New York, NY – A major victory for wildlife protection forces was made last week with the launch of a new government-operated insurance program to cover all forest guards employed in the Indian state of Karnataka, which holds the largest number of wild tigers in India, and serves as a stronghold for this highly endangered species.
Forest guards in India’s Nagarahole Tiger Reserve with confiscated axis deer meat from poachers. Axis deer serve as a key prey source for tigers and leopards in the region.
Around the world, park guards are the keepers of the forests, protectors of wildlife, and serve as the front line of defence against poachers. Tigers, elephants, rhinos and other wildlife are being heavily targeted by poachers for the illegal wildlife market – which is a booming 19 billion dollar a year insidious industry. Poachers are highly organized and heavily out-fitted, more so than the park guards, who are often poorly paid, ill-equipped, and yet risk their lives to protect the world’s wildlife.
Recognizing the critical role government forest staff play in conserving tigers and other species, Sanjay Gubbi, the Tiger Program Coordinator for the big cat conservation group Panthera, spearheaded this program (the first of its kind to be offered even to temporary staff) to provide the much-needed insurance protection for nearly 2,500 wildlife park guards, anti-poaching patrol members, and other frontline enforcement staff working in extremely high-risk conditions throughout Karnataka’s five tiger reserves and 38 protected areas.
“Karnataka’s forest staff are on the front lines defending tigers and other wildlife from poaching, habitat loss, and overhunting of their prey. Their presence on the ground, patrolling these areas and mitigating key threats, is essential in protecting wildlife, and yet they often risk their lives doing so” Gubbi stated. “The adoption of this new insurance policy demonstrates the value that the Karnataka State Government places on the well-being of its forest staff and their commitment to wildlife conservation, and this program serves as a model for other states and countries around the globe.”
The new policy was presented by Gubbi, who worked with the State Government for several months to implement this insurance scheme, and it was formally approved during the Karnataka State Wildlife Board Meeting on Saturday, December 15th. The meeting was overseen by Chief Minister, Jagadish Shettar, and attended by instrumental supporters of the initiative, including Karnataka’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Dipak Sarmah, Forest Minister C. P. Yogeshwar, and former Indian cricket team captain, Anil Kumble.
Insurance is a critical security component and incentive for wildlife enforcement staff, and up until now there has been a significant dearth of such state-funded protection for fulltime and temporary workers. Without insurance initiatives, forest staff face illness, and a range of injuries from their jobs, some as serious as losing limbs, and even losing their lives. Worse yet, the families of guards who have perished, up until now, have been left without any form of government-funded social security.
Panthera’s CEO, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, stated, “Today, the Indian subcontinent is home to the world’s highest densities of tigers. If we are to see the species rebound from its current state of fewer than 3,200 individuals, the philosophy is simple: properly protect and equip the foot soldiers fighting to conserve the last viable tiger populations.” He continued, “We applaud Karnataka’s government for bolstering its wildlife protection forces and establishing a sound insurance model to be replicated across the tiger’s range.”
Forest guards patrolling Bandipur Tiger Reserve
Above all, highly organized and well-armed gangs of poachers targeting and trafficking animals for their meat, skins and body parts serve as the number one threat to tigers, their prey and to the wildlife enforcement patrols themselves. Serving as a biodiversity hotspot, the threat of poaching is particularly real within Karnataka State. Nestled in southwest India’s Western Ghats region, Karnataka is home to one of the world’s largest remaining wild tiger populations and substantial populations of the leopard, Asian elephant, and other endangered species. Today, Karnataka’s estimated population of 300 wild tigers primarily live within the region’s five tiger reserves, including the Bandipur, Dandeli-Anshi, Biligirirangaswamy Temple, Bhadra, and Nagarahole Reserves.
Expected to be fully established within these reserves in the coming year, the State’s insurance policy is currently being implemented on a pilot basis within Bandipur Tiger Reserve, where Panthera’s Gubbi has played a pivotal role in convincing the reserve Director, Kumar Pushkar, to provide insurance for the 471 wildlife enforcement staff. Pushkar, a dynamic officer, took up the suggestion immediately and implemented the policy.
In collaboration with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Gubbi and other field scientists are implementing Panthera’s Tigers Forever program to reduce habitat fragmentation of India’s tiger reserves, connect Karnataka’s remaining tiger populations to ensure the species’ genetic diversity, mitigate threats facing tigers and implement public awareness campaigns to galvanize local support for the future of this iconic species.