The expansive Palamu Tiger Reserve (PTR), Jharkhand’s lone protected tiger den, is gradually turning into a cowshed with milkmen from Bihar, Chattisgarh and surrounding locals areas encroaching the reserve to let their cattle graze, forest officials said.
A three-day monitoring drive carried out across the reserve last month led to the discovery of temporary cow shelters, called khatals, spread around the buffer zone. In some areas, the herds had encroached upon core areas as well.
As many as 3,000 domestic buffalos had been found grazing freely.
“Unfortunately, the cattle made entry to even core areas of the reserve. They are roaming and grazing in areas like Baresanrh, Garu, Mundu and Betla, causing a big threat to wildlife of the protected reserve,” said PTR steering committee member, DS Srivastava.
The problem lies in the logistical scale of operations; the reserve is spread across about 1,130 square kilometers, however, only seven forest guards are on duty as opposed to the sanctioned 175 posts.
The Palamu reserve — one of the oldest habitats brought under Project Tiger in 1973 to protect the national animal — is thus saddled with lots problems including poaching, vanishing grazing fields, manpower crunch and extremists’ activities.
The sanctuary houses 39 species of mammals, including tigers, and 174 species of birds.
With habitat loss and increasing human interference, wild animals are migrating to other places. Back in 1974, there were 50 tigers in the reserve. This number came down to 38 in 2005 and 10 in the 2010 tiger census. The latest census report in 2014 estimates that only three tigers are left in the reserve.
Similarly, numbers of the other animals have been declining.
Srivastava said the encroachment of domestic buffalos isn’t just a simple matter of space shrinking. It has lead to the ecosystem being disrupted.
The animals carry diseases that spread through the few water bodies available for the wild animals.
Recently, a three-year-old baby elephant in Baresanrh range, considered to be the prime elephant habitat in PTR, died of suspected anthrax. Experts said that the disease was possibly transmitted through the bovines which bathe in these water bodies.
“The buffalos’ diseases are transmitting to other wild animals through grass and water. Wild animals stop drinking water from such water bodies, as they smell. Water crisis is a major problem of reserve during summer, as most of the waterholes go dry. Few waterholes that carry water round the year are now encroached by buffalos,” Srivastava said.
The herds have also been eating food meant for the wildlife.
To mitigate the problem, PTR officials have started a dialogue with local villagers to move their cattle out of the reserve. “We initiate action on regular basis to remove the cattle from the reserve area but they return again. So, we have started a dialogue process with local villagers to keep their cattle out of the reserve area,” said PTR divisional forest officer (buffer area), Mahaling. He said they were also attempting to convince locals to adopt a stall feeding system.
Sources in the state forest department said that plans were also being discussed to dedicate a demarcated area outside the reserve area to supplement the buffalos grazing ground.