The Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary is a haven for the endangered Himalayan musk deer. The coy animals hunted down for the musk they produce have a savior in M Neethu Lakshmi. The IFS officer from Ettumanoor in Kerala is in charge of the reserve forest spanning 975.2 square kilometers in Uttarkhand.
Lured by forests
Neethu Lakshmi was clear about her career when she passed the plus-two exams. She joined a B Sc forestry course. Her choice raised many a brow but she found unwavering support from her father C P Mani.
Her determination was cemented when she toured the forests of Kerala as part of her studies. She wrote the civil service exam to enter the Indian Forest Service.
Neethu Lakshmi served in Ranikhet and Almora before she was posted in the Kedarnath division. The forests adorning the valleys of the Himalayas were not easily accessible but Neethu Lakshmi was excited about her assignment.
“I was aware of the challenges when I took charge as the Deputy Conservator of Forests. I roamed the forest in my initial days on the job,” she said. The new officer had challenges abound. The department was short-staffed in Kedarnath. Many of the staff in the reserve were aging. Even the healthy found it difficult to access the remote corners of the forest.
People living on the fringes of the forest were far from being responsible, she was to learn.
Six years down the line, the officer is happy with her work. The state animal of Uttarkhand have had a free run in the sanctuary.
Hunters on the scent
“This wildlife sanctuary has about 100 musk deer. Hunters kill them for the musk because it is not easy to find the natural secretion from their glands. The poachers are helped by the native people to enter the forest and locate the animals. We have been running awareness campaigns but those have not been of much use,” Neethu Lakshmi said.
The area has seen an influx of Nepali laborers. “They are born hunters and they can withstand any harsh climate. They also hunt musk deer,” she added.
“The poaches find valuable help from local men who are looking for fast money. The women toil from dawn to dusk to support their families. They have too little time for the awareness campaigns run by the Forest Department,” the officer listed out her major challenges.
Musk deer are also threatened by the continuous shrinking of their habitat. Local people are encroaching forests to prepare new grounds for cattle grazing.
Musk deer are particularly fond of the rhododendron trees.“The end of these trees also means the end of musk deer,” said Neethu Lakshmi, who has started a mission to plant as many rhododendron trees and related local varieties.
Playing with fire
The foresters of Kedarnath are in constant conflict with encroachers. Neethu Lakshmi has rubbed many local politicians the wrong the way in her attempt to save the forest.
One such incident involved a pilgrimage center adjoining the forest area. An influential person encroached forest land to build a memorial for the members of his family who died in a flash flood in 2013. Neethu Lakshmi could not allow this encroachment. She got the construction razed in spite of the resistance from the local people and politicians.
During one of her patrols in the forest, the officer found a shocking site in a dhaba bordering the forest. Villagers in the area do cut logs to hold their polythene roofs in place. But this dhaba owner had cut more than 50 precious rhododendron trees.
Neethu Lakshmi ordered action against the dhaba owner. She found herself isolated by the local politicians and even the media, who tried to present a picture that the officer was depriving the dhaba owner of his livelihood. Neethu Lakshmi persisted and won her case. She is convinced that justice prevails in the end.
Wildfires are a constant threat. Almost 90 percent of the fires are caused by local people. Only 30 percent of the forest area in Kedarnath could be accessed by motor vehicles. Any fire reported in the rest of the areas is difficult to contain. The officer and her team have to trek the forest to contain fire by creating a firewall around the affected areas.
Paradise on earth
The forest division under Neethu Lakshmi’s care includes a stretch of the majestic Himalayas. “The snow-capped mountains, dense forests and meadows are nothing but a paradise on earth. There are hundreds of varieties of flowering trees and plants here. Those forests are the abode of rare birds and butterflies,” said the officer who love to track them. She has personally visited most of the forests in Uttarkhand.
Neethu Lakshmi has also visited the famous pilgrim spots in the state, including Kedarnath, Tunganath, Rudranath, Madhyamaheswar and Kalpeswar. “You have to be adventurous to reach these areas joining the Himalayas,” said the officer who has trekked to all these areas.
Neethu Lakshmi is still recovering from the death of her father who let her follow her dream. She says she is forever led by his advice to stay loyal to her work.
Her mother Geethabhai complains that she does not get to see her daughter even during holidays. The officer would be taking in the sights and sounds of the forest whenever she can. She has recorded for posterity beautiful images of the forest.
“The forest never scares me,” she said.