Forest beat officer Chandrasekhara Raju compares it to walking into a death trap. He found himself in one such situation on December 15 when red sanders smugglers set upon him and six other colleagues,hacking and stoning two to death and leaving Raju and another injured. I am lucky to have survived, says Raju,52,who was hit on the head and has cuts on his hands.
Luck is about all that he has going for him. Raju is posted in Chittoor,one of the four districts in Andhra Pradesh along with Nellore,Kadapa and Kurnool,where red sanders (red sandalwood) is found. He patrols the Seshachalam forests,an 85,000 sq km area of thick jungle,hills and boulders near Tirupati,that teems with smugglers entering through Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. In the battle over the highly lucrative wood that is in high demand in the international market,all Raju and his colleagues wield are lathis. Forest officers in Andhra Pradesh do not carry weapons following a decision in the 1990s.
The gruesome killing of the foresters on December 15 was the second such instance last year. Earlier Deputy Range Forest Officer R Gangaiah,50,had been similarly axed by tribals in Dichpally in Nizamabad district on September 17. The officers killed on December 15 were Deputy Range Officer L Sridhar,49,and Assistant Beat Officer David Kumar Karunakar,47. While forest officials have come under attack in previous years,for the first time assaults have been vicious enough to kill them.
Speaking of the December 15 incident,Raju says: We received information that trees were being cut in the forest. Letting my seniors know,my team members and I went to the spot expecting the police task force (that is meant to provide them protection) to join us soon. When we reached the spot,we found freshly cut logs and were inspecting them when suddenly stones started hitting us. It all happened in seconds. We ran in different directions to escape the stones. I think Sridhar and David fell while the rest of came back to the camp and soon after launched a rescue.
A police task force,that is supposed to escort forest officials in the absence of weapons,could have saved Sridhar and David. However,as Raju explains,it is not always possible to have police around. It is our job to protect not just red sanders but the forest itself. If it is a tip-off,we take precautions,but sometimes we come across freshly cut logs and the smuggler may be hiding close by. As we start searching or get close to them,they attack. It happens so suddenly that you can barely react. If we are accompanied by an armed police escort,they may attempt to quietly flee,but if we are unarmed,they attack. That is what happened on December 15. We take risks almost daily.
The forest parties are attacked with stones,sticks and axes. Since December 15 as well,officials have come under attack in Seshachalam. Managing to escape,they pursued the smugglers into the Talakona forest in one such case,overpowered their leader and seized freshly cut logs worth over Rs 10 lakh. His accomplices disappeared into the forest.
On December 23 night,red sanders logs worth Rs 1 crore were seized by the Chennai police from a truck going from Tirupati to Chennai port. Before that 45 tonnes were seized at Tuticorin port. Another Rs 9,000 crore worth of wood is lying in godowns across the state.
Senior forest officials at Aranya Bhavan,Hyderabad,say that red sanders smuggling has evolved into a huge and wide nexus involving 15 or 20 layers of smugglers,dealers,transporters and buyers. While in the local illicit market the wood fetches
Rs 1,000 per kg,its price soars to over Rs 12,000 per kg in the international market. The international demand for red sanders is between 2,500 and 3,000 tonnes.
Pointing to what is at stake,Conservator of Forests,Wildlife (Tirupati),Ravi Kumar says forest officials have little option but to take risks. Red sanders trees grow on hilly slopes,rocky places and amidst boulders. So,most of the time,you have to leave your vehicle and patrol on foot. Those who cut the trees are mostly labourers led by a gang leader,and they are paid well to do the job. Each labourer makes at least Rs 7,000 for a weeks work. If confronted or if they come face to face with a forest patrol,they will attack, Kumar says. Despite such adverse circumstances,he adds,forest officials confront smugglers and routinely make arrests. In 2013,2,100 smugglers were arrested and 600 tonnes of red sanders wood seized.
To drive down the demand in the international market,the state government has been given permission by the Centre to auction the 9,000 tonnes of seized red sanders lying in godowns. On December 21,the Forest Department invited global tenders to dispose of the wood.
Finally,forest officials are getting weapons. The arms had been withdrawn in the early 1990s after several incidents of Maoists raiding Forest Department offices and armouries and snatching the weapons,but the killings of December 15 prompted a rethink. Till the time the weapons are procured and forest officials armed a process that will take up to five months police have started providing the Forest Department 150 rifles and other firearms in batches,starting December 30. Police will also train around 280 forest officers in the use of weapons.