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In Pursuit of Illegal Loggers in India

Unknown Logger.

In India in a rural area along the border with Bangladesh, Tripp Burwell, member of the Society for Conservation Biology, was helping local villagers learn about forest conservation when they heard the sounds of illegal loggers at work. Pursuit of the poachers resulted in an opportunity to apprehend and talk with the interlopers from a neighboring village, and a lesson in understanding the economic forces that drive people to harvest protected trees.

BAGHMARA, Meghalaya, India–“No, no. You go first,” I exhaled as I hauled myself up another knife-sharp limestone boulder.

An Indian Forest Officer, carrying a loaded gun, stumbled, and then heaved himself up and around me.

“Thwunk! Thwunk! Thwunk!”

We had started at dawn with all the male villagers in Kosi Gittim (“Kosi Village” in the local Garo tongue) – a few dozen men in total.

“Thwunk! Thwunk! Thwunk!”

They looked to me. Shrugging, I simply pointed towards the noise rippling through the forest on the edge of Balpakram National Park.

“Thwunk! Thwunk! Thwunk!”

Peering around bus-size boulders, we saw only empty forest.

“Thwunk! Thwunk! Thwunk!”

Cut logs, ready for floating down river to Bangladesh, lined the path.

First one man, then another, turned back from a hilltop.

“Thwunk!”

The men of Kosi shouted.

“Thwunk!”

There was no third axe stroke this time, only the loud flow of our group charging clumsily over boulders and the sound of sandals swishing across leafy forest floor as the shocked loggers sprinted from our nervous advance.

Fallen tree.
An illegally logged tree. Credit: Tripp Burwell

“Have you ever bought firewood,” Kamal Medhi asked the group of men huddled around the fire. Everyone in Kosi gittim laughed. Who would buy firewood? All the firewood the village could ever need grew within a short walk of the gittim.

“Five, ten years ago, how many streams did you have?” Kamal continued. The laughter eased. Nine previously perennial streams now carried water only during the height of the wet season.

Kamal nodded; he knew this refrain. The Indian government had promoted orchards for soil conservation and income generation, a good idea in some areas. But, in places like Kosi gittim, turning jungle to orchard could create more problems than it solved.

Kosi gittim lies in north-east India, outside Balpakram National Park in the state of Meghalaya, two long bus rides away from the closest major airport in Guwahati, Assam. Kamal worked for Samrakshan Trust, an NGO working to encourage environmental conservation throughout India.

I had come from the U.S. to teach the Samrakshan staff how to map and conserve forest cover.

A truck drives through Baghmara, the closest town to Balkpakram National Park. Credit: Tripp Burwell

Step 1) Where does forest survive?

We visited gittims around Balpakram, showing maps of the area, laced with blue lines of stream beds. Concentric circles tightened around the tops of hills. We would ask members of the gittim how they used the land, “Where is your forest? Where are your orchards? Can you draw it for us?”

Step 2) Why are the streams drying up?

The men of Kosi gittim felt lack of rain was responsible for the dry streams. Kamal then explained the connection between deforestation and the depletion of water resources.

“It happened to us in America as well,” I chimed in. “We cut down too many trees and our rivers either ran dry or flooded. In some places, we have still not recovered. We did not take responsibility for our land.”

The men of Kosi remained skeptical of the effects of deforestation in their village, insisting that an illegal Bangladeshi logging ring was the main cause of tree loss.

Step 3) Inspire ownership.

Kamal had heard this deflection before. Kosi was on the Indian side of multiple layers of barb-wire border fence; it sat just uphill from Bangladesh.

Kamal countered, “Do the Bangladeshi loggers irritate you? It’s like someone stealing your property while you are asleep. Do you want to stop it? If you want to stop it, we want to help.”

Murmurs of agreement slowly crawled around the fire. The nokma, or headman, consented. The men talked late into the night of the retribution they would inflict.

Preparing cut logs for transport. Credit: Tripp Burwell

Step 4) Catch loggers.

The laughter and noise of the excited men sprang ahead of us. We tried first one path, then another, not knowing quite how to locate members of an illegal logging ring on the edge of a dense national park.

Late in the morning, we reached a string of squarely trimmed logs. Ashy remnants of small fires freckled the path.

“Thwunk! Thwunk! Thwunk!”

Everyone paused.

“Thwunk! Thwunk! Thwunk!”

Panic paralyzed the group. The line of men rolled back on itself, transforming into a circle.

“Thwunk! Thwunk! Thwunk!”

The evening’s strong words wilted before the thud of the axe. Everyone wanted to turn around, perhaps return another day. What kind of monsters might these Bangladeshis be?

Kamal told the men, “You must understand. The government will not solve these problems for you. Only you can solve your problems for you.”

The nokma agreed.

“Thwunk! Thwunk! Thwunk!”

The men of Kosi armed themselves with sticks.

The Forest Officer loaded his rifle.

“Thwunk! Thwunk! Thwunk!”

We marched.

The border fence between India and Bangladesh. Credit: Tripp Burwell

Our awkward onslaught seized one of the illegal loggers. He was Garo, from a neighboring gittim, not Bangladeshi. High wages from Bangladesh syndicates spurred him (and his companions) to steal wood from their neighbors after his gittim had run out of timber.

Near Balpakram, the border between the two countries is stark for two reasons: intense fencing and tree cover. Bangladesh is bereft of the forests that frequently dot, and sometimes blanket, the hills on the Indian side.

The first logger led us to where more were hiding. Kamal convinced the Kosi men to interview the trespassers to gather information about their efforts. We shared snacks and biri, or cigarettes rolled in grass. Finally, we took a group photo and then parted ways.

Group photo with members of Kosi Gittim, illegal loggers, and the author. Credit: Kamal Medhi

Before I left for India, my dad and I wanted to set up a stand for hunting deer on land we own. We had an ideal spot in mind, with several natural shooting lanes. We strode through pines which belonged to us almost exclusively in name, mocked by our own “No Trespassing” signs. Arriving at our ideal spot, we found the place littered with carcasses. We set up our stand in a decidedly less desirable location.

I visited the stand when I returned from India. Wrappers from cookies which neither Dad nor I had eaten and shells from bullets we had not fired greeted me. It happens to us in America as well.

Tripp Burwell is the student representative for the Board of Directors of the North American Chapter of SCB. His most recent conservation project focused on snow leopards in eastern Kazakhstan. He is currently studying for a master’s degree at Duke University. Tripp worked in northeast India at the start of 2010.

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