On March 25, a few hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a country-wide lockdown to tackle the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, forest authorities in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh arrested a group suspected to have killed a blackbuck, a protected species under India’s Wildlife Protection Act 1972.
As the lockdown progressed, on March 28, in Dehradun in Uttarakhand, the forest department seized what appeared to be pangolin and porcupine meat.
“Acting on a tip-off, we raided a house in Sapera Basti in Mothrowala and found partly consumed meat. Prima facie it appeared to be pangolin and porcupine meat. We have registered a case against the accused and investigation is on,” Dehradun divisional forest officer (DFO) Rajiv Dhiman told Mongabay-India.
With the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly escalating, governments in all countries have been urged by the World Health Organisation to regard control of the disease as a ‘top priority’ necessitating social distancing measures.
While millions of Indians stay inside their homes mandated by official orders prescribing social distancing via a lockdown, forest department officials across India are out on nature’s frontlines guarding wildlife and the forests that cover over one-fifth (21.67%) of the country’s geographical area.
For them, it is a balancing act between protecting the forest and staving off any potential infection spread. In many areas, authorities are carrying out their work despite the availability of limited staff during the lockdown. With poachers, smugglers, human encroachment in forests and human-wildlife conflicts, they have got their hands full as many foresters believe the threats will not abate due to the lockdown but may increase in some cases.
Saket Badola, head, TRAFFIC India said these are testing times for the forest staff, who on one hand have to be extra vigilant against poaching attempts by adventurous poachers while simultaneously be prepared to tackle probabilities of increased cases of human-wildlife conflicts.
“Forest fire incidences have also started in few areas of the country which will require necessary preparedness and immediate attention. Considering this, the government has declared services of forest staff including patrolling, fire fighting, wildlife, and zoo upkeep as ‘essential’ under the Disaster Management Act,” Badola told Mongabay-India.
Wildlife vulnerable to poaching during the lockdown
In Uttarakhand where field staff is operating in full capacity while taking necessary precautions including social distancing, officials said vigilance was heightened beginning with the one-day lockdown on March 22.
“With many people who are now out of work, the pressures on the forest may increase for resource extraction. We are maintaining vigilance so that there is no damage to the forests and their inhabitants,” Dhiman said.
Punati Sridhar, Karnataka’s principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) and head of forest force recollects the first thought that crossed his mind when the Indian government directed the temporary closure of protected areas.
“How will we protect the forest? That was the first thought. As of now, we are operating at 100% capacity and we will continue with forest protection duties. The challenge is to maintain constant vigilance and ensure staff is safe. For official purposes, we have encouraged the usage of electronic services instead of sending files. We have opened a COVID cell for monitoring and other activities linked to the disease,” Sridhar told Mongabay-India.
In the state, over 10000 field staff are on duty. The state has five tiger reserves, 30 wildlife sanctuaries, 15 conservation reserves, and one community reserve.
“All staff is alert and we have booked a few poaching cases during the lockdown. People went into Bandipur with guns. We detected them in our cameras and arrested them. Another case was of encroachment and setting fire where one was arrested and remanded,” he said.
Sridhar recounted that about two to three decades ago the forest department faced serious problems when the frontline staff decided to go on strike and the officers had to step in.
“But we have never faced this kind of situation. We have a (satellite-based) technology to pinpoint where encroachments are happening and we send people to investigate. So is continuing as well,” said Sridhar.
Sridhar emphasised that foresters “put their heart in” to protect forests and wildlife and they deserve more appreciation.
“Despite disease outbreaks such as the Kyasanur Forest Disease, our staff is always on the field. They understand their responsibility and they take the necessary precautions,” he added.
Central Zoo Authority’s (CZA) Member Secretary S.P. Yadav, who is also the secretary-general of the Indian Forest Service Association, echoed similar thoughts.
“During this tough time and with restrictions imposed to contain COVID-19, forest and wildlife staff are working overtime to safeguard wildlife in zoological parks, rescue centres, safaris, and protected areas while putting their life at risk. They are true and brave warriors at the frontlines ensuring ecological security of the country relentlessly. This is at a time when everyone is concerned about the safety of their own life. It is highly commendable,” Yadav told Mongabay-India.
CZA’s S.P. Yadav said the threat of poaching looms large during the lockdown. “Wildlife is under threat from poachers. Even during this tough time when our wildlife is most vulnerable. The forest staff in this time of risk is still carrying out patrolling round the clock,” Yadav said.
Savita, principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF), wildlife, Himachal Pradesh said special permissions have been granted so that zoo animals are fed as per schedule.
“We got specific permissions granted to animal attendants and the person who brings animal feed. But they have to follow strict instructions for social distancing and wearing the mask,” Savita told Mongabay-India, adding that the department is coordinating efforts electronically.
Due to compliance with physical distancing measures, monitoring of encroachment in water bodies in several areas have been scaled down.
In Odisha’s Chilika lake, Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon with an estuarine character, and one of India’s first Ramsar Convention sites (wetlands of international importance), monitoring activities for illegal commercial prawn cultivation set-ups are still on but with fewer people.
Chilika is home to one of the largest subpopulations of the vulnerable Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) of around 150 individuals.
Susanta Nanda, chief executive of Chilika Development Authority, said since 2018, the organisation has removed 162 square kilometres of the area under prawn aquaculture. Another 80 square km remains to be cleared.
“We are conducting monitoring activities with skeletal staff. We have two big boats to carry out hydrological monitoring, but we have stopped that because that involves more number of people and increases the chances of spreading infection,” Nanda told Mongabay-India.
“But we are using three to four smaller boats to monitor and check unauthorised encroachments of prawn gherries (prawn culture). We are maintaining social distance rule but ensuring some presence in the lake otherwise people may use the opportunity to start encroaching the wetlands for illegal prawn culture,” said Nanda.
Human-wildlife interaction and forest fire are other focus areas
Foresters fear the human-wildlife conflict could increase in the lockdown phase. They feel many animals, that live in close proximity to human habitations, could venture into human habitations after noticing the limited presence of humans.
In one such instance on March 24 in Uttarakhand, a leopard entered a school.
Narrating the incident, IFS officer Vaibhav Singh, who is divisional forest officer, Rudraprayag (Uttarakhand) said the presence of a leopard in the school was first noticed by the security guard who heard the animal growl. The guard informed the police who then informed the forest department.
— Vaibhav Singh,IFS (@VaibhavSinghIFS) March 24, 2020
“Whenever a leopard enters an urban area it is a risky situation as the animal is scared. The leopard is less than two-years-old but after hours of effort, the animal was finally rescued. The animal has been sent to the rescue centre and after it is radio-collared it will be released back into the wild. One of our staff was injured but he was lucky as the injuries were not serious,” Singh told Mongabay-India.
Additionally, for Uttarakhand’s forests, it is a fire-prone season.
“Usually by this time, we would have been in a precarious situation as the temperature starts increasing and the pine forests of this area become prone to fire. But this time due to rains there has been no such incident,” Vaibhav Singh said.
He explained that his division has about 100,000 hectares of forest area and for that there is a staff of 40-45 people. “Most of them are in remote places and they need food supplies and vehicles for patrolling. We usually hire people on a daily wage basis and hire vehicles to supplement our shortage but due to the lockdown, we are not getting the people and vehicles. Our resources are stretched but we are keeping our fingers crossed,” said Singh while adding that he has also instructed his officials to ensure there is no poaching and no forest areas have been encroached on.
Forest resources are stretched for critically endangered animals
Officials are also responsible to protect India’s iconic landscapes that are homes to threatened animals like lions and one-horned rhinoceros.
In Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, home to the world’s largest population of one-horned rhinoceros, officials plan to go ahead with their annual monsoon preparedness in April.
The Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve (KNP/KTR) located in the northeastern state of Assam, is sandwiched between the Brahmaputra river in the north and the verdant Karbi Anglong hills in the extreme south.
Over 200 animals, including 17 rhinos, died in the 2019 floods in the UNESCO-listed heritage site, vast swathes of which are inundated during the monsoon season. Poaching of rhinos in Kaziranga is a major threat managed by the staff.
“All are on duty. We have 1500 staff and we have 200 camps in the national park area and 40 in the buffer area. One advantage is that our camps are spread wide apart and they are already isolated. Two to three staff are stationed in each camp and we have instructed them to maintain social distancing and take necessary precautions,” KNP director P. Sivakumar told Mongabay-India, adding that strict vigilance is being maintained.
Dinesh Kumar Sharma, who is the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in Gujarat, the only state in India where the Asiatic lion is found, hopes the lion census remains on schedule.
“All our staff is in the field even when there is a lockdown. There are no problems so far. The lion census was scheduled for May. We will see how things pan out. If everything is tackled by April end the census work may not be hampered. We are hoping that things come under control by that time,” Sharma told Mongabay-India. As per the 2015 census, the population of Asiatic lions was estimated to be 523.
The forest department officials are also closely surveilling the interstate border to ensure there is no harm to the animals.
“The forests along the Gujarat-Maharashtra state border are being closely monitored. The forest check posts have forest staff, health care workers and police. It’ll be forest fire season soon so we have to be on standby for those as well. We are avoiding large physical meetings and we have asked the village heads to avoid meetings,” said Agneeshwar Vyas, who is deputy conservator of forest (North Dang division), Gujarat.
Vyas told Mongabay-India that they have shut all their rest houses as well.
The staff has been instructed to attend to essential work, like protection, fire control, breeding centre, wildlife conflict, and nurseries, etc. They have been asked to remain in headquarters to attend to these works and also to avoid unnecessary travel, when not required strictly for the assigned work, he said.
“March is not a big season anyway for tourism. But in April-May, tourism income will surely get affected. The staff has masks and gloves and we keep discussing dos’ and don’ts internally as well. The staff is also instructed to stay indoors as far as possible. We communicate via wireless if it’s manageable,” Vyas said.