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Villagers abandon old cattle in Rajaji reserve but turn up for compensation when leopard kills one

There’s no provision to pay ex gratia for livestock killed by predators inside protected areas. But forest divisions are paying hefty compensation to the so-called owners.

india Updated: Jun 07, 2017 20:41 IST
Nihi Sharma
Nihi Sharma
Hindustan Times, Dehradun
Rajaji tiger reserve,Uttarakhand,Old cattle
A villager takes her cattle through Rajaji National Park.(HT Photo)

The prey is running amok in predator turf of Rajaji tiger reserve, costing the management time and money.

Forest officials are saddled with a unique problem of villagers from the national park’s fringes abandoning livestock — infirm and old cattle — in the jungle reserved for tigers and leopards.

These stray cattle have turned almost feral and won’t leave their old-age home in the Haridwar forest division of Uttarakhand, no matter what. Foresters try to shoo them away. They come back. Sometimes the animals are corralled and the villagers are informed, but nobody wants to accept the sterile cows and impotent oxen.

“The bovines are a real big problem for us. Most of our time is wasted in catching them and taking them to villagers. But no one takes them,” park director Sanatan Sonkar said on Wednesday.

But when a leopard kills any of these cows or oxen, a villager invariably turns up at the forest office for compensation. “A leopard killed a cow last month and it became a big issue. Several activists came to me seeking action. But what can we do when villagers leave their cattle in the forest?” Sonkar said.

Chief wildlife warden Digvijay Singh Khati said there’s no provision to pay ex gratia for livestock killed by predators inside protected areas. But forest divisions are paying hefty compensation — Rs 15,000 for each animal — to the so-called owners.

“It’s a fact that villagers don’t claim their abandoned cattle unless they get eaten by big cats,” said Rajeev Mehta, the former wildlife warden of Rajaji.

Park authorities caught about 50 head of unclaimed cattle since May. But it was a wasted effort.

The foresters left them outside the park and the herd mooed its way back to the forest that now runs the risk of overgrazing, which is a hazard for the ecosystem, especially during the summer dry spell.

Aditya Sharma, a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, offered a solution. “The government should ask authorities to maintain strictly a cattle register to identify owners of abandoned animals,” he said.

Most Indian villagers eke a living out of small landholdings and the milk provided by cattle. But oxen and cows, worshipped by many Hindus, are seldom given away for slaughter. They are rather abandoned. Cattle foraging for food are a common sight in the streets of cities and towns.

Governments of most states have banned cow slaughter and beef. And the Centre too prohibits the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets.

“It’s difficult for a farmer to feed unproductive livestock. Besides, stricter norms for transporting cows have left people with little option but to leave the animals to their fate,” said Bishen Singh of Raiwala in the Haridwar division.

Gender discrimination plays its part in the dairy economy of farmers and the overall religious beliefs.

Sharma of the animal charity said “shelters” and “many religious sects are ready take abandoned cows … but not bullocks and buffaloes”.

Bulls are generally useless as artificial insemination is a cheaper and better reproductive medium, said Rakesh Negi, the state’s chief veterinary officer. “Hence they are abandoned. Cows are kept till they are fertile.”

The threat from the cattle invasion in Rajaji is graver than it appears. The cattle have become easy pickings for leopards, active in the western sector of the 820 square km park that straddles three districts from the foothills near the holy towns of Haridwar and Risikesh to the Himalayan heights of Pauri Garhwal.

The west covers 570 square km and has just two tigresses. Leopards rule the roost here. Conservationists fear if they grow a taste for cattle, which are not their natural prey, they will try to attack livestock in villages and come in direct conflict with humans.

Park authorities have another reason to worry. They are planning to bring five tigers, including two males, to repopulate the area. If these tigers prey on the cattle, the risk of multiplies manifold.

Conflicts are already high and rising. At least 10 people were killed in 20 leopard attacks reported in the Motichur-Raiwala area since 2014.

First Published: Jun 07, 2017 20:41 IST