Wayanad, India : Saving the forest : High hazard and Little reward. India's part-time watchers brave tigers, poachers and fires, all for $143 a month.

Armed only with a bamboo stick, Bijesh T.K. was part of a team looking for a tiger that had escaped from a wildlife sanctuary. But the Tiger saw him first.

''It tried to bite my neck, but thankfully my helmet protected me,'' he said., describing the attack last year near Wayanad, in the southern state of Kerala. ''Its jaw was so wide that my whole head could fit inside.''

There was nothing his colleagues could do. They tried to shoo the tiger away, but it clamped its teeth onto Mr. Bijesh T.K.'s right arm, refusing to let go, before finally slipping back into the wilderness. His left arm was left permanently damaged.

Mr. Bijesh T.K. and hundreds of other part-timers across India risk their lives every day on a frontline job that is vital for preserving the country's forests but often pay less than minimum wage.

They battle poachers, criminal gangs, fires and other disasters, in this part of the country, where forests mingle with villages, they are the de facto peacekeepers between humans and wildlife.

It's a broad mission that involves deterring wildlife from eating crops and livestock near protected areas, while also guarding both the lives and livelihoods of local residents and the wildlife that could face reprisal attacks by communities.

This part of southern India has the largest contiguous tiger population in the world, with more than 720 tigers prowling a biodiversity hotspot in the Western Ghats, mountain range moving among at least five tiger reserves that sprawl across three states.

This region also has the largest Asian elephant population in the world, and wild animals are a common sight.

''The herd comes trooping one yard at 7:30 p.m several days a week,'' said Lalitha, 72, who uses one name.

''We can't grow anything here. If the elephants don't destroy it, then the deer or the wild boar come and eat out fruit and vegetables. We can't step out out of the house at night.''

Forest watchers, who report to guards recruited at the state level, are typically ill equipped to deal with such situations. They are often members of local communities and indigenous tribes who traditionally helped with tasks like patrolling protected areas and fighting forest fires.

MR. BIJESH T.K. 38, received the helmet and safety jacket only days before he was attacked. That meager protection had been a hasty response to another mauling by the same tiger.

But as a part-time forest watcher, he was not eligible to receive compensation from the Kerala forest department after the attack. The government helped pay for his treatment and continued to pay his monthly salary.

He also received  $334 from a nonprofit group that helped pay the medical bills.

''Foresters need to be given the same respect that our armed forces get,'' said Vivek Menon, the founder of the Wildlife Trust of India, which gave Mr. Bijesh T.K. the extra money and has been pushing for more recognition for frontline staff members.

There is little data on serious injuries to forest watchers in India, but the country has recorded at least 318 ranger deaths since 2012, according to the International Ranger Federation.

Forest workers say they're sometimes frustrated by the lack of support from the communities they serve.

''People need to realize that our work is crucial in maintaining biodiversity. Everyone wants more tigers, but nobody wants them in their own backyard,'' said Mr.Sharma, the official in Madhya Pradesh.

As Mr. Bijesh heads out in the evening to do his job, his family worries about his safety. He has applied to be a permanent forest watcher, which would offer him better pay and benefits, but he hasn't heard anything so far.

''Every time I close my eyes, I can see the Tiger diving toward me,'' he said. ''But I have no choice. I need to support my family.''

The World Students Society thanks authors Shalini Venugopal Bhagat and Atul Loke.


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