Odisha forest officer gets UN Award for environment enforcement, gender leadership

  • Sasmita Lenka, an Odisha forest service officer, says busting organised crime in wildlife is a big challenge in the enforcement of forest and wildlife protection laws.
  • Lenka, recipient of the UN Asia Environment Enforcement Award 2020, brought in her unique style of leadership to involve more women in combating wildlife crime that affects wildlife such as pangolins and elephants beyond protected areas.
  • She says the role of women in forest protection should be highlighted in the forest service training curriculum.

Sasmita Lenka’s journey in environment enforcement – cracking down on pangolin trafficking, clearing illegal aquaculture and mitigating human-elephant conflicts – started out with a burning desire to prove herself on the field. Named as the recipient of Asia Environmental Enforcement Award 2020, Lenka, based in India’s eastern state of Odisha, says organised crime syndicates (mafias) remain the biggest challenge in protecting wildlife beyond protected areas in the state.

“There is an urgent need to strengthen convictions in wildlife crime to break apart these syndicates. They have penetrated deep inside local communities making it harder for us to crack their networks. Additionally, we need to heighten collaborations with enforcement agencies because such activities are facilitated through social media,” Lenka told Mongabay-India.

Lenka, currently the Deputy Conservator of Forests in the state forest headquarters at Bhubaneswar, received the honour for gender leadership and impact. Recognised by the United Nations, INTERPOL and the World Customs Organisation, Asia Environmental Enforcement Awards are given annually for achievement in combatting transboundary environmental crime.

Between August 2019 and April 2020, Lenka’s team detained some 28 persons and seized three live Indian pangolins, one dead pangolin and 5 kgs of pangolin scales. In one case in December 2019, she and her team busted an international pangolin smuggling racket by arresting eight suspects. Her awareness drives have helped local communities provide information to authorities on potential trafficking operations. Lenka has also filled roles often dominated by men with female staff, including as deputy rangers, foresters and forest guards, according to a UNEP press statement.

Enhancing law enforcement in all aspects of wildlife trade has drawn renewed attention in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic that is of zoonotic origin. It has also received a policy push in the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)’s report on biodiversity and pandemics, which talks of a new intergovernmental ‘health and trade’ partnership; reducing or removing high disease-risk species in the wildlife trade; improving community education in disease hotspots about the health risks of wildlife trade.

In Odisha, only five percent of the state is under the protected area network; the areas beyond legal protection require significant enforcement actions to conserve forests and wildlife, she elaborated. In her more than a decade of service, Lenka is known for going undercover as a customer to nab a notorious smuggler involved in the illegal trade in pangolins and taking on the mafia to clear out illegal fisheries in Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon, a major stopover for migratory birds in the Central Asian Flyway.

“When I started out in 2007 there was no recognition of women’s contribution to forest protection. I was waiting for a chance to prove myself; initially, we were given less challenging roles,” Lenka said, reminiscing her beginning in Odisha’s state forest cadre in 2007. “I was one of five women forest officers and this was the first time that women were introduced officially into the State Forest Service in Odisha; so we had to start out from scratch and encourage other women entering the forest service,” the 44-year-old told Mongabay-India.

She grabbed her chance in 2017 when she got an opportunity to make a difference in Chilika, the first Indian wetland to be designated a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1981. Chilika, in the shadows of the Eastern Ghats, has recorded an increase in the number of birds including migratory birds, consistently since 2018. In 2021, after almost a decade, diving ducks were spotted at one end of the lake. This uptick is mainly attributed to the clearing of illegal prawn cultures that covered 15 percent of the lake’s area.

Sasmita Lenka and team inspecting pangolin habitats in Athagarh forests. Photo from Sasmita Lenka.
Sasmita Lenka and team inspecting pangolin habitats in Athagarh forests. Photo from Sasmita Lenka.

“I was the Additional CEO of Chilika Development Authority from 2015 to 2018 and in 2017 we, at the authority, received the power of eviction and demolition of illegal structures under the Orissa Marine Fishing Regulation Act, 1982. It was a life-risk practically every day. Bombs were hurled at me by the ‘prawn mafia’ and death threats were common. But in two years, working with my team, we managed to clear 182 square km area under encroachment,”  she said.

A protected area, the Nalabana Bird Sanctuary in the Chilika’s wetland complex hosts 60 percent of total migratory birds visiting the lagoon each year. Among the range of issues plaguing the lake’s ecosystem, the introduction of prawn culture, gheri or bund fishery in 1991 along the lake’s fringes led to changes in hydrology and sediment transport, mainly as a result of the use of split bamboo and very fine mesh nets encircling the culture area, which prevented free sediment flow. The siltation affected the breeding and spawning grounds of many important fishes, molluscs and prawns, on which birds feed. As many as 200,000 fisherfolk also depend on the fisheries sustained by the lake and freeing the lagoon of the illegal aquaculture is beneficial to the fisherfolk community as well.

Lenka adds that her brush with the mafia has made her more resilient. “Little did I know that I, an M.Sc. in Botany, would have to wade into fields involving life threats. Several times, they pelted stones at my residence and tried to break my resolve,” said Lenka, who is trained in handling weapons.

However, Lenka carried her resolve to her next assignment as Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Athagarh forest division, a hotbed of elephant-human conflicts in Odisha. Lenka believes while pathways to leadership between men and women may vary, having women in leadership positions adds layers of diversity to the role.

“When I came to Athagarh, I realised that the enforcement of wildlife and forest protection laws were not a priority. So I immediately sought out staff members who had an interest in enforcement. Fifty percent of my staff members were women. I picked out women rangers and forest guards and encouraged to do more fieldwork,” said Lenka, who was initially aghast that the women did not don their uniforms on duty.

Her stint in Athagarh spanned the arrest of a notorious elephant poacher who confessed to having killed 20 tuskers in his lifetime and the nabbing of a mastermind of an interstate pangolin trafficking gang in 2020, one in a series of such major arrests. With childlike enthusiasm, Lenka recalls how she posed as a customer and struck up a conversation online with the pangolin trafficker who used to source scales from Odisha’s forests and smuggle them out of the state to potential buyers.

“I chatted with him online and struck up a rapport. I managed to convince him that I was a customer and then we nabbed him during a rendezvous to cut the deal,” she said.

Of the eight known species of the pangolin, one of the world’s most trafficked animals, India is home to two pangolin species, the endangered Indian pangolin (Manis crassicaudata) and critically endangered Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla). In India, the scaly mammals are being poached and trafficked outside protected areas even as researchers call for addressing the gap in population status, distribution, and ecology of these two species in India, warning of a shrinking distribution and population.

To receive potential tip-offs on potential smuggling activities, Lenka dips into her network of informants in the local communities. In 2019, she announced a cash reward of Rs 10,000 to individuals who can provide information on pangolin trafficking, without disclosing their identity.

She formed a network of volunteers through Haathi Saathi Bahini (force of friends of elephants) to coordinate elephant movements. “We had 100 volunteers registered under the initiative in one range called Khuntuni which is a hotspot for conflicts in Athagarh,” Lenka proudly remembers. The state government’s Gajabandhu (friends of elephants) scheme also came in handy in mobilising local communities to prevent conflict situations.

Migratory birds in the Chilika lake. Photo by Government of Odisha /Wikimedia Commons.
Migratory birds in the Chilika lake. Photo by Government of Odisha /Wikimedia Commons.

Bringing in her unique style of leadership, Lenka composed a song with a student in Athagarh to bolster her awareness campaigns. “We used to travel from village to village singing the song which told people that elephants were our friends. They know the elephants more than us so telling them about elephant related issues is not the way to inspire trust in them. You have to care and you should not chest thump about your official position if you really want to enable people’s participation,” she opined.

For women aspiring to enter forest services, Lenka, urges them to “be bold.” In her initial days in the forest service, when Lenka was dealing with issues surrounding her divorce, she adds, she was judged by many in her professional networks. “People would look at me from a different perspective because I was a woman who was divorced. But I always soldiered on with my work and conviction in my abilities. You have to believe in yourself and you have to have the aptitude for fieldwork. Hard work will always be recognised,” she said, suggesting that the role of women in forest services should be integrated into the forest service training curriculum.

Lenka said she misses the fieldwork. “From working for dolphins and birds of Chilika to elephants and pangolins in Athagarh, I want to turn my attention to crocodiles of Bhitarkanika’s mangroves,” signed-off Lenka.


Banner image: Odisha forest service officer Sasmita Lenka with her team of women forest rangers in Athagarh. Photo from Sasmita Lenka.

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