Tiger conservation officials are embarking on six months of travel across wildlife reserves seeking ways to deal with the takeover of sanctuaries by militant groups, which feed on villagers’ discontent against governments and animals.
The militants – mainly Naxalites – have made vast areas out of bounds for forest officials.
“At least four of our reserves are seriously affected. More than a policing issue, it is a livelihood issue,” Dr Rajesh Gopal, head of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, told Hindustan Times on Saturday.
The Palamu wildlife reserve in Jharkhand state, Indravati in Chhattisgarh, Nagarjun Sagar in Andhra Pradesh have a dominant presence of Naxalites; Bodo militants operate out of the Manas reserve in Assam. In all, these reserves are spread across 10,200 square kilometers.
There is militant presence of varying degrees in several other sanctuaries as well, officials say.
Starting next month, members of the tiger authority as well as officials from the home, tribal affairs, Panchayati Raj and social justice ministries will begin a six-month survey of the reserves and neighbouring villages and talk to hundreds of people there, trying to suggest solutions to the complicated problem.
Villagers living on the periphery of reserves have in the past poisoned tigers that killed their cattle. They also support the militants due to the widespread discontent against the administration.
“Many such reserves are now completely beyond the reach of forest and protected area managements,” the government’s Tiger Task Force said in its 2005 report. “The rise in insurgency in these areas is widely attributed to the growing alienation and marginalisation of communities living in abject poverty in the country’s richest lands.”
India has 29 tiger reserves spread across 37,700 square kilometres, and at the last count, only 3,500 or so cats remained in the country. That count is also being re-examined after several doubts were expressed on the census-taking.
The militants’ takeover of thickly forested sanctuaries helps poachers, because guards stop patrolling there. But the committee head shrugged off concerns that Naxalites themselves could be involved.
“Whether the people who are called Naxalites are involved in poaching, we are not sure. It is happening all over the country. Some of the people involved may have affinity with the Naxalites, but that is not the prime motive,” Dr. Gopal Kadekudi, who heads the committee, said in a telephone interview from Dharwad, Karnataka.
“Farmers are complaining against wild life – including tigers, wild boar and elephants,” he said. “They come and destroy crops. There is a man-animal conflict, and it is not limited to tigers.”