Thiruvananthapuram: Officials of the State Forest Department are worried over the non-payment of salaries to the temporary watchers attached to the Marayoor Forest Division.
The division, with the most number of naturally grown sandalwood trees, appointed former sandalwood smugglers as temporary watchers in a bid to effectively prevent the illegal felling and transporting of the valuable tropical trees.
The non-payment of salaries, officers felt, might force the guards to return to their illegal ways.
The forest department has repeatedly raised the issue with the government, but the replies cited lack of funds as the reason for the non-payment of salaries.
The division has 220 watchers, including those assigned to chase away straying wild elephants. The watchers have been appointed for a salary up to Rs 18,000 a month, and they were yet to get the salaries of two months, which would cumulatively come to Rs 60 lakh.
The watchers were paid from the Forest Protection Fund. Though Rs 40 was allotted earlier, it was utilized to clear the pending dues.
The Marayoor division, spread over 64 square kilometres, currently has 59,784 sandalwood trees. Sandalwood has been priced at Rs 20,000 a kilogram. The division had lost 2,490 sandalwood trees to smugglers in 2005 alone.
Marayoor was a forest range till 2005. Once upgraded to a division, it has two ranges and four forest stations under its jurisdiction.