Women walk on the wild side
Ananthakrishnan G2 January 2010, 12:06pm IST
The Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala's Thekkady is a much safer place for its wild herds now, thanks to a group of housewives living on its fringes.
The 'Vasanta Sena' - or Green Army of 77 housewives - has taken upon itself the task of securing the forest and its sandal groves against poachers and illegal loggers.
"Most of us are from financially poor backgrounds and depend on the forest for a living. We realised that if we do not preserve it for posterity, our children will be the losers,'' says Gracykutty, chairperson of the Sena. Hailing from both tribal and non-tribal families, the women are divided into teams of three or four each. Rain or shine, those on duty assemble at the Vanasree auditorium (that houses the office of the Eco Development Officer, Forest and Wildlife Department) by 10.30 am everyday. "From there, we trek into the deep jungle. The patrolling lasts from 11 am to 5 pm,'' Gracykutty says.
On a regular day, Vasanta Sena's first stop is a sandal grove 2 km away from the starting point, and vulnerable to smugglers. "We check if there has been any tree felling or visible sign of human movement and report it to the officials." says Lakshmi, a Sena member.
The team also picks up plastic and other non-biodegradable waste on the way. "The project was conceived by the Forest and Wildlife Department some years ago as part of a plan to involve local communities in forest protection. Their spouses were involved with us in various conservation programmes. It was then that the women came forth with this suggestion to include them too and we accepted it. Suffice to say, there is nothing in the world that even remotely parallels the Vasanta Sena," says Periyar reserve deputy director P P Pramod. The women know the terrain well as they used to go into the jungle to collect firewood. Now, their new job keeps them occupied. Officials say that there has been a steady fall in the crime rate. According to latest statistics, there were only 12 forest related crimes registered this year as against 43 in 2008.
"The terrain is dangerous. Moving inside the forests can be scary at times,'' says Lakshmi, recounting an instance when they confronted a tiger. "We had just stepped out of a thicket and to our horror saw a tiger perched on a branch right in front. It was feeding on a sambar deer. But on seeing us, the animal walked away as it had already had its meal.'' Gracykutty, too, had a run in with a bull elephant. "But now, we have learned to recognise the presence of wild animals by smell,'' she says.
The mission also helps animals caught in traps or taken ill. "Once it was a stork which was caught in a hunter's net. We saved it. There have been many instances when we rescued sambars from wild dogs,'' says another volunteer, Kuttiyamma Gopi.
As they are from poor families, the women say it wasn't easy convincing their families when they took up the assignment. "My husband is a mason. He felt that I should do something that will get us some extra money as we barely manage to survive on his earnings. But then he realised my commitment to the cause. And now he takes care of the children when I go for patrolling,'' says Lakshmi.
Many of the volunteers are casual labourers, but forego their earnings on days they are on patrolling duty. Says Gopi, "We get duty at least twice a month. That means we cannot go to work on these days.'' The forest department provides them the uniform, bags, raincoat and shoes. "What we got in the beginning has worn out now. We are still waiting for the new stock,'' says Gracykutty.
It has been fun, too, for the Sena. "The patrolling work is very satisfying. But we will be happy if there is some compensation for the work we are doing or if there is group insurance,'' she says.
Realising the need to provide them alternate employment, the department has recently started units for paper-bag making and bamboo processing. Also, the more literate of the women are employed as guides in the "Cloud Walk" programme - a three-hour trek for tourists.