Kochi, May 11: Several tribal and non-tribal women of Thekkady, living on the fringes of Periyar Tiger Reserve, have committed themselves to protect the Tiger Reserve and Sandalwood.
For six years these women have been part of an all-women forest patrolling team "Vasanta Sena" or, the Green Army, which patrols in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Today, their endeavour has converted this area almost safe from poaching and sandalwood cutting.
At the outset, these household women were given a uniform comprising of cap, jacket, stick and a knife to protect themselves from animals and poachers while patrolling in the reserve area.
Noorjehan, a Muslim woman, who never stepped out of her home previously, is now an active member of the group. Her husband encouraged her to join the Eco Development Committee (EDC).
Her interest deepened after she began attending Eco Development Committee's meetings and volunteered to be part of the "Vasanta Sena". Today, she is proud of her work that has prevented cutting of Sandal trees from the jungle.
"Our main aim during the patrolling is to protect the Sandal trees, earlier, there used to be 10 to 12 tree cut in the area. Butt now after 6 years of patrolling it has stopped drastically but not stopped completely and during night it is taking place, as being women we have some limitations which we cannot cross".
During their patrolling, these women at times have to encounter wild animals like elephants, pigs, bears and even poachers. For these housewives-turned-forest guards, such confrontations felt scary in the beginning. But with passage of time, these women have developed confidence to anticipate and handle presence of animals and poachers.
Everyday these women's start off patrolling by 11:00 in the morning and continue till 5:00 in the evening. They move around in a team of five with the main objective to protect the Sandalwood and the animals in the reserve from poaching.
Vasanta Sena takes delight in the fact that its patrolling has not only stopped poaching and tree felling but even curtailed the forest fire drastically in the recent years.
Vijayaamma Ballan, says that because of their patrolling the forest, there is no fire and animals have a lot of green to eat and roam freely in the reserve. "The poaching has stopped completely, earlier, people used to cause forest fire in the area with lit beedies (local cigarettes), which often caused a lot of loss to the jungle. But now there is nothing of that sort and the animals have plenty to eat and roam freely."
In 2006, these women were awarded the Amrit Devi Bishnoi Award, the highest award in India for wildlife protection. It also carried a cash reward of rupees 100,000 in recognition of their services.
To provide them a regular income, the forest department under the plan has opened few units of paper bag making, cane units and cycle safari centers for tourists near the fringe area.
"For their voluntary service offered to the reserve the forest department has come out with various plans to make them earn their livelihood and we have taken some initiatives like the paper bag unit where 15 of them are engaged and cane unit is there apart from cycles safari centers in the reserve for the tourists are on the cards", said the Forest Range Officer, Thekkady, Raju Francis.
Periyar Tiger Reserve, which is home to as many as 63 species of mammals, 323 species of birds, 44 species of reptiles, 28 species of amphibians, 38 species of fishes and 160 species of butterflies and 1,986 species of flowering plants.
What started as a small Eco Development project with the help of World Bank in 1996 for various activities has later, formed as women Self Help Groups for patrolling jungles is now becoming a role model in preservation of mother nature.