Sherni, the latest offering from Amazon Prime, is an uncomfortable reminder of the pitfalls of wildlife conservation and how, for generations, poorly armed forest guards who have a string of rules to adhere to are pitted against poachers and villagers with no rules.
The movie was released on the OTT platform around the time when India witnessed a major spike in poaching during the lockdown period.
As many as 88 poaching incidents were reported between March 23 and May 3, almost double the number reported during the six weeks before the lockdown, officials of the wildlife trade monitoring network said
Tiger experts say Sherni asks a pertinent question: whose job is to save India’s wildlife?
The Vidya Balan-starrer highlights why anti-poaching guards in India’s wildlife reserves are largely at a loss in their conservation efforts and are in the crosshair of villagers living close to the forests.
India has a little over 500,000 forest guards, mostly unarmed.
“They have some guns, and also bullets but they come with loads of rules and guidelines. Little is done about education and awareness, India is yet to demarcate wildlife constituencies,” says Samir Sinha, a top wildlife official in Uttarakhand, home to Corbett tiger reserve, India’s largest such facility.
India once battled poaching almost successfully, especially after Sansar Chand, the country’s biggest wildlife criminal, died of cancer at a Jaipur jail in 2014.
When he was active, Chand wreaked havoc in the jungles of India, killing over 100 tigers and 400 leopards. His clients were from all over the world. For decades, tiger and leopard skins and bones, and dried organs have fed a shadowy black market across the globe.
Sinha says tigers in India’s forest reserves face a serious crisis of habitat. Their habitats are routinely cut by roads and railways, fields, factories and mines.
India is home to more than half of the 3,900 tigers living in the wild. The World Wildlife Fund says since the beginning of the 20th century over 95 percent of the world tiger population has been lost.
Man-animal conflictSherni highlights India’s increasingly lax environmental protections where forest rangers routinely wander inside jungles with guards who rarely carry firearms. As per wildlife guidelines, a forest guard can carry a gun but without cartridges and can open fire only after he has been granted permission by a magistrate. It means a delay of 48 hours.
In most of India’s tiger reserves, villagers create furore if anyone from the village is killed by a wild animal. Sometimes, a villager killed by a bear is mistaken for a tiger victim. Villagers, claim those in the know, instantly demand that the wild cat must be shot or moved to a zoo.
And it is not all about tigers, often elephants, wild boars, leopards get caught in this huge animal-human conflict.
Stuck in the middle is the forest officer, and a band of guards, often hemmed in by unreasonable villagers and scheming politicians who routinely egg on the villagers to protest against the forest guards.
Many claim politicians do it to score brownie points. And if such an incident happens ahead of an election, politicians wreak havoc. They just do not care. They assure to save villagers from the wild cat and that they need not depend on the forest rangers or guards.
A thankless, dangerous job
So how does a hapless forest ranger work?
In India, a forest ranger and forest guards face tremendous difficulties at work. They scour hundreds of square kilometers of forests, looking for clues that can lead them to the animal or the poacher. It is dangerous work.
Experts say India lost 110 tigers in 2019, a third of them to poachers. Over the last eight years, an estimated 750 tigers have died, most of them shot by poachers. A little over 200 people were arrested by forest rangers in poaching cases but it means little. Lax rules allow poachers to seek bail and resume poaching in another forest.
“It is still unknown how poaching rates increased during the lockdown. Wild animal populations in India came under additional threat during the lockdown period,” said a study conducted by Traffic.
The forest ranger ends up a harassed person, almost like Vidya Balan in the movie. As per official estimates, one forest guard in India is meant to patrol close to seven miles of a forest without proper patrolling gear or vehicle.
The result is inevitable.
As many as 160 forest guards have died in India during 2012-17 in the line of duty, according to the International Ranger Federation, an organisation of foresters from over 60 countries.
In January 2021, the Supreme Court expressed surprise at the forest bureaucracy in India being unarmed. The court said only two states—Maharashtra and Assam—in India allow forest guards to carry arms. The rest follow archaic rules and push guards into dense forests with bamboo sticks that can only keep jackals away.
Fighting with their hands tied
Belinda Wright, known for her extensive study on tiger habitats and wildlife in India, says forest departments have been demanding permission to bear arms and authority like the cops but the home ministry has routinely rejected it.“Organised poaching has stopped, but there has been a steady rise in the man-tiger or man-elephant conflict. The government feels forest dwellers are among the most socially, economically, and politically marginalised, they should not be touched. The villagers have the support of the government and also of the politicians. The forest rangers can do very little, we need professional, well-trained forces to protect forests, with appropriate checks and balances to prevent abuse,” Wright told Moneycontrol.
Experts say the forest departments routinely suffer from an inverted pyramid problem. And it has not changed in the last five decades. There are many senior officers and a huge backlog in recruitment at the level of forest guards. Eventually, the forest guards cover incredibly large territory on foot or on bicycles.
Wright said that illegal hunting and animal-human conflict have often caused tensions between forest rangers and their superiors in India’s 50 tiger reserves. India has 25 percent of the world’s tiger habitat but shelters 75 percent of the global population.
“This needs to be rectified and some directions must come from the top (read the big bosses of wildlife in India),” says Wright.
Forest ranger and forest guards are often outgunned, outnumbered and poorly funded, she says. In many cases, they are forced to buy their own food and supplies before reinforcement comes.
“But the forest rangers and guards are a unique breed. At times, they are surrounded by villagers armed with axes and sticks. The standoff continues for hours. It reflects the pressure that forests and wildlife have come under in India,” says Wright.
Many told Moneycontrol that the pandemic also led to major unemployment and disruption in food distribution and there are communities that are dependent on the forest. It makes the job of a forest ranger more difficult. And then there is the perpetual fear that conservation budgets could be curtailed as the government grapples with economic recovery.
More than half of India's 28 states have already seen their forest conservation and restoration budgets slashed.
Who will guard the protectors?
Wildlife expert Dr Fayaz A Khudsar told Moneycontrol that the entire system of forest guards needs a complete overhaul. He said once the examinations for the guards were meant for Class 10 pass outs but now anyone and everyone can apply.
“So what we are seeing. Arts, commerce and science graduates apply and get the jobs and within weeks use influence to get city postings. Those who have no choice are stuck deep inside the forests without firearms. Often, there is no petrol for the jeep of the forest ranger, and cartridges for the guns are often outdated. So the guards walk without arms inside the forests and that is a very, very scary situation.”
“And if this poaching of small animals for bushmeat continues then the big cats will not find their prey. This will, in turn, lead to higher incidences of human-wildlife conflicts,” says Khudsar.
There are times when villagers do bizarre things to collect compensation from wildlife officials, he says. This reporter found in 2017 a bizarre “suicide pact” in Uttar Pradesh’s dense Pilibhit forests where impoverished villagers ventured dangerously close to tigers, hoping to be killed by the hulking, 500-pound wild cats. And once the villagers were killed by the wild cats, family members of the dead would pick up their half-eaten bodies and keep them in sugarcane fields — so they could demand compensation from the government. Rules promised a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for a death caused by wild animals outside a forest but not inside tiger habitats.
The Pilibhit Tiger Reserve is spread across 602 km, close to the Nepal border, and has a little over 50 tigers, including eight tigresses with cubs.
The deaths of these old men were blamed by the villagers on the big cats. The villagers said the tigers were man-eaters and demanded compensation, which was refused. The refusal triggered a slugfest between the villagers, forest rangers and guards.
Protecting animals in India is a serious business. The forest ranger and guards know if they kill a poacher, they can be charged with murder. It is a typical Catch-22 situation. “Forest rangers and guards are not in the right frame of mind. One wrong step can create animosity towards them and the conservation effort in general,” says Khudsar
It is a long haul, he says. The spectre of a world without tigers pushed 13 countries to meet at St Petersburg, Russia. “It was in 2010 and 11 long years have passed. I do not think anyone remembers those participants and their promise to double their wild tiger numbers by 2022,” he says
Experts note with concern as to how captive tiger populations have grown in China and the United States, far away from the Asian forests and savannas which are their natural habitat. And if the forest ranger and the guards do not function effectively, the majestic creatures will be staring at extinction, yet again.
Sinha says the government is doing its best. In 2019, it invested Rs 350 crore in tiger conservation and relocated villages outside protected areas. The government has built the world’s largest animal underpass to funnel tigers safely beneath a highway in the ecologically sensitive Kanha-Pench corridor famous for the wild cats.
But in other reserves, tigers are increasingly becoming isolated because many state governments have started pushing wildlife tourism.
Sinha returns to Sherni. He says the movie has a strong message for many in India. Love tigers, and more importantly, back those who save tigers, making conservation both affordable and sustainable.Sinha says it is high-time Indians realise that the tiger is a symbol of national pride and the forest guards must get everything to save the wild cats. Only a forest ranger and guards can teach people to love the forest and its wild animals, says Sinha.