Simlipal Tiger Reserve, Orissa: As we enter the dense jungles of Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Mayurbhanj district of Orissa, freshly felled tree tell us about the presence of Maoists who, like the big cats, stalk the area but are rarely seen.
In March and April last year, there were 25 attacks by Maoists on forest and tourist establishments here which forced the field staff to flee their posts. Till December, all 60 posts in the tiger reserve spanning over 2700 sq km remained unmanned, allowing free access to poachers and the timber mafia.
But things improved after the new field director extensively toured the area to persuade the staff, including women guards, to return to their posts.
"Now there are 40 camps and 300 to 400 people inside. But fear is still there. Our anti-poaching activities have really been affected," said HS Upadhyay, field director, Simlipal Tiger Reserve.
"We haven't seen any Maoist so far but we are scared, naturally..." a woman guard said.
After the attacks, a group of local youth working on contract has taken over as anti-poaching squad. "The fear is very much there but we also need the job," said one of them.
No one here wears uniform to avoid being spotted by Maoists. Though there has been no fresh violence, fear of Maoist strikes has affected operations.
For years, parts of the Simlipal forests bordering West Bengal have offered a safe base to the Maoists who depend heavily on the three villages in the core area. But local villagers feign ignorance.
"We don't see Maoists coming out of jungle," said a villager.
With security forces intensifying their offensive in West Bengal, there are reports of heavy influx of Maoists into Simlipal. But the Orissa government is in a dilemma. It doesn't have enough forces to take on the Maoists but at the same time it cannot afford to let the ailing Simlipal Tiger Reserve turn into a battle zone.