New Delhi: For someone who had never even been to Ooty, a few hours from his hometown of Mudumalai, the three-day gruelling journey by train to New Delhi was indeed a long haul. That he would have at any cost, for he was here to receive the WTI Van Rakshak award from former President KR Narayanan.A tribal forest watcher in Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, M.Kalan has been instrumental in the arrest of a number of elephant poachers in the Mudumalai Range of the sanctuary in the last three years. In all cases, arms and ammunition were recovered from the

miscreants. His courage, dedication and hawk-eyed vigilance, going beyond the call of duty, has been a key factor in reducing the incidence of elephant poaching in the sanctuary. It was a recognition of this effort that fetched him the Van Rakshak Award, instituted by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), for 2003. The award was given away during the Fifth Venu Menon National Animal Awards here on February 19.

M Kalan has not been fortunate to move around as he could have wished. As a young boy, he fantasised of joining the army. All he wanted was to serve the country. Though the dream of donning the fatigues remained one, he did get the chance of slipping on a uniform when he was employed by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department as a forest watcher in Mudumalai WLS in 1998. Kalan, a Kuruba tribal, lives on the outskirts of the sanctuary.

“I do not have any regrets about not being able to join the army,” he says. “Protecting forests is like serving the country by other means. My father is a mahout with the forest department and my home is very close to the sanctuary. Throughout I have grown up seeing and learning about wildlife.”

Kalan is intrepid. All he has to carry are a torch and a laathi. Guns are carried by forest guards. “There is always a risk of getting killed or becoming injured during any anti-poaching duty. What matters, however, is the result. It doesn’t matter if all patrolling operations are not fruitful, but what does is the presence of department’s people in the sanctuary,” he avers.

He believes regular patrolling at night goes a long way in preventing poaching activities. To catch poachers in the act, or even on the wrong foot, it is imperative to go about discharging duties at night. “Poachers are always well-informed, and even carry sophisticated weaponry,” he says. In other words, poachers have to be beaten at their own game.

Kalan does not think he flirts with danger. “Daily duties like patrolling the forests and gathering information about poaching activities inside the sanctuary and catching the poachers gives me immense satisfaction. It gives me immense pride when I hear someone saying that poaching levels have reduced in Mudumalai,” he says.

He does not harbour lofty ambitions; he just wants to do his mite. “I like to continue this job. We must keep patrolling the forests, and keep a close watch on certain high risk areas. These areas require more attention,” he says.

Kalan reiterates his being “happy” merely with the forest department. Words of enouragement from superiors come as a shot in his arm every time. “Once a month, we have a meeting with the park warden. This meeting is a source of motivation for all of us to perform our duties

with commitment and loyalty.”

He wants more youngsters from his village to join forest department.“Local boys are more aware about the trails and routes of the forest. I believe that they will make better guards.” Kalan feels his getting the WTI Van Rakshak Award is going to spur more of his tribesmen to come

forward to protecting forests and wildlife.