Our rackety four-wheel drive ‘Toofan’ growled to life in the stillness of the forest night. It was dark and we had set out for a glimpse of the elusive leopard. In the driver’s seat was our host, Abhinav Bharti, a forest guard whose passion for the wild was kindled when he was a young boy.
Abhinav deftly manoeuvred the jalopy over rocky boulders and whispering streams. It was his fourth year as forest guard in the Raoli range, and he knew the tracks of the Todgarh-Raoli Wildlife Sanctuary like the back of his hand.
A bunch of us wildlife enthusiasts had earlier in the day walked with him on another track in this little-known sanctuary spread across Ajmer, Pali, and Rajsamand districts of Rajasthan. We’d seen fresh leopard scat all along the trail, but not the majestic animal. “You all have come so far to see wildlife. We will try again at night,” Abhinav had said.
That night, as we drove into a clearing, Abhinav pointed ahead and said of the leopard: “He is occasionally seen sitting on that wall.” As he drove on, a startled Indian crested porcupine was caught in the beam of the headlights. Abhinav recalled another incident. Once, he was waiting by a road to ambush thieves who were illegally transporting sand from the sanctuary in a tractor. As the light of an oncoming jeep threatened to expose him, he jumped out of the way and over a nearby wall. When he scrambled down, he surprised a leopard crouching on the other side. He exclaimed: “The animal leapt on the road to get away from me. The poor jeep driver was left perplexed about how a man could transform himself into a leopard!”
Born in Rajasthan’s Pali district, 32-year-old Abhinav is convinced that wild animals do not hurt foresters. Wild boars have left him alone despite numerous close encounters. A childhood spent roaming the rugged forests of Banswara in southern Rajasthan and catching wildlife shows on television instilled in him a love for all wild creatures.
It was almost a given that that he would enrol in the forest services to convert his fondness for the great outdoors into a profession. His first posting was in Rajasthan’s Sadri in 2013.
An avid long-distance runner, Abhinav enjoys patrolling the forest land. He had told us about his work routine during our morning walk. “I cover 20 to 25 kilometres a day. Some days, I can do even 30 to 40 kilometres. I am always on the move. You will never find me at the chowki,” he said shaking the trunk of a gooseberry tree.
Abhinav’s instincts lead him to cover tracts where he thinks an offence might take place. His day in the forest begins early. He said: “An offence can take place morning or night. I am mentally prepared to take on anything — be it wood-cutting or poaching”.
He sometimes catches people pruning trees or collecting firewood, both compoundable offences. “We let them off with a fine,” Abhinav dismisses, lamenting that the main problem ailing the sanctuary lies elsewhere. “There are 12 villages inside this place, and villagers rampantly graze their livestock. We are helpless against this,” he said.
According to Abhinav, grazing has severely affected the behaviour and movement patterns of wild animals. “Animals now come out only at night when they do not fear disturbance,” he said. Grazing was stopped on a few occasions, but political pressure ensures that it resumes every time, he points out.
At times, livestock herders provide leads to illegal activities within the forest. In April 2019 Abhinav received information that ten poachers were trying to haul off the meat of a sambar they had killed. He recalled: “It was a full moon night. Three colleagues and I took guard on top of a hillock from where we could clearly see the valley below. And sure enough, we spotted them around 10 pm carrying the meat in gunny bags.”
The forest guards jumped on them like they were a pack of 20. “Though we didn’t have guns on us, one of us threatened to shoot if they didn’t stop. The poachers dropped the bags and ran for their lives.” The guards managed to catch two of them on the spot, and they led them to the rest, Abhinav narrated to his enthralled audience.
Incredibly proud of his job, Abhinav laments that he has to undertake risky operations without proper equipment. There are no means of sophisticated communication either. “I often receive information only a few hours before such incidents take place. There is no time to take permission for a gun. What can a lone guard do in such situations to protect himself?” he asked.
The guards are also at risk from animals, as guards do not have ropes, traps, or tranquilising guns to capture stray wildlife. “We have no other choice but to improvise,” Abhinav said. Even the few training programmes that are planned are arbitrarily cancelled. “I was to go for a one-day session on how to use tranquilising guns today. Is one day enough, I ask? But even that one day was cancelled,” he said.
Additionally there is an acute shortage of staff. “Experts suggest there should be a guard for every 10 square kilometres of forest. So ideally, there should be four more for the 50 square kilometres under my beat. But I am alone,” he said.
In order to overcome the lack of manpower, forest guards rope in individuals — often those in charge of enclosures built to regenerate vegetation within the forest — to temporarily help in patrol duty. In areas where this is not possible, Abhinav takes a couple of local villagers along, as it is too dangerous otherwise.
Abhinav rarely eats his meals on time. He said: “I am out by 7 am, so I prepare extra food the night before. If I catch an offender, I take immediate action. As it is not possible to cover the entire area under my beat in one day, I spread it out across the week. My entire day is spent in patrolling the forest. I only return in the evening.”
One could sense the pain in his voice when he pointed out that youngsters prefer other well-paying government jobs in revenue, education, and police departments. “Our job is as tough as that of police officers, if not more. We work 24×7. A forest guard is stationed alone at his post while there are always three or four cops in a police station. Yet, we are paid less than them. We do not get mess or travel allowances either,” he explained.
Walking these trails every day has allowed him to build an intimate relationship with the forest. His sightings of three raptors – the crested serpent eagle, crested hawk eagle, and short-toed eagle – in 2019, and his observation of the Euphorbia jodhpurensis, a plant endemic to the deserts of Rajasthan in 2018, are the very first records from Todgarh-Raoli Wildlife Sanctuary. Chandan Singh Purohit, a scientist with the Botanical Survey of India, helped Abhinav publish research papers on these findings in 2020.
Abhinav was eager to share his knowledge with us. He thinks the sanctuary has great potential to attract more visitors, but hesitantly revealed that certain officials were not too keen in developing tourism. “There aren’t enough hotels here…existing forest rest houses are not properly maintained either. Why would tourists want to come if they do not get a good experience?” he asked.
Abhinav feels there is great potential for tourism in the sanctuary. “The forest department only needs to take an interest in developing tourism. More hotels and guesthouses are needed. They should also build watch towers and other such facilities for tourists,” he said.
Though he feels right at home in the jungle, Abhinav misses his family who stay in Pali. “Sometimes, it is three weeks in the jungle before I get an opportunity to see them. I have brought them here a couple of times. They see photos of me rescuing snakes, and feel my job is too dangerous. They tell me I should become a teacher instead,” he smiled.
As he drove ‘Toofan’ back to our forest rest house, he suddenly slammed on the brakes. “There, a pair of gleaming eyes,” he pointed at the darkness. We had our hearts in our mouths for a second. We looked through the vegetation to see a palm civet peering back at us.
“We have honey badgers here as well. They are even more elusive than leopards,” Abhinav offered in consolation for not being able to spot a big cat. A discussion on the fearless nature of the honey badger continued in the jeep.
Nightjars flew by as I looked in admiration at the brave guard at the steering wheel, unfazed by what the following day would throw at him.