Battle of the Buffer

Forest officials in TadobaAndhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra are using LPG connections and solar fences to keep villagers and tigers from straying into each other’s territory

AkashBisht/Sadiq Naqvi Chandrapur

A young boy and his mother were working in the fields in the buffer area of TadobaAndhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. A tiger suddenly pounced on the boy and began to drag him into the forest. The brave mother put up a tough fight but was just no match. The child was taken away into the forest and, for a few terrible minutes, she could hear him screaming desperately in the jaws of the big cat. 

Several such horror tales are narrated by villagers living in the buffer forests of this tiger reserve in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. Every family has had at least one encounter with the king of the jungle who has ruled these forests for centuries. Tiger busts dot the landscape, marking the spots where a tiger killed a human, for the community believes that these figurines will deter the animal from making another kill in the area.

 Ironically, the reserve borrows its name from a local god, Taru, who is said to have lived in its densest part and battled a tiger. After putting up a tough resistance, the god succumbed to his injuries and locals built a temple at the spot where he died. Part myth, part fact, this is one of the earliest instances of man-animal conflict that has since escalated to a far higher level, claiming hundreds of lives in Chandrapur district.

Known as the city of black gold, Chandrapur town has the largest deposits of coal in Maharashtra and has been at the centre of coal mining since before Independence. The British shortened its name to ‘Chanda’ and introduced mining activity in and around it. Sixty years after the British left, the town remains a mining hub and boasts of some of the largest coal producers in the country. The air is filled with smog, trucks swarm on the roads like ants on the forest floor and the billboards of several mining companies bear testimony to the obsession with coal. It’s noticeably difficult to breathe in the town and doctors say that many people suffer from lung ailments.

However, just 30 km away, the pristine jungles of the TadobaAndhari reserve offer a paradise where the air is clean, the night sky lit up by a galaxy of stars, and wildlife abounds in clusters while bird calls ring through the forests. An hour in these forests and the bustle of mines and Chandrapur fades from the mind.

Housing one of the largest populations of tigers in the country, the reserve has a unique eco-system. However, with humans inhabiting most of the fringe forests around it, and the presence of five villages in the core, the man-animal conflict is reportedly at its worst. There are 79 villages in the buffer zone and more than 10,000 families inhabit the area. As a result, more than 100 people have succumbed to this conflict in the past decade. In the past four years, 12 humans have been killed and 157 injured in the buffer zone.

The tribals in the region are dependent on the forests for their livelihood, and it’s putting them in direct conflict with the carnivores. “The villagers in the buffer zone are dependent on the tiger-dominated forests for firewood, cattle-grazing, and non-timber forest produce such as mahua, tendu and medicinal plants. Each household requires about 2-2.5 tonnes of firewood a year,” says Kalyan Kumar, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Chandrapur Forest Division. Also, most households collect bamboo from the forests and sell bamboo products during lean income periods. Excursions into the forests make these people vulnerable to tiger attacks.

During the paddy cultivation season, the herbivore population tends to move out of the forests, lured by the crop. These animals are usually followed by the tigers who then enter areas of high human density. Villagers say the frequency of tiger attacks is exponentially higher when people work in the paddy fields. “A tiger can confuse a human with an animal when he is crouching to cut the harvest. This is how most attacks happen,” says PoonamDhanwatey of Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT).

Newspaper reports suggest that 11 tigers have been killed in the buffer region of the reserve since 2011 while there is no estimate of the number of leopards hunted down  

Then, again, villagers have no toilets and use the great outdoors. Going out early in the morning or at night makes them vulnerable to the carnivores, who hunt at these times. Also, villagers take their cattle to graze deep in the forests, into tiger territory, where they become sitting ducks. This reporter saw a shepherd grazing his goats next to the densest part of the core, oblivious to the omnipresent threat. “A tigress was here with her cubs this morning,” said a forest guard.

In addition, a large number of cattle fall victim to tigers. In the Shivni forest division of Chandrapur, a forest official said three or four cattle being killed in a day is common. In the past three years, tigers and leopards have killed more than 1,443 cattle, an unacceptably high figure.

 

What makes Tadoba Andhari unique is the fact that it has dense forest cover both within the buffer and outside. The buffer area forests provide ideal habitat for tigers and other animals straying from the core of the reserve. With only 625.40 sq km, the core area can sustain only a certain population of the cats and the weaker ones get pushed out. They then establish their territories in the buffer forests and come in direct conflict with humans inhabiting these forests.

 Even though the villagers have traditionally revered the tiger, these attacks breed hostility.  Several cats have fallen victim, with some locals confiding that they even seek the help of hunting tribes like the Pardhis to eliminate those animals that become a menace. These veritable poachers operate with great precision under the nose of the forest department. Newspaper reports suggest that 11 tigers have been killed in the buffer region of the reserve since 2011 while there is no estimate of the number of leopards hunted down.

In May this year, a tiger was hacked into 10 pieces by poachers in collusion with locals in Borda village in the buffer forest. They also got away with the head and paws of the animal. The forest department officials found the body in a compartment under Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra (FDCM). They are still clueless about the hunters. “We have to get them involved in the probe. The forest being under the management of several organisations is a problem. There should be unity of command to streamline management,” says ArunTikhe, Assistant Conservator of Forests, Chandrapur.  

Earlier, on April 26, two tigers had been found trapped near a waterhole. One succumbed to his injuries, while the other is recuperating in Nagpur zoo. The forest department has arrested three people and seized a number of old iron traps, left behind by Pardhis who had come to the area a decade ago. “It happened on the eve of Padwa, a local tribal festival. Looking for meat, they had laid the traps for herbivores. Since there was tiger movement in the region, the herbivores had moved away. This is how the tigers landed in the trap,” says Tikhe.  

To mitigate the increasing man-animal conflict, the forest department has come up with a unique solution — providing LPG connections to villages in the buffer area. Since the largest number of deaths occurred when the victims went to collect firewood, the plan has brought down the death toll in the area. “While the tiger population is rising, it is a bigger challenge to manage the conflict situations, especially when human lives are lost. Therefore, as DCF of this division, I started looking for solutions that would minimise conflict and came up with the idea of distributing LPG connections to the villagers. The funds of the innovative scheme from the district plan and entry point funds from Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority and Joint Forest Management schemes were dovetailed to provide LPG connections for the beneficiaries. The LPG scheme involved 25 per cent contribution from the beneficiary and 75 per cent from the government. This ensured effective participation. Special effort was made to include all households so that firewood collection was phased out completely in that village,” says Kalyan Kumar.

There are 79 villages in the buffer zone and more than 10,000 families inhabit the area. As a result, more than 100 people have succumbed to this conflict in the past decade. In the past four years, 12 humans have been killed and 157 injured in the buffer zone

  At Pandhrawani village in Shivnitaluka, village sarpanchSaritaMeshram says that, out of 44 families, 22 have got LPG connections. She adds that the women are not just safe but can now pay more attention to their households.

Almost 2,000 LPG connections have been distributed in 70 villages and the goal is to extend the scheme to all villages in the buffer region. “People who weren’t given these connections have been queuing outside my office in demand and this has been very encouraging. It reduces the biotic pressure on the forest and will help in maintaining a good forest cover plus there will be no revenge killings of carnivores,” says Tikhe.

Another step the forest department has taken relates to the crop destruction by wild boar, cheetal and nilgai. The villagers resort to setting traps in their fields and, often, tigers and leopards fall victim. The forest department has installed solar-powered fences in four villages. At Pandharwani, a three-kilometre solar fence encircles the entire village, including agricultural land, and villagers say no animal has entered the fields since. “If any animal touches these wires, an alarm goes off, alerting everyone in the village. Recently, a bear, a regular visitor to our village, got a shock after he touched these wires and since then he has not come back. Similarly, other herbivores also avoid our village because of these fences,” says SaritaMeshram. The village also has solar lights and a solar water pump.

Next, the forest department is in the process of relocating the five villages from the core. Three villages will be relocated by the end of March next year. Villagers at a relocation site said facilities were much better than in their old villages. “We have electricity, water, roads, schools, and no threat of animals destroying our crops. Also, the package on offer is very lucrative, so why not shift and let the tigers thrive?” said KashinathBhondji of Navegaon village.

However, it is the buffer and not the core that is a cause of concern. It is in these forests that the man-animal conflict is highest. Yet, except for creating awareness about the importance of tigers in these forests, there isn’t much that the forest department can do. The department has also begun tourism activity in the buffer zone, which will create employment opportunities for the locals who would then become stakeholders in tiger conservation. But, with the growing tiger population and increasing pressure on the habitat, the man-animal confrontation is unavoidable. So more tiger busts will be set up and the majestic lord of the jungle will continue being stalked by the deadly traps. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2012