Wielding a GPS equipment in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other, Babli Meena walks down a flight of stairs to enter the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, treading on what was earlier an exclusive male ground.
Babli is one of the 19 female forest guards in the game reserve, which opened its door to women in 2011. Their work, though not risky, involves plenty of treks through forest trails to keep an eye on the protected denizens of the reserve.
In a red bag slung on her shoulder is a compass, a range-finder and two registers. Followed by two home guards closely, Babli’s job is to look out for wild animals, note their coordinates, distance from her and other details.
In the evenings, she also has to patrol the area to prevent illegal woodcutting and cattle grazing within the forest area. Babli is also one of the two beat guards in the buffer area of the reserve.
A forest guard is the entry-level post in the forest department but until 2011, women were not allowed, ostensibly due to the difficult work condition in the jungles.
In 2011, however, 33% of posts were reserved for women, and Sariska got 14 women forest guards. In 2013, 12 more were at the tiger reserve.
But seven women of first batch left to pursue a career in teaching. The remaining 19 are engaged in a host of duties – from manning the ticket counter to handling the control room, from being in the flying squad to beat duty.
“We have identified roles that women can do better, like manning ticket counter or taking tourists around in interpretation centre,” said RS Shekhawat, Sariska’s field director.
22-year-old Roshni, for instance, juggles data sheets and a wireless set in the control room, noting down locations of tigers fitted with radio collars and tracked by forest personnel.
“My job is to note down the location of tigers under heads of time, range, beat and number in these data sheets as I get information from the teams, and then pass them on to higher officials,” she said. However, the women guards are yet to be made part of teams which tracks the tigers.
“The chowkis in the critical tiger habitat (CTH) are not fit for women yet because under the present system only one guard is deputed in those posts, and they are in deep jungle,” Shekhawat explained. However, the beat guards do report pugmarks of tigers and panthers.
Like Sariska, the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve also has 25 women forest guards. “We have only two guards each on office duty in Ranthambore National Park and Karauli sanctuary (both part of the tiger reserve); all others are out in the field,” said RTR field director YK Sahu.
However, a forester said on condition of anonymity that the women guards are seeking different careers, some even preparing for the RAS.