By Priya Ranganathan

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Walking in a dense Indian forest is nearly impossible without the trusty guidance of nature’s most stalwart protectors – the forest guards of the Indian Forest Service.

It was a hot summer’s day in western India, and we had parked our jeep near a patch of Prosopis juliflora, an invasive shrub that grows throughout the reserve. The air was still, and I could see heat waves rising off the rocky soil. Behind me, our stalwart guide, Mahesh Sahib*, was locking his rifle, which he carried slung across his body just in case. The reason? Why, we were in the midst of one of India’s most densely populated tiger reserves, where people and big cats lived side-by-side! An encounter with a tiger or leopard was as common here as sighting a Maruti Suzuki in the roads of Mumbai.

Mahesh Sahib was the most dependable person I had ever met. He carried himself with a solemn air that set him apart from the easy attitudes of the younger staff members we came across during safaris and while in the nearby towns. This was a man born to wear his uniform. He began his day at four thirty, well before the sun began to rise, and was out on patrol, his well-worn boots creating impressions in the soil right behind those of the big cats he guarded with his life.

When I learnt that Mahesh Sahib would be accompanying us on our initial field surveys, I was thrilled. The man was a treasure trove of information, and I couldn’t wait to learn about Ranthambhore from him. He and our beloved driver Jignesh shared a morbid sense of humour and often sat joking in the cab of the Gypsy while I hung on in the back and listened. Both hailed from the same village and were lifelong friends. When Jignesh stopped our jeep near a transect, Mahesh Sahib was the first one out of the vehicle, his sharp eyes scanning the surroundings for any sign of movement. Once he had deemed it safe for me, “the little memsahib” as he affectionately called me, to step down, I would hop off the back seat and we would start walking the transect.

Image: Priya Ranganathan

While walking transects, Mahesh Babu was full of stories. He told me the tale of a one-eyed tigress that used to roam the ruins of Khandar Fort, one of our transect sites. He had encountered the tigress multiple times, but neither man nor cat harmed one another. “We learn to respect all living things, here in the desert,” the man told me, pointing out brightly coloured birds even as he spoke. “We are people of the land, and the wildlife have equal rights to live in peace.”

His entire attitude towards wildlife and the jungle was one of respect and humility. Once, he held out an arm, preventing me from stepping forward, as a herd of spotted deer crossed the goat path that we were on. We stood silently as the deer trotted by, barely spooked by our presence. Such was the man’s intuition that he blended perfectly into his surroundings, teaching me to do the same. This remains one of the most valuable lessons I have learnt from my time in the forest.

Sadly, few people give forest guards the due credit they deserve. Their lives are certainly not easy; it is a daily job that is often unforgiving. They walk their rounds in the forest day after day, rain or shine, heat or cold. Sometimes, they must place their lives on the line while trying to protect humans or wildlife from one another, and often times, their passing goes unnoticed by the very people who are able to live their lives peacefully thanks to these guardians of the forest.

The next time you go on a safari or visit a national park, take a few minutes out of your exciting visit to salute our forest guards. You can spot them in their army green jeeps patrolling the parks, accompanying your tour bus driver on a safari, or at the forest outposts that you pass along the way. Smile, salute them, and thank them if you can. These brave men and women are the reason our wildlife can live safely within the protected parks that have been set aside for them. We owe them our thanks and respect.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the involved persons

About the Author:

Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam.

About the Artist:

Saloni Basrur is an artist who is also pursuing a career in conservation. She tries to bring her artwork to life through creativity and storytelling and hopes to continue doing so for conservation communication.