The seizure of sandalwood of an estimated worth of Rs 50 lakh following the arrest of 15 tribals from the Jawadhu hills earlier this week has put the spotlight on the Amirthi forest rangers under whose jurisdiction the smuggling attempt was thwarted.
Although 15 tribals were arrested in Tuesday’s sandalwood seizure, at least five others reportedly escaped. “Illicit felling is usually undertaken around 5 am when Forest staff after their routine rounds get tired,” officials said, adding, “It was pure luck we heard the sound of cutting in the still morning air as the smugglers were using electrical cutters which are noiseless”.
The smugglers also reportedly entered the dense forest region on their vehicles. Asked how they were able to do so, sources said that the smugglers usually took to such paths which allowed the ingress of four wheelers. In the incident on Tuesday, the smuggler’s vehicles were reportedly parked as near as 500 metres from the spot where the sandalwood trees were being cut away. Forest staff also mentioned how they were surprised that the smugglers were able to zero in the trees as only around 40 sandalwood trees are located in the area.
However, sources mentioning the Amirthi range only to have 17 staff members against the sanctioned strength of 25 could throw light on how the smugglers manage to carry on their activity in the region. Besides, though all staff are trained to handle weapons and even possess double barrel guns and a Glock 17 pistol capable of firing 17 9 mm rounds in one go, officials said they could use them primarily only for defence purposes. Hit by cumbersome official procedure to use them, the weapons are now being used during the “annual Ayudha pooja” only, they added.
Also, although top officials have promised additional staff to improve better patrolling of the range, Amirthi located on the Vellore-Tiruvannamalai district border reportedly helps smugglers move into the nearby Sandavasal range in Tiruvannamalai district in the event of an escape. “This is especially true of illegal red sanders tree fellers from Tiruvannamalai district who, if having their members killed by Andhra Pradesh forest staff in the Seshachalam forests, carry their dead in a sitting posture in cars which use the Amirthi route to enter Tiruvannamalai district via the Sandavasal range,” sources said.
The Forest staff are also aggrieved that efforts to curb illegal entry into the reserve forests is opposed by human rights groups who claim that such moves affect the livelihood of tribals. “Even those living in the periphery of forests and let graze animals inside know the paths and location of sandalwood trees in the area and provide information to smugglers for a price,” they said.
In the Amirthi incident, sources said that the sandalwood trees were cut at ground level as they were mature. “If such cutting creates problems, the smugglers then cut it about one foot from the ground,” the officials said.
Officials also said that even booking offenders was fraught with worry as the accused could easily turn the tables on Forest staff by complaining to the magistrate about them when presented in court.
“When the accused in Tuesday’s incident were taken to the court in Tirupattur, they gave different ages to different officials which delayed cases being registered against them. Also, the magistrate asked the accused whether officials resorted to third degree methods to elicit information. They also physically examine the accused to ensure they were not mistreated,” they rued.
Besides, another issue that hinders the curbing of smuggling in the region is locals proving vital to the culprits in carrying the illegal activity.
It may be recalled that in the ’80s, Jawadhu hills was the hunting round for sandalwood smugglers who would pay tribals to extract the priced trees from deep within the forest.
Though rules stipulate that only dead trees can be extricated, Forest staff were unable to get tribals’ support as the rates they offered were based on the Forest Schedule of Rates (FSR), which though updated occasionally, was not compatible with payment meted out by smugglers, sources said.
Besides, sandal tracts were planted under the coupe system to ensure sandalwood availability even after harvest. Alternate coupes would be harvested to ensure the same.
However, after sandalwood trees were removed from the area in the ’90s, “the coupe system was stopped. Now we plant saplings randomly inside the forest which is known by locals who go inside to graze their livestock,” sources said.