Changing of The Guards

My name is Bal Kumari Mahato and I come from a small village called Baghkhor in Nepal overlooking Chitwan National Park. At 19 years, I feel proud to be making a difference in protecting my community forest from poaching and wildlife crimes.

I am one of the twenty members of the community-based anti-poaching unit in my village. We are a voluntary outfit, taking time off on Saturdays to get together and head out to the forest in search of illegal activities and making sure our forests, which my community has been managing for more than a decade, are safe from poaching and illegal logging.

© Akash Shrestha / WWF Nepal

Our anti-poaching unit was established a year ago in 2015 and till date, we haven’t reported a single case of poaching. But this was not the case many years ago when my village was just being built. As a child, I was aware of the local villagers hunting wildlife, primarily deer and wild boars, for their personal needs. Forests, back then, were also cut down as clearings for the village and agriculture and to serve household needs for firewood.

However, things have changed a lot ever since our local community got together, understanding the importance of intact forests, and organizing themselves into a community forest users group to manage the forest and set rules for the sustainable use of its resources. Rhinos and tigers now walk freely in this safe refuge and my village opened its doors to tourism through a growing homestay program established back in 2013 allowing outside people to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The new income earned from the homestay program has been a huge boost to our morale; we consider it an incentive for all the work we have put into building our forests and protecting nature’s bounty that we can sustainably benefit from.

I feel all of this gives me and my team a huge responsibility, to safeguard all that my community has helped build over the years. This is why we chose to walk the path set by our elders, literally.

© WWF Nepal

On a normal Saturday, we first get together at our office to discuss on the course of the day, chalking out a patrol plan from morning to evening. Each member brings food from home which we share during our lunch break in the forest. Armed with nothing but a wooden stick, we head out in groups of eight to ten members in our weekly patrols that last about eight hours. Most of the time, we come across people who have illegally entered the community forest for firewood or fodder. We make it a point to convince them of their wrong-doing and sometimes fine the perpetrators and confiscate axes and sickles that they carry. We have recently introduced night patrols too thanks to the support of WWF. We have been provided with jackets, hats, tents, torchlights and field gear, all of which have helped in our patrols. All the work that we do is voluntary and support such as this is much needed.

On any other day, we could get a call from the local community at any time if they spot a problem that requires the help of my unit. In one particular incident, a rhino had entered the village and it was quite a task for us to guide it back to the forest. And it wasn’t just the rhino we had to guide but also the local people who were obviously quite surprised with the spectacle with some of them trying to approach the rhino for a photograph! This is why we also spend a lot of time with the local people in the village, going from household to household, speaking to them about conservation and the need to be responsible when it came to wildlife, the forests, and its natural resources.

© Akash Shrestha / WWF Nepal

Though our anti-poaching unit is a little more than a year old, I feel we need to start looking into the future already to look at ways we can sustain our operations. As one idea, I think it is important that we create a small fund within the unit from which we can reimburse recurring expenses involved in our anti-poaching operations for things as simple as phone call charges, for example. Personal insurance could also be something to consider in the future as we work in the frontlines, in the forests, in the broader fight against wildlife crime.

Before I joined the anti-poaching unit, I considered myself just another girl in the village, busy with her books and a household help. Today, I feel there is much more to my existence. I have grown together with these forests and it is a bond that I will need to protect and nurture, as a guardian and the guarded.

WWF works with local communities in Nepal to build conservation stewardship for the sustainable management of forests and natural resources. There are presently over 400 community-based anti-poaching units being supported by WWF in Nepal’s Terai Arc Landscape.