The death of forest watcher Ashok (23) in the deep forests of Siddavatam in Kadapa district on Wednesday after being allegedly assaulted and pushed into a deep valley by a woodcutter from Tamil Nadu, has shattered the mental peace of his colleagues working for the forest department, joining the rangers and beat officers during combing operations.

Instead of using the traditional routes of passing through Chittoor district to reach the adjoining Kadapa district, which has over 70% of the total concentration of red sanders trees in the State, the smugglers have reportedly been changing the route from time to time. The woodcutters from Tamil Nadu are made to enter the forest ranges in Kadapa and Rajampeta divisions taking circuitous routes through Karnataka and western parts of Chittoor and Nellore districts. The sudden influx of the woodcutters in large numbers into the thick forests criss-crossing precipitous slopes and valleys has baffled the forest officials in recent weeks.

When a batch of seven forest staff, including five watchers (on outsourcing), entered the Siddavatam range, travelling over 17 miles through forest track and after a gruelling trek to a hilltop, little did they expect to encounter a mob of woodcutters, outnumbering them by more than five times.

The official version is that when the small force with a pump gun shouted at the woodcutters to surrender at the hour of dusk, the latter allegedly took to slinging axes, machetes and stones at the forest staff. In the melee, Ashok tried to catch hold of one of the fleeing woodcutters on a steep slope. “After assaulting the watcher, the woodcutter pushed him into the valley,” said Divisional Forest Officer (Kadapa) Siva Prasad.

The tragic turn of events has led to many apprehensions in the minds of the forest and police officials. The forest watchers sans proper uniforms and shoes have to chase highly skilled woodcutters on the dangerous slopes of the Seshachalam hill ranges. Compared to other ranges in the biosphere, those in Kadapa division are considered risky, with undulating terrain steeped in valleys and ridges.

The young generation of woodcutters from the north western districts of Tamil Nadu are now sporting jeans and running shoes, also assisted by ropes and gloves to tackle the difficult terrain, though the older generation and vast majority of the young batches still continue with traditional wear of lungis and slippers. In both these cases, the woodcutters show equal prowess in agility while negotiating the difficult terrain, day or night. The modern gadgets will be an additional advantage to the woodcutters when cornered by the combing parties.

Inspector General of Police (AP Red Sanders Task Force) M. Kantha Rao said that the task force had urged the forest and police personnel a number of times to be cautious while undertaking combing operations in deep forests.

“When the forest squads undertake the risky combing operations without arms and acting on information about influx of woodcutters, they are sought take escort of the task force. Tackling the woodcutters on slopes is very difficult, as their ‘jungle lore’ is more than three to four centuries old, passing on from one generation to other,” he said.

Generally, the forest department supplies uniform to the watchers once in a year, and there is no definite plan regarding shoes. “When the tragedy took place in Siddavatam forest, the victim (Ashok) was not in uniform, and I am not sure whether he was wearing shoes,” the DFO (Kadapa) said.

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