Rajiv Gandhi National Park, or Nagarahole as it is commonly known, owes a lot to retired forester K.M. Chinnappa. Now a coffee planter, Mr Chinnappa agrees to take a little walk down memory lane with DC, recounting his days as a forest officer in a Corbett-like tale that tells of wild adventure, carnivorous cats and the cruelty the human race is capable of inflicting.
It was the year 1967, when Chinnappa arrived as a forest officer in Nagarole, which was, at the time, a wildlife sanctuary covering an area of 250 sq km. It was rife with criminal activity - timber smuggling, poaching, cattle grazing, breweries for illicit alcohol and ganja plantations flourished at the sanctuary, leaving little room for the well-being of the animals it was supposed to protect.
Filled with a sense of idealistic purpose, Chinappa decided to take the trouble-makers head on, only to find, to his dismay, that his senior officers were hand-in-glove with the offenders. Five years later, he got his first opportunity. Strict wildlife laws were brought into place and Chinappa was able to file cases against the cattle grazers-turned-poachers. The battle ended with about 20,000 cattle being driven out of the forest.
A semblance of order returned to the sanctuary and deer sightings around forest staff quarters became more common, while the more observant even spotted pug marks belonging to the big cats. The population of wild animals took a definite upturn, but wasn't free of threat just yet. The death of Parari Thimma, a notorious, highly-capable elephant poacher brought noticeable relief. In 1991, Shikari Thimma, another poacher, was killed when forest guards opened fire in his vicinity.
Far from bringing him glory, Chinnappa's good deeds only invited the wrath of his many enemies. He had one narrow escape in 1970, when a gang armed with sticks attempted to attack during a temple visit. In another incident, Chinnappa was forced to brandish his licensed revolver to show his naysayers that he meant business.
He had made enemies in high places, with a purview that went far beyond sending thugs with sticks. Chinnappa was falsely implicated in a murder case and actually spent 12 days in prison before he was found not guilty. In 1992, an angry mob of around 300 people set his newly-constructed home on fire, a few days after the work was completed in Kumtoor, South Madikeri district. He had fought long and hard, but this was the final straw. He resigned his post abruptly in 1993.
"My wife Radha supported me all through," Chinnappa remarked as Radha chipped in too, saying she never once gave in to fear when her husband decided to risk it all. Chinnappa now spends his days creating awareness on the conservation of forests in various parts of Karnataka and hasn't distanced himself from Nagarahole either. He is quick to alert officials concerned on happenings in the Park!
Praveen Bhargav, one of Chinnappa's long-time associates, refers to him as a man of exceptional physical and mental courage. "He was always at the forefront of the team that fought to save the Nagarahole forests," Bhargav said. "It was Chinnappa who introduced the current patrolling system and established camps in critical areas that offer three-layered protection to the tiger reserve."