“What have you done for the tigers?’’ the Supreme Court recently asked the Centre, while banning tourism in core areas of tiger reserves. The Prime Minister’s Office has now sought reports from states on the dwindling tiger population, which has “come down from 13,000 to 1,200”, according to the apex court.
The Centre, accused of being “more worried about commercial activity than saving the tigers’’, is likely to get a predictable answer, blaming the Naxals for the threat to reserves. According to the environment ministry, 30% reserves fall in Naxal areas and at least five have been affected by left-wing extremism. “We have reports of the timber mafia paying Naxals to access the reserves, which shrinks forest areas,” said a senior environmentalist.
While the Naxal threat is not new, conservationists are worried that it has started affecting vaster stretches of Indravati, Simlipal and Palamau tiger reserve, where tiger population has fallen from 42 in 2003 to six in 2010. HT takes a look at the state of the big cat in these reserves.
Indravati tiger reserve, Chhattisgarh: The worst hit
The environment ministry classifies Indravati in the ‘out of bounds category’, where no census has been possible since 2005. “27 tigers were estimated to be present in the tiger reserve in the last census held," says Ram Prakash, principal chief conservator of forest (WPCCF), wildlife. Abujmad – a thick forest area in the reserve – is being used for training Naxalites. Rest houses have been damaged, wireless sets seized and no forest guard ventures into the core area for fear of Naxal violence. Only 20 of the 100 sanctioned forest guards remain and recruitment has taken a hit. The last time an evaluation team tried to explore the reserve, they encountered Naxal road blocks even in the periphery.
Palamau, Jharkhand: Going the Indravati way?
Evaluated as ‘very good’ in 2006, Palamau, which falls in the Naxal corridor in Jharkhand, has slipped to the ‘poor’ category in 2010. The evaluation report blames “left wing extremist” for the “low tiger density”, and says Naxals are involved in poaching of various prey species. In fact, breeding of tigers has not been reported in the last few years. “We live under constant threat and patrol empty-handed to keep poachers and timber wood smugglers at bay,” says Sidhanath Jha, forest employees’ union leader. Of the sanctioned strength of 176 forest guards, only 30-32 posts are occupied.
Simlipal, Orissa: Drastic fall
Left wing extremism is taking a toll on this picturesque reserve where the number of tigers has dropped from 33 in 2006 to 25 in 2010. “Naxalite problems make management of some areas difficult,” states an environment ministry report. “We face law and order problems from timber smugglers and poachers,” says JD Sharma, PCCF (wildlife). Relocating tribals and hiring armed guards is a priority in this reserve.
The tiger needs urgent attention from both the the Supreme Court and the state and central government. As a wildlife expert put it: “It’s important for everyone to be on the same page.”
(With inputs from Priya Ranjan Sahu, Bhubaneswar)