Is Maharashtra creating man-eaters?

As the state government allows industries to prey upon forest lands,more Avnis are likely to be gunned down in utter disregard of rules

Sagnik Sengupta

The Central Indian Landscape (CIL), as defined by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), is spread over the eight Indian states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra. The above definition of the landscape takes into account that the landscape would have been contiguous in the recent past and therefore the tigers in it likely form a common gene pool. With more than 25 tiger reserves and approximately 43 other protected areas with tiger presence, the CIL is the second largest tiger landscape in India and harbors about 700 tigers, representing about 35 per cent of the country’s tiger population. Of the original nine tiger reserves that constituted Project Tiger during its inception, five tiger reserves (Ranthambhore, Kanha, Melghat, Simlipal and Palamau) were in the CIL.

Even now, some of the largest wilderness areas in the country are located in the CIL. The extant forests of the CIL are located in a variety of topography of hill ranges and plateaus. The Satpura Hill Range, Vindhya Range, Kaimur Range and the Aravallis are located in this landscape. Apart from its contribution in maintaining wild tiger populations, the forested hills of the CIL are home to many major rivers and also contain a great diversity of flora and the distribution of two major timber species of the country, Sal and Teak. Most of the forests in the CIL are tropical dry deciduous forests with small sections of tropical moist deciduous forest in the eastern region and tropical thorn forests in the western part.

Notable among other highly endangered fauna of this landscape are Asiatic Wild Buffalo in Udanti-Sitanadi and Indravati Tiger Reserves in Chhattisgarh and adjoining forests of Maharashtra. The only population of the hard ground Barasingha in the world is found in Kanha Tiger Reserve. Among other large mammals, the landscape supports four species of canids, seven cat species, six species of Bovids and four species of cervids (chital, sambar, barasingha and barking deer). The landscape also supports one of the most endangered species of owls, the Forest Owlet in Melghat Tiger Reserve. The eastern parts of the landscape, in the state of Odisha and Jharkhand also harbor populations of the Asian elephant. Two biosphere reserves, Simlipal and Pachmarhi, are also part of the CIL. The eastern part of the CIL harbors vast reserves of minerals such as coal, iron ore, bauxite and manganese ore, and the region is home to some of the biggest mining ventures in the country. Ironically, the mineral rich parts of the landscape are heavily forested and economically backward. A combination of such reasons has also ensured that some of the largest sub-sections of the landscape such as the Palamau-Koderma area, Nawegaon-Indravati- Papikonda, Simlipal and Nagarjunasagar are affected by Maoist activities.

Is Maharashtra creating man-eaters?

There are 23 separate tiger populations in the CIL. Four of the tiger populations (Sariska, Panna, Ranthambhore and Nagarjunasagar) are isolated from others. Between the two-national level tiger estimations in the year 2010 and 2014, the CIL has seen stable tiger populations but large scale declines in habitat occupancy.

Maharashtra is one of seven states that fall under the CIL, one of the most viable regions from the perspective of global tiger conservation. Despite this, existing knowledge on tiger ecology and factors that threaten their existence, reveals that not even a single Protected Area (PA) within the CIL supports a genetically-viable tiger population in the long-run (i.e. not a single PA is large enough to hold 20 breeding tigresses). It is essential, therefore, that a strong case be built for extending protection beyond the borders of tiger reserves.

By virtue of having a profuse network of well-protected forests (tiger reserves and sanctuaries) and reserve/territorial forests, the Chandrapur, Bhandara, Wardha, Nagpur, Gondia, Amravati and Yawatmal districts of Maharashtra form one of the most important tiger landscapes in India. In order to scientifically validate and quantify this, Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT), in close consultation with the Maharashtra Forest Department, started to estimate tiger densities in forests that are not part of the PA network – in other words, estimate tiger densities in forests situated outside national parks and sanctuaries in these five districts.

Based on prior understanding of tiger presence, WCT started to begin this first-of-its-kind tiger estimation exercise in Chandrapur. The first phase, which covered 2,000 sq. km of tiger habitat outside PAs in Chandrapur district, was conducted under the WCT-USAID Tiger Program, in collaboration with the Maharashtra Forest Department and Panthera.

As many as 600 Panthera Camera Traps were deployed simultaneously across forested areas in Chandrapur. The forests of Chandrapur were divided into several blocks for logistical convenience. Every block was further divided into 3 sq. km. grids and one camera trap pair was installed in each 3 sq. km. area for 25 days, fulfilling the guidelines mandated by the National Tiger Conservation Authority for such studies.

The results were incredible, at the end of a massive effort, which involved data collection over 18,000+ camera trap nights. WCT’s research team was able to identify 48 adult tigers, including 15 breeding tigresses, residing outside PAs in Chandrapur. It was evident that areas like Kanhalgaon (a proposed wildlife sanctuary) and Brahmapuri are not only playing a crucial role in providing habitat to dispersing tigers, but also acting as source populations. The tiger population inside the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve is being stabilised by the tiger population of the neighboring reserve forests.

A particularly interesting aspect of the study was that tiger density in some reserve forest blocks was found to be higher than that of some Indian tiger reserves. For instance, tiger density in the Kanhalgaon-Central Chanda block is 2.34, which is more than that of the Melghat Tiger Reserve. In the Junona-Central Chanda block, tiger density stood at 1.77, higher than that of the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve.

The presence of tigers in such respectable densities in human-dominated landscapes speaks volumes about the tolerance of the people of Chandrapur and the good work of the forest department of the Chandrapur Circle of Maharashtra. While this study has proven that humans and tigers share the same landscape, forests and water bodies, it in no way claims that humans and tigers will continue to coexist without friction in the coming years. In fact, the high incidence of cattle kills in the territorial forests of Brahmapuri is indicative of the ever-looming threat of conflict erupting between people and tigers. It is absolutely clear that the future of tigers outside national parks and sanctuaries will depend on the efficiency of the forest department in compensating losses of herders and farmers, mitigating and minimising human-animal conflict and increased awareness among people.

If we see the picture which clearly shows the fragmented forest patches in and around TRs and WLSs, one can see that because of industrialisation and development, forest cover is decreasing vis-a-vis the tiger population in the area. As found in the WCT study of tigers outside PAs, and

as evident from the number of 48 adult tigers which includes 15 breeding tigresses excluding another minimum 15 odd cubs which would attain adulthood in Chandrapur area itself, tigers are literally living with humans.

Its high time for both the Forest Department and NTCA to wake up and bring in policies wherein few of these tigers outside PAs can be relocated to PAs where tiger density is less. NTCA has already relocated tigers from Madhya Pradesh to Satkosia in Odisha. So, why not relocate tigers from Chandrapur area to other reserves like Buxa, Palamau, etc?

By doing so, the gene pool can be saved and these lesser known reserves will also flourish. Its high time that our Project Tiger rethinks on the entire strategy and brings out some new initiatives which shall help in maintaining the increasing tiger population, or else that day won’t be far when we have to stop saying ‘Save Tiger’.

Tigers that come into conflict with people are more likely sub-adults [a tiger that has passed through the juvenile period but not yet attained typical adult characteristics], trying to find new territories, or old, injured animals that are evicted from their home territories. This results in human-animal conflict.

A sub-adult male of around 20 months from South Umred was found walking beside the Umred-Bhandara Highway by people for almost a couple of days. Many passersby were seen taking selfies with the animal in the background. Only by God’s grace was a human-animal conflict avoided.

It was on July 1 2016, the first attack attributed to T1 Avni was reported. There were 13 deaths in the area, with the last being on August 11, 2018. All the kills were attributed to T1 Avni. Treatment of all tigers present not only in reserves & sanctuaries but also straying out of PA come under National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and there are guidelines laid down by the NTCA to handle each and every situation. All state forest departments where tigers are present are bound to adhere to those guidelines.

On the mid night of November 3, news started pouring in that T1 Avni has been shot dead by Asgar Ali Khan. As details started pouring in, many loopholes were found What is clear is that Asgar Ali Khan went into the forest with a clear intention to kill her. This is a cold-blooded murder. The story cooked up by the department is false. Till now, the two ten-months-old cubs are yet to be traced. A single bullet has killed three tigers.

As the post-mortem report suggests, Avni was shot in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal this month when it was “facing away” from the shooter. The dart found lodged in its left thigh did not show any impact of being “fired from a syringe projector” (tranquiliser gun).

These conclusions in the post-mortem witness report submitted by a representative of the Maharashtra forest department contradict the department’s own claim that the tigress was gunned down by them in self-defence after it charged at the team that had fired a tranquiliser dart to immobilise the animal.

We have to work on landscape-level conservation, especially out of the PAs in the buffer areas. Or else, we shall be only left with tigers inside the PAs and human-animal conflict shall finish all tigers outside PAs.

(The writer is a wildlife enthusiast and a conservationist)

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