(This is the first part of 'The Foul Forest' series. Onmanorama will publish more on this in the coming days)
Forest officers were on a routine night patrol in a remote tribal hamlet inside the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctary in February last year when they stumbled on a strange track.
The tribal settlement, Palappetti, sat smug on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, making it an ideal location for sandalwood smugglers operating out of the neighbouring state. The forest guards were shocked to see the huge sandalwood tree gone. They had passed through the area around 45 minutes and everything was normal. The big tree was cut down and sneaked out in that brief period.
The officers hastily informed the Vannanthura forest station just 5 kilometres away and joined the contract employees in pursuit of the smugglers. It seemed an easy task. The smugglers had left a trail of sawdust from the fallen tree. The forest bed was trampled by the big contraband being dragged away.
The officers in hot pursuit suddenly stopped in their tracks when they heard a thudding voice approaching fast. A herd of gaur were stampeding their way. The smugglers had found the perfect weapon to cut out their pursuers. The officers and the employees scrambled to safety. The trail of the sandalwood tree was lost under a sea of hoof marks.
Marayur in Idukki district is famed for its sweet jaggery and sweet-smelling sandalwood forest. The sandalwood from the border region is priced for its unique qualities. Only 59,784 trees are left in Marayur. At the peak of the poaching, as many as 2,490 trees were stolen in 2005 alone. A kilogram of sandalwood costs around Rs 20,000.
The smugglers benefit from the hostile terrain and forest cover, which make it harder for the forest guards to keep a watch. The porous forest border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu has enough paths to smuggle out the scented timber.
Palappetti is one of the five major colonies of Marayur. The inhabitants of the colony believe that they have a right over the sandalwood trees. They are nudged by organised gangs from Salem, Palani and Erode areas in Tamil Nadu. The tribesmen are easy prey. They are encouraged to cut trees and sell it to the middlemen for meagre rewards like a motorbike or a mobile phone or even a bottle of alcohol.
They cut trees and hide them amid rocks until the middlemen show up. Sometimes, they provide ground support for the gangs from Tamil Nadu.
Bands of smugglers cut up trees and carry the logs on their heads for about 40 kilometres through the forest without taking a break. They go over the hills to cross the inter-state border past midnight and saw the logs to smaller contrabands that can be transported to the dens of Tamil Nadu.
Forest paths are created by herds of animals. Men follow that path. Poachers and smugglers, however, chart their own routes. They venture into the deep forests with ample help from forest dwellers. The daredevilry in hostile territory cannot be matched by forest guards. The poachers would be well-stocked with food that can last them several days. They follow the electricity posts for direction. They do not even use electric torches inside the forest.
The gangs from Tamil Nadu have a unique modus operandi. They always retreat the same way they advanced. Once they reached Marayur, they would contact their local helpers. Once they located the tree to be cut down, they finish their job within 15 minutes. They never use machine saws that could attract unwanted attention. They soak the lumber with yoghurt or other liquids to reduce the noise of sawing.
Once they cut up the lumber, they waste no time. They flee with the load through the forest. If they feel safe, they would cut up the load further and hide them securely in the forest. Mostly they carry it all the way to the Tamil Nadu border.
The forest dwellers help the smugglers out for a paltry sum of Rs 25,000 or a mobile phone for each tree, not realizing that the trees are worth lakhs of rupees once they cross the border. The timber is transported to the clandestine factories of Tamil Nadu where they are transformed for their international journey.
Sandalwood smuggling is coordinated on a hillock near Palappetti. This elevated land is the only spot in the vicinity covered by mobile phone towers. It is a hard trek from Marayur to Palapetti. There is a motorable road up to the Vannanthura sandalwood reserve. Palappetti lies five kilometres beyond in the deep forest.
Marayur has its share of other crimes too. Recently a policeman was viciously attacked in the town for challenging a maskless man. Forest officers were often at the receiving end in Marayur. Beat officer Jiju Kurian and his patrol team were attacked when they tried to stop a group of poachers from cutting down a tree in 2002. They were attacked again the same day as they were returning after filing a complaint with the police.
The officers spent months in treatment before they could return to duty. There were instances of smugglers raiding the forest station to recover the contraband of sandalwood.
(To be continued...)