Uttarakhand forest department has recruited 999 forest guards and a third of them are women. This, authorities said, had happened for the first time in the Himalayan state’s history. The contingent is prepared to fight wildfires, protect trees from timber mafias, and shield rivers from mining syndicates.

The development is significant since over 70% of the state falls under forest cover and 65% of its forest guard posts were lying vacant. The forest department had 2,098 vacancies against 3,650 sanctioned posts.

Senior forest officers and local residents lauded the move and called it the first step towards transforming the way the department works in a state that is under constant pressure to build new roads and railway infrastructure by diverting forest lands.

Since the state has varying types of landscapes, ranging from snow-capped mountains to the plains of Terai, and harsh weather conditions coupled with tricky geography, all the guards recruited are locals well-acquainted with the area.

“We have recruited well-qualified candidates who can bring positive change in the way we protect our forests and wildlife,” said Rajiv Bhartari, head of forest services, Uttarakhand forest department.

Many deemed the recruitment “historic” as authorities have tried to ensure that women are adequately represented. “Women forest guards will be posted all over, from the hills of Gangotri to the plains of Khatima, from our tiger reserves to our wildlife sanctuaries,” added Bhartari.

With the recruitment of additional forest officers, the government aims to effectively implement its Crisis Management Plan, which it had come up with in 2016. The plan aims to deal with forest and wildlife crises such as wildfires, human-wildlife conflict and poaching. Earlier, a lack of staff and crunch in funds meant that the plan existed on only on paper.