Hyderabad: It was pitch dark with not even a slight breeze for respite. But with dawn approaching fast P. Venkateshwarlu was determined to reach his destination. And though the soggy ground and slippery rocks conspired with the night to make movement difficult, he pushed ahead through the dense foliage.
Armed with just a torch, the top forest official from the Kumram Bheem-Asifabad (KBA) Forest Range trekked ahead even as the creepy feeling of being followed in the dark was nagging him. The foremost thought in his mind was to reach the spot where a few local people had reported pugmarks of a tiger.
Even while urging the expert pugmark trackers with him to move faster, the forest official had one aim – to reach the spot before poachers got the tiger, and before they ambushed his team.
Armed and dangerous, poachers are not new to his men, who are on a mission to prevent the killers from getting active again. They knew it would not be long before poachers, who reportedly had begun hunting tigers in the neighbouring Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve of Maharashtra, stepped into Telangana.
The Forest Department, following inputs from informers on whom Rs 80 lakh is spent annually, has stepped up surveillance and is on high alert in the forests of Telangana.
According to officials, camps have been set up deep in the forest to keep a watch on poachers, detect traps and prevent smuggling of forest wood. Secret search operations, officials say, are being carried out inside the KBA Forests Range to keep poachers at bay, apart from missions like the one on which Venkateshwarlu was on.
“We have alerted our officers about chances of poaching in our forests, since a few tigers have recently migrated here from Tadoba. We have intensified patrolling and are tracing every movement of the animals through camera traps and other traditional methods,” a forest official said.
If not from local poachers, the threat could be from those currently operating in the Tadoba tiger reserve, they believe, pointing out that poachers too could be following the big cats through the tiger corridor from Maharashtra into Telangana.
Forest officials say most of the poachers are locals. Poaching involves three steps. First the animal is killed; then the flesh, teeth, bones, nails and the costly skin are removed and handed over to middlemen. They sell these in the international market, where the price of a tiger skin starts from Rs 25 lakh. The clientile is from Indonesia and several Western countries.
The poaching manual
B Praveena, District Forest Officer, Nirmal Circle, said a tiger normally takes two to five days to eat its kill, depending on the size of the prey. “If the poachers find the half-eaten carcass, they target the tiger when it comes to eat the remaining part or poison the meat, so that they can get at the tiger indirectly.”
Bare hands against rifles
It was in 1982 that forest officials surrendered their arms to the police, courtesy an increase in instances of extremists snatching their weapons and using them to attack the police. A good 34 years later, though the State’s forests and forest officials are facing more threats than ever, there appears no way they will get back the weapons. That too, despite over 30 forest officials being killed by poachers. “The hope of getting weapons is gone now. In an emergency, we have to call up the local police station for help,” a senior forest official said.