Dilip Bora could not hold back his tears when he met members the family of a colleague he lost 34 years ago, in central Assam’s Hojai on Tuesday. The occasion was National Forest Martyrs’ Day.Meeting them reminded him of a night in 1984 when a team of 10 forest guards had laid in wait for a timber smuggling gang. None, including his colleague Karuna Kakati, had any firearm or sharp weapon. “We had sticks, torches and umbrellas, but were determined to catch the timber smugglers who were using a 16 ft wide hill stream to take logs out of the Kharkhari Reserve Forest near Boko (65 km west of Guwahati),” Mr. Bora, pushing 60 and set to retire as Forest Ranger in six months, told The Hindu from Hojai.The team was high on confidence. But what it did not factor in was the number of people they were up against and the weapons they wielded. “Some of us tried to stop the logs as they floated down on rafts while some chased the men who followed the logs. Before we knew anything, there were several armed people rushing at us. We thought it best to run and live to catch them another day,” he said.Karuna Kalita and another forest guard, Boloram Das, weren’t quick enough. “I heard Karuna scream before jumping into the river and drift with the current,” Mr. Bora said. Hacked in the head and neck, Mr. Kalita died in Guwahati Medical College Hospital nine days later. Mr Das died on the way to the hospital.Martyrs for earthThe Assam Forest Department prepared a list of 68 people who died in the line of duty during the last 35 years. They include Altaf Ahmed, Biren Boro, Madhuram Basumatary, Pradip Barma and 22 others killed by extremist groups such as National Democratic Front of Boroland and United Liberation Front of Asom, mostly in the 1980s and early 1990s.The extremists had during the time made jungles their hideouts, felled trees and killed wildlife to smuggle timber and animal body parts for money to buy firearms.“Our men are unsung heroes of the earth. They work in very difficult conditions and without any complaint, mostly for the passion of protecting the biodiversity that is so essential for humanity,” N.K. Vasu, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, said.Extremists abducted and killed some green guards such as Forest Ranger Ibrahim Ali Khan. He was waylaid in Manas National Park in June 1997, moved in captivity from one place to another only to be shot two months later.Others have been killed by the animals they protect. For instance, a rhino gored Home Guard Ranjit Medhi in Kaziranga National Park in November 2008. “These are occupational hazards,” the park’s Division Forest Officer Rohini Ballave Saikia said.