Responding to the killing of two forest frontline workers by alleged poachers at the Similipal Tiger Reserve (STR), the Odisha government has taken measures to safeguard the reserve and its wildlife.
They have established a joint task force (JTF) consisting of approximately 200 armed police and forest personnel.
Under the leadership of the field director of STR, the JTF comprises senior forest and police officers. It includes one company of armed constabulary (100 personnel) and 90 forest field staff, including guards from the Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF), a specialised unit for tiger conservation, as stated in an official notification by the Odisha forest department.
ALSO READ | Golden Tiger Spotted In Kaziranga
The JTF's main responsibilities include gathering intelligence, identifying individuals possessing illegal arms and ammunition in the fringe and buffer villages surrounding the tiger reserve, and creating a comprehensive database, the Indian Express reported.
Additionally, they are authorised to take decisive action to disarm those with illegally acquired weapons in the area.
To tackle potentially armed poachers inside the STR, the JTF can deploy forest and police personnel to vulnerable anti-poaching camps and sensitive locations for regular patrolling. The task force will also train forest personnel in firearm usage and dealing with armed poachers in the forest.
The terms of reference for the JTF have been designed based on the recommendations of a central team that visited the STR following the deaths of two forest field staff members within a month: forest guard Bimal Kumar Jena and forester Mathy Hansdah.
The killings deeply affected forest officials, senior officers, and forest guards, leading to a symbolic protest where field staff refused patrol duty.
They resumed their duties only after receiving assurances from the Odisha government that their demands, including enhanced protection measures, would be addressed.
Responding to the critical situation, the state government has granted immunity to forest personnel under Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) for using firearms in self-defence while confronting poachers within reserve forest areas.
Odisha becomes the third state in India, after Assam and Maharashtra, to implement such a measure.
The Similipal Tiger Reserve spans 2,750 sq km, with around 1,200 sq km designated as the core area or critical tiger habitat. However, out of the total 439 sanctioned posts, 192 remain vacant.
To address the shortage of manpower, STR authorities have engaged local youth as protection assistants (PAs) who work as unskilled workers.
ALSO READ | Tiger Conservation Efforts Of Bhutan Yield Fruit
The patrolling parties, consisting of four to five personnel, are equipped with only lathis. At the same time, poachers have resorted to using country-made guns instead of traditional bows and arrows.
Similipal is the second-largest biosphere in Asia and the only place in India where melanistic Royal Bengal tigers are found in the wild.
According to the recently released All India Tiger Estimation 2022, the number of tigers at the Similipal Tiger Reserve has increased from 8 in 2018 to 16 in 2022.