Desired by the Dunes: The Story of a Female Forest Guard
In the sandy folds of a wind sculpture,
under a crimson sky, her shadow gets
lighter and lighter as the sun sets.
Sukhpali, a thin 30-year old with
a long, luscious braid, walks briskly
into an arid expanse.
Racing on top a rocky mound,
she watches over what shimmers
like infinite gold -
The Great Indian Desert in
Sukhpali was the first female guard to be recruited on the field in the Sudasari range of Desert National Park (DNP) in 2013. She reminisces of her early days - patrolling over isolated trails, with only male guards at checkpoints for company.
Spanning an area of over 3,162 square kilometers, Sukhpali’s abode, the DNP, is not a national park, but a wildlife sanctuary that was notified in the early 1980s to preserve the ecosystem. It is the largest protected area in the west Indian state of Rajasthan, spreading over the districts of Jaisalmer and Barmer.
But things have changed for Sukhpali since she first joined, much like dunes that shift shapes with the gale.
Now, there are six more female forest guards on the field, three in her Sudasari range in the DNP. Initially posted alone, she now lives with her husband Harpal Singh and her year-and-half-old daughter, Navneet.
Life in the Desert
As the stars draw a velvet curtain over the scrubby landscape, a bulb lights up in a small ‘jhumpa’, a traditional roundhoused hut part of a small cluster in Sudasari. The range is located about 60 kilometers from Jaisalmer city. Sukhpali changes out of her khaki uniform into a simple salwar-kameez. The wind whistles folklore of a regal land and the forest guard turns mother, trying to coddle Navneet to sleep.
Temperatures in the desert swing between a scorching 50 degrees celsius (122 degrees fahrenheit ) in the summers to below two degrees (35.6 degrees fahrenheit ) in the winter months. Medical care is slightly far away, but the guards use a patrol jeep to reach the nearest facility in emergencies.
“There isn’t much electricity,” she laments further. “Solar cell charges our phones, a bulb and a small table fan. The phone also doesn’t catch network most of the time.” Sukhpali’s home is provided by the forest department and is simple, with a small kitchenette and a bed, along with a water cistern that gets refilled by a visiting tanker periodically.
“Water is limited,” she says. “There is a small monsoon stream that forms nearby and we get our tanks filled from that supply.”
DNP’s deputy conservator, Anoop K R, acknowledges that conditions are hard for guards on the field. “It is even harsher for female guards,” he explains. “First and foremost, their safety is our worry. We cannot post them too far into the desert at isolated chowkis. Sukhpali has her husband now, but what about an unmarried guard? There are only limited positions where we can put them.”
Setting up a rotation system between female guards to be posted between Sudasari and Sam, a range with slightly better access to amenities, he points out that Sukhpali is different. “She likes Sudasari, she wants to stay there.”
Being a forest guard wasn’t Sukhpali’s first choice of work. With a B.Ed and an M.A degree in Hindi and Political Science, she wanted the stable and more convenient life of a teacher.
“My marks couldn’t get me through the requisite examinations for teaching,” she rues. “Then this vacancy in the DNP was advertised and I applied.” Sukhpali’s situation is no different from most educated guards on the field - for them, their job in the desert is either a staging ground or a mere fallback option.
“The first generation of guards, they did things differently,” says Anoop K R. “But now situations have changed.”
The job of a forest guard in the wildlife division does not come easy - if compared to a beat job in the police, the grade pay is lesser and forest guards have to stay inside the protected area, generally in remote conditions. They patrol for kilometers together, and unlike most other government posts, they do not have fixed working hours. For protection, guards in DNP simply carry lathis to ward off danger.
“We know their challenges,” says Anoop K R. “We try to give them additional facilities like solar lights and sleeping bags to make it a little easier for them.” Despite this career being her Plan B , Sukhpali wears her forest guard badge with slight pride.
Protecting the Great Indian Bustard
Due to manpower constraints, the park authorities concentrate their intensive management in only about five per cent of the DNP in the form of fenced closures. In the remaining area, they carry out eco-development activities and control encroachment, poaching and other violations. Sukhpali guards one such enclosure, roughly the size of 50 football fields.
Early next day, at the break of dawn, she gets ready for an early round of patrol. Her husband and another forester accompanies her, hoping to sight some interesting creatures in the cooler hours of the morning.
The DNP is home to diverse wildlife such as Chinkaras (Indian gazelle), Nilgai, the Desert Fox, and the park’s poster bird, the Great Indian Bustard (GIB).
Locally known as ‘Godavan’, the critically endangered GIB is an indicator species of the desert ecosystem. One of the heaviest flying birds with a small distributed population of about 200 individuals, the GIB can weigh up to 15 kgs and grow up to a metre in height. Persistence of this species depends on the desert landscape, where roughly 75 per cent of the global population resides.
However, due to hunting, development projects such as wind farms and power lines, and agricultural use of desert land, the bird’s existence is severely threatened. Charting out a plan for its recovery, the Rajasthan Government has invested over 12 crore rupees into a programme called ‘Project Bustard’ for a period of 2013-2017 , focusing on collaboration with NGOs and research institutions, scientific surveys to understand distribution patterns, conservation actions, training and breeding initiatives.
Sukhpali has attended several of the educational sessions organised by the forest department, however, she has a lot more to learn on the field. “I have not seen a bustard’s egg till now, I hope I can see one soon,” she mutters.
Spotting a clogged water point, she wades through a patch of dry grassland to clean it with her bare hands. Meanwhile, her husband and colleague inspect a camouflaged camera setup on a rock nearby. The device snaps a picture of the waterhole every ten seconds.
Villages, Development and Encroachment
The DNP is a unique landscape that is vast and extremely fragmented. There are close to 93 villages located within the notified region with a total population of more than 50,000 people. The cattle population of these villages is approximately 4,00,000. Beyond the boundaries of the fenced enclosures, farmers grow crops such as Bajra (pearl millet) and Guar (cluster bean).
“Sometimes, in the middle of the night, we find their cattle grazing on our side of the fence,” Sukhpali says. “They eat up the indigenous ‘sewan’ grass, in which the bustard lays eggs. So we sieze the cattle, put them in a compound, and issue the villagers with a ticket. Once they pay the fine in the office, they can come collect their cows, goats or sheep from us.”
Some villagers also try to illegally farm on government land. Earlier in July, a group of guards in Sudasari received information that villagers had trespassed boundaries using four to five tractors. When they reached the spot along with police officials, around 100 villagers, who were hiding nearby, attacked the team with sticks, stones and weapons. The guards managed to escape from the spot, however, they were injured.
The need for basic amenities in the settlements has also been a bone of contention with the forest authorities. Following the Wildlife Protection Act, villages in the notified sanctuary area were only allowed to carry on with traditional practices that were not detrimental to desert wildlife. However, considering their pathetic living conditions, DNP officials only recently sanctioned close to 1,034 small works as part of a comprehensive plan for 2017-27, focusing on providing basic amenities such as drinking water, electricity, schools and health facilities while causing minimum damage to the environment of the sanctuary.
“We need to think about the villagers as well,” Anoop KR says. “Their resentment towards the park authorities should not increase. Most of what has been sanctioned consist of single-point works, they cause only one-time disturbance.”
Sukhpali, however, is conflicted about development in the DNP. “I know it is important, and perhaps it will even benefit us who live in the desert,” she says. “But what about the bustard? We need to think about the bird. We must keep its habitat as it is. If there are roads, then more people will commute in the area, causing more interference.”
A Role Model
As the heat becomes unbearable by noon, Sukhpali and her entourage return to their huts for lunch. Navneet sits on a chair waiting for them, under the care of fellow forest guards. She munches on a succulent gulabjamun, a luxury addition to the otherwise simple food consumed in the desert.
Sukhpali wipes off her sweat with the frayed end of her dupatta and beams at her daughter. “I’m so glad I can provide for her.”
She understands the importance of being the breadwinner of her household.
She acknowledges her husband Harpal Singh’s support as well. “He moved to the desert for me,” she says. “I wasn’t even thinking of applying for the DNP when I heard that there was only one vacancy, but he bought the forms for me. He said there is no harm in trying. He didn’t let my education go to waste.”
Singh now works in the DNP on a contract position. He helps his wife patrol, tackles wandering cattle, and looks after Navneet when Sukhpali is busy. The only reason why the couple would leave Sudasari in the near future, they say, would be to put their daughter in a good English medium school.
Sukhpali may not be the only female forest guard on the field in Sudasari today, but she knows her relevance in the park community. As the sky blushes crimson, her eyes skim over the distance. A snakecharmer walks past disguised as the wind, bringing the burnt desert back to life.
One day, she will bring Navneet to the top of the rocky mound. Together, they will watch the sun set on a golden land.