Battling the odds to save forest from smugglers

"Stand in rows of three. Start the count... we are 58... No mix-up please, don't attack your own men."

"Form three groups. Gunmen, in front. It's 10 pm, let's go."

Led by range forest officer Laxman Aware and assistant conservator of forests Adarsh Reddy, the teams set off on an operation against teak smugglers in Sironcha, at 3,151 sq km one of India's largest forest divisions. They descend the slopes off NH-16. Mostly wearing chappals and holding torches, they walk 5 km on the arterial road, slippery and noiseless after the rains.

Cartwheel tracks come into view. These soon fork into two and the teams divide. One, led by Aware and Reddy, follows the tracks to a key junction of the forest and waits there on the presumption that further carts will arrive.

Aware gets a text message from the other group that at least five carts are likely to be on that side. "Alert us as soon as you see them," he replies.

After 40 minutes of fruitless waiting, the group starts walking back. Then the sound of carts is heard and the team pauses, taking position behind bushes and trees. The sound, however, never grows louder; the carts are on not on this route. The walk resumes and the teams after an hour in Ankisa. The tracks can still be seen but the carts are likely to have taken the highway. The smugglers have managed to escape the team in the maze of paths.

"We missed them, but well done," Reddy says. The tired teams depart in vehicles parked on the highway.

The trade

For some 15 years, India's key teak forest has been witnessing a fierce battle between the timber mafia and the forest enforcement. A nexus between villagers in Maharashtra and timber traders from Andhra Pradesh has robbed the forest of several thousand teak trees. Figures available since 2005 of seized material account for only 18,000 trees at an annual average of 2,500. Besides, 9,000 non-teak trees too have been found felled during these years.

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