In the sprawling wildlife sanctuaries of southern India, a team of commandos has been deployed to protect tigers from poaching in the first ever initiative by India driven by a dramatic decline in the big cat's population recent decades.
After three months of training in jungle survival and weapons use, a 54-member “Special Tiger Protection Force” has begun patrolling two major tiger reserves, Bandipur and Nagarhole, which straddle the border of southern Tamil Nadu and Karnataka states.
The force will counter hunters and poachers, says Karnataka’s top conservation officer, B.K. Singh.
“[A] special course was designed for them to have combat training so that they can raise arms and fight the armed gangs, etc., who we generally come across every now and then in our tiger reserves… they will be equipped with proper arms," says Singh. "Hitherto our performance in capturing the armed guys has not been up to date, not been to our satisfaction.”
Wildlife experts have long contended that the lack of properly trained frontline staff to protect the tiger is one of the critical problems facing conservation efforts in Indian sanctuaries.
Many of the forest guards are older and do not have the necessary skills take on the highly sophisticated gangs which poach wildlife such as elephants and tigers, says Tito Joseph from the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
“Most of the forest guards are over 45 years old, those people cannot do better patrolling," Joseph says. "Also there is a need for young blood in patrolling areas. So the Special Task Force is constituted with young people.”
Forest officer Singh in Karnataka state says that unlike some of the northern states where the tiger is poached for its parts, the big cat itself is often not the primary target in southern India.
Instead, the hunting of animals like deer reduces possible prey for the tiger. As a result, he says, some tigers come to the edges of the forest in search of food and fall victim to hunters.
“The weaker ones once they get pushed out of the reserve, they come into human conflict, they are targeted for killing by the people living on the fringes," he says. "Or sometimes a snare is put for a wild boar, a snare is put for hunting a deer and a tiger gets into it and gets killed.”
Karnataka, with about 300 tigers in six forest reserves, has the highest tiger population in the country. But about 25 tigers have been killed in the last five years.
The state plans to double the commando force from 54 to 108 in the coming years. Similar forces will also be trained to patrol 13 other tiger reserves across the country.
India, with about 1,700 tigers, accounts for nearly half the world’s tiger population. Experts say the animal's survival here will determine the future of the species.