge tiger market in China and Vietnam, for bones (for medicines) and skin, India just acts as a source country," says Andheria. According to the latest All India Tiger Estimation report, the Pench and Tadoba-Andhari Tiger reserves together are home to around 100 tigers. Also, these two tiger reserves form part of the Central Indian Tiger Landscape that is home to about 700 tigers, or 31 per cent of the total Indian tiger population, making it one of the most important tiger conservation units in not just the country but the world. They are also the only tiger reserves in central India to have taken the initiative to constitute STPF units dedicated to protecting wildlife. STPF has young and able people who, after recruitment, undergo strenuous training in order to be able to protect tigers.

The STPF officers were trained by international experts brought in by WCT, in the fields of law enforcement, basic self-defence, primary first-aid, response to emergencies in a strategised manner and in working as a team. The training sessions also covered various aspects of patrolling, including patrol tasking and planning, camouflage, concealment and obstacle crossing. Andheria says the workshop has made an attempt to bring the element of science into patrolling. "Patrolling is not just walking, there are specific formations in which patrolling becomes most effective," he says. Another major focus area, according to him, was to inculcate the process of regular drills and a daily regimen to ensure the force does not become lethargic. He also stresses that the female staff are integral to this effort, and "are fully capable of the high-intensity training."

Aarti Phule, one of the STPF officers who received training, was recruited three years ago at the age of 21. Her village, Gondia, is 150 kilometres from the SPTF centre at Pench. "I'm not a beat guard, I'm part of the force," she tells me proudly. Though interested in the jungle, Phule did not know much about conservation and and learnt everything on the job. "This is the first time I have attended a training which will actually help in the field," she says. The earlier workshops were all kitabi (bookish) that were not of much practical use, she says. She has learnt the art of map reading and hand signals. She made a request for extra maps at the end of training "so I could take them back for the rest of the girls in the force and teach them." She also learnt how important it is to maintain the element of surprise, for example, by rotating the time and areas of patrol.



For Phule, the daily tasks at the end of classes were the most satisfying part of the training because she got to apply what she had learnt in class. Nandkishore Kale, assistant conservator of forests in charge of STPF, admits that they don't have access to such field experts and their own trainers usually have limited experience. The trainees who were chosen from a staff of 108 for this workshop had displayed not just exceptional fortitude in previous operations but are also adept at communications skills, he says. WCT hopes that this first batch of trainees will also be involved as training assistants for future programmes, as it is not monetarily possible to bring in international experts each time. Chances that a guard will be attacked by a tiger are negligible compared to the threat from poachers, according to Andheria. This statement finds validation in Phule's admission, that while she has heard and seen tigers roar in full view, she is more afraid of poachers than the big cat.



WCT and Panthera plan to provide such training at other reserves in the country, such as Kaziranga, Corbett, Bandipur and other areas where the threat of poaching is very high. A follow-up session will be conducted for these 24 officers in October-November to both assess and reinforce their skills. Phule's family, which was earlier apprehensive of her choice of career, eventually came around to conceding that the jungle and its animals "must be saved," and who better than Phule and her teammates to do it.