I saw them filter noiselessly through the forest, their camouflage outfits blending perfectly into the foliage of the Pench Tiger Reserve. Moments later they were gone, swallowed by the jungle.
I marvelled at the ease with which they moved, searching the game trails for human footprints, lethal jaw-traps and snares. After decades of dogged demands, we actually have a trained anti-poaching team in place, dedicated exclusively to protecting tigers in a geography that had been losing cats to the poaching trade faster than cubs were being born.
A handful of these special teams had been set up simultaneously in 2012, including the one I was with in Pench, Maharashtra this year.
The women of the Pench Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF) we had just caught sight of would only return to home base six hours and 18 kilometers later. Entirely funded by the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India, the task assigned to the STPF that day was to sanitise the southern boundary of the tiger reserve.
I wondered how these young village women—their average age was 23— born into a traditionally patriarchal society, had managed to dedicate their lives to protecting tigers. It was far from easy. Applications were invited from those living across Maharashtra and only one in every ten girls was picked after a rigourous selection process that involved running 16 kms in under two-and-a-half hours and then going through an aptitude test.
The job is not without risk either.
A male colleague, S. D. Shendre, 24, was recently shot and almost died when he took on four poachers single-handedly in Pench. While all four were arrested, the STPF knows they are up against a $25 billion global trade in wildlife contraband, with umbilical links to the ruthless narcotics, human trafficking and arms trades.
The crusade to save Pench, a forest spread across 1,921 sq. km between the Indian states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, has been long and hard.
Twenty five years ago, there was a well-equipped mafia that picked off wild species, unchallenged. Additionally, callous irrigation engineers and thousands of workers that had been trucked in to build the Totladoh hydroeletric dam, had laid claim to the forest, egged on by droves of small and big-time politicians. The reservoirs extended across 70 km and drowned precious wildlife areas.
Thousands of workers also took it for granted that they could settle there permanently. However, after protracted court battles, the irrigation colony was demolished and today tigers with cub are permanent residents where once cinema halls, markets, traffic and garbage ruled.
Yet, poachers continued to have the run of the forest.
It took another 10 years to actually get functional STPFs in place. And the impact of a well-trained, well-equipped force is now being felt. After years of tigers falling prey to poachers through poisoned waterholes and hundreds of snares laid out in the forest, none were lost during the summer of 2014.
Back in the STPF camp that evening, I asked the women rangers the question that had been rattling around in my head for a while: “How did the menfolk in your village react to your taking up this job?”
“Our families are supportive,” one said, “They are happy we are protecting the forests where our ancestors have lived for generations.”
“Don’t forget we have also been trained in hand to hand combat by paramilitary commandos,” said another, “Most boys in our village know that it will not be good for their health to tangle with us!”
These women in Pench and Tadoba are largely from Vidarbha families, where they now occupy positions of respect in their communities.
Most of them are daughters of farmers, traders and forest rangers. And few had ever seen a tiger in the wild before they started their training.
“My grandfather was a policeman. I wanted to join the police force and wear the khaki vardi (uniform). So here I am wearing the uniform but protecting something so much more important. Without the forest there will be no oxygen and no people and nothing for the police to protect, ” said 24-year-old Rupali Bante.
That the job at best offers a wage of around Rs15,000 a month, with considerable collateral risks to life and limb that few urban women would even consider accepting, hardly dents their purpose. But in the hinterland, that is good money—and together with their uniform, makes these young women immensely well-respected in their communities.
“We have to make it very clear to prospective grooms that this is our life and career. I will never give it up. As for my parents, they are fielding proposals every day. There’s a line outside the door seeking the hand of their daughter, now that I have this job,” said Bante.
While poaching incidents have risen in virtually every part of India, parks where effective STPFs have been set up—such as Nagarahole, Pench and Tadoba—have seen a marked drop in poaching incidents. That these men and women come from the very communities that poachers rely on for information and logistic support, has been a key factor.
It’s not without reason that these women guards of Tadoba and Pench are known as Durga Shakti, named after the epitome of female power who rides a tiger.