The Foul Forest - Part 4 | Marayur’s cat-and-mouse game is a test of survival skills in the wilderness

(This is the fourth part of 'The Foul Forest' series. Click to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Onmanorama will publish more on this in the coming days. )

The 108 ambulance service received a strange distress call in mid-July. The caller identified himself as an illegal logger who went to the Marayur forest to sneak out sandalwood trees. His companion met with an accident and was in need of urgent medical attention. The call helped bust just another of the many sandalwood thefts in Marayur.

The call was traced to Chandramangalam, a remote place at an elevation of 5,000 feet above sea level. Only jeeps can go to that area. The ambulance drivers informed the police after they found it impossible to reach the place and locate the person in need. The police called the number back and realized that the person who met with an accident inside the forest was a resident of Tamil Nadu.

The number was switched off soon after. The police and forest department officers went inside the forest to look for the person but their group was forced to retreat when an elephant herd came their way. The group returned the next day and found a dead body after a full day of combing the forest.

The diseased was identified as Satheesh, aged 35, from Tirupathur in Tamil Nadu on the basis of a note found in his pocket. He is suspected to have fallen into a 300-foot gorge while carrying stolen sandalwood logs. His companions called up the ambulance service before scooting with the load.

They were never found. The Forest Department has information that there were at least four people in the gang which stole two trees from Pallam near Kundakkad.

The investigators are familiar with the ways of the smugglers after years of tracing them. The gangs from Tamil Nadu always trace back their way to the border after stealing sandalwood trees. The pattern has remained the same after all these years. The gangs involved in the felling of the trees never cross the border with the contraband. That job belongs to other groups.

Most of the loggers who end up in Kerala’s forests are daily-wage labourers. They work for a pittance. Nevertheless, they are skilled in their trade. They observe the Forest Department’s moves for several days after crossing over to Kerala. Some of them quietly sneak into the forests where the sandalwood trees grow in abundance.

They wait for long for a suitable time to steal the trees. They would be well-stocked. In case the wait is extended and the supplies depleted, they do not mind stealing from the tribal hamlets. If any food item or vessel is reported stolen from any tribal settlements, the forest guards take it as a sure sign of the presence of smugglers from Tamil Nadu.

There are more clues left behind by the poachers. Some of the trees are so well hidden that they could have been pointed out to the smugglers only by insiders in the Forest Department. One of the forest watchers in Marayur found himself in the cross-hairs of the Forest Department after a bout of thefts in the area.

His porn addiction proved his nemesis. He wanted to watch porn videos on phone but did not know where to find it independently. He had a friend who helped him copy such videos on his phone. The Forest Department got that friend to install a call recorder in the watcher’s phone. When he returned for more videos, the friend recovered the recorded calls and handed them over to the authorities.

Most of the phone calls were between the watcher and the smugglers. He denied any involvement but could not withstand for long when he was confronted with the recordings. The investigation blew the cover of three watchers who had deep ties with the smugglers. One of them was a loyalist of the divisional forest officer.

Anyone can become a smuggling accomplice in Marayur. Sometimes people volunteer to cut down trees in return for a couple of beers.

Seasoned forest officers are experts in recovering stolen trees. The contract watchers recruited from among the tribesmen are expert trackers. They can retrace the trail left behind by the tree thieves. Most of the thefts happen around 2 am or 3 am. The thieves wrap saws around their waste while they trek through the forest. They could finish the job in 15 minutes. They would leave behind only a 1-foot tall stub.

Trackers can identify footprints in the densest of forests. They look for the spoor of sawdust, the undergrowth dragged aside by the logs, and the marks of the sticks on which the smugglers lean on in their arduous trek.

Smugglers are equally enterprising. They sprinkle sawdust and wood splinters around to mislead their pursuers. They would cut down plants to make a false trail. That is enough to get the forest watchers on the wrong direction for hours.

Some watchers can even guesstimate the number of thieves from the footprints they have left behind. They follow the footprints for hours to locate the logs hidden by the smugglers. “If smugglers walk for 40 kilometres, the watchers are forced to cover that much distance,” said Karuppan and Pachaiyan, temporary watchers working with the Forest Department. Smugglers brave the forest and the wildlife. So do the trackers.

Sandalwood theft is not limited to the forests. Marayur residents who happened to have sandalwood trees on their premises can expect the thieves to strike anytime. Smugglers have middlemen and informants in all the places. They are rewarded for each tree identified and pointed at.

Smugglers have an established modus operandi. They go to the owner of the sandalwood trees and make an offer that is far from attractive. Yet the owner is wise to accept the offer. Anyone refusing the offer might wake up the next morning to find the tree gone.

That would be a strange sight. Smugglers only take the trunk of the tree, having fastened the top branches with wires to the adjoining trees. The canopy would be left intact to avoid easy detection of the trunk’s absence.

Forest officers and employers have something to cheer them up during the tough work. Sometimes they come across cases when inexperienced smugglers have felled and carried other trees that were mistaken for sandalwood trees. The poor souls would have carried the heavy load through the forest across the border before they realize their folly.

(to be continued…)

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