Early Sunday morning,Deputy Range Officer L Sridhar,Assistant Beat Officer David Kumar Karunakar and eight others were on a regular patrol of the Seshachalam forest area,in Tirupati in Chittoor district,when they received information that some red sanders smugglers were camping about two kilometres from a temple in the area.
Sridhar and Karunakar took with them two smugglers who were arrested a day before to show them the exact location. There was no time to inform the police or wait for armed assistance, said Conservator of Forests (Tirupati,Wildlife) Ravi Kumar.
As soon as they neared a wooded area where they heard some activity,they were ambushed by a group of 60-100 men armed with sickles,knives and daggers. They surrounded the forest patrol party and started pelting stones. Sridhar and Karunakar,who were leading the team,bore the brunt of the attack and suffered fatal head injuries. The remaining eight officials escaped with head and other injuries, said Kumar.
The post-mortem reports have revealed that the two officers were probably alive after being stoned,and were later axed by the smugglers. Sridhar,49,had been working with the forest department for 22 years,while David,47,had 20 years service. Sridhar is survived by his wife and two sons,while Karunakar is survived by his wife and two daughters.
The incident has raised questions about the state governments delay in arming its forest department. Last April,after several confrontations with red sanders smugglers in various forests of the state,the Andhra Pradesh forest department had proposed that small arms and rifles should be purchased for its officers. But for over a year,no action was taken. Finally,on September 17 this year,after another death of a forest officer in Nizamabad district,Chief Minister N Kiran Kumar Reddy ordered the purchase of 500 weapons for the department.
While the procurement process is still going on,hundreds of forest officials,including senior range officers,venture into the forests armed with just sticks.
Seshachalam,forests in Chittoor,Kadapa and Nellore have become dangerous as armed and dangerous smugglers target them for red sanders. In 2013 alone,the forest department seized 450 vehicles carrying red sanders and arrested nearly 1,500 persons involved in the illegal felling and smuggling. There are numerous other instances where smugglers attacked officials and fled, said M S S Reddy,Principal Chief Conservator of Forests.
According to officials,Sridhar and Karunakar were instrumental in setting up a base camp in the Seshachalam forest hills to maintain vigil on smugglers. Instead of just seizing red sanders and bamboo felled illegally,they had started conducting combing operations and raids on smugglers.
Meanwhile,some officials said the deaths could have been avoided if the officials had informed the Special Task Force (STF) of the Tirupati Police. The STF personnel are armed and there is an understanding that if the forest department receives information about smugglers in the forest,they should inform us. STF personnel can go with them to conduct the raid, said Tirupati (Urban) SP Rajasekhara Babu.
Why the two senior forest officers decided to raid the place without seeking armed assistance has raised questions about standard operating procedures.
This is the second incident of forest officials being killed in the last three months. On September 15,A Gangaiah,Forest Range Officer of Nizamabad,was killed when he was attacked with stones and sickles by tribals.
Red sandalwood,an endangered species commonly known as red sanders,is found in Kadapa,and parts of Chittoor and Nellore districts in the Nallamalla forests. There is a high demand for the fragrant red-coloured timber overseas,especially in China and Japan,for manufacture of furniture and musical instruments. A tonne of red sanders is reported to be worth Rs 8-10 lakh.