Warrior of The Jungle

Unsung

K M Chinnappa

K M Chinnappa
K. M. Chinnappa was born and raised in a village on the edge on Nagarahole. He was forced to seek a job without getting a chance to acquire a college degree. He got a job in the forest department in the 60s and soon he was posted in Nagarahole. He was the Range Forest Officer of Nagarahole for over two decades and was single-handedly responsible for making it one of the finest national Parks of India. His incredible courage in the face of real physical danger and extraordinary knowledge of natural history are legendary. At a personal level, his purity, integrity and spartan lifestyle remind us of a true yogi. His understanding of the behaviour of the Asian elephant is better than even formally trained elephant biologists.

Chinnappa exemplified the finest elements among the trench warriors who recovered India's wildlife from virtual extermination during the 70s and 80s. Many of his peers tried to follow his example. But few could stay the course like he did for three decades, against all odds.

Chinnappa’s beloved Nagarahole National Park. In 1993 after voluntarily retiring from Karnataka forest department, he started Nagarahole Wildlife Conservation Education project reaching out to the local students, youth and the public. His efforts are supported by New York based Wildlife Conservation Society and Global Tiger Patrol Fund of London.

In 1967, Chinnappa joined the Nagarahole National Park as a forester. The park was in ruins. Hunting had taken its toll. There were hardly any deer left, forget tigers and other big game. To cultivate rice, villagers had encroached on the swamps – the beloved play-ground of the elephants. Tribesmen lived in clusters deep within the park to collect forest produce, ranging from honey to berries. Livestock herders grazed their cattle on the park’s grasslands. Hunters preyed on animals and birds. Poachers hunted tigers for their skin; elephants for their tusks.

Timber logging was a thriving mafia business. Sandalwood smugglers roamed with abandon. The destroyers of Nagarahole’s environment used a range of weapons – hunters shotguns, tribesmen used snares and livestock herders used poison. Wild life protection laws were weak and the forest department concentrated on logging, misguidedly uprooting the diversity of natural vegetation to replace them with the monoculture of teak.

A Gaur or Indian Bison in Nagarahole. The three decades of Chinnappa's accomplishments in Nagarahole are undoubtedly a major milestone in the history of Indian wildlife conservation.

Born in 1941 in Kumtur village near Nagarhole to a soldier who fought in the First World War, Chinnappa spent his youth roaming the forests of his ancestral land, listening to birds, watching the cavalcade of animals in their habitat, absorbing the every day miracles of the rich eco-system. An enduring love for nature was thus born in him. Like his father, he too would become a mustachioed soldier. But with a difference. He would become a gun-toting, frontline warrior of the forests, dedicated to protecting wild life. Says he simply: “Wildlife is the purpose of my life.’

In less than a quarter of a century,under Chinnappa's watch, Nagarhole revived, expanding from a 250 sq km part to 640 sq kms. The poachers retreated, the encroachers gone and the hunters virtually extinct, Nagarhole was restored to its rightful inhabitants – tigers, panthers, leopards, sloth bears, jackals, wild boars, porcupines, hares, langur and varieties of deer. In the bad old days, tigers had to roam 200 sq kms before they could find prey. Now they can find it within 12 sq kms. The elephants are back where they belong: in the lush swamps and bamboo groves. The trick? Explains Chinnappa: “All you have to do is to stop human interference. Just leave the forests alone and they will regenerate themselves”.

Chinnappa with wildlife biologist Ullhas Karanth in Nagarahole National Park, this photograph is from mid 80s.

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