Why the big cats at Palamau tiger reserve are on the brink of extinction
The tiger is on the brink of extinction in Jharkhand, and the reason isn’t poaching or Maoist activities but an irrigation project that threatens to submerge 3.44 lakh trees at its only home — the Palamau tiger reserve — in the state.
At the last count, the reserve had only three big cats. And it won’t be long before the number becomes a rounded zero.
The Union cabinet had recently approved the construction of the North Koel irrigation project, much to the dismay of wildlife experts.
Several factors already affect the reserve – from the expansion of railway and state highway networks, Maoist-police conflict to poaching and forest staff shortage – and the irrigation project is likely to be the final nail in the big cat’s coffin as far as Jharkhand is concerned.
Palamau is only one in a long list of tiger habitats across India where development projects have got the governments’ nod.
On July 29, the Madhya Pradesh state wildlife advisory board approved an underground mining project of the Hindustan Copper Ltd within 10km of the Kanha tiger reserve.
Soon afterwards, the Centre approved the Ken-Betwa river linking project that will entail the felling of 18 lakh trees and the resultant submergence of 10% of Panna tiger reserve – an area that has seen the population of relocated tigers flourish over the years.
Maharashtra’s Tadoba tiger project is also threatened by an opencast coal mining project, operating near the restricted zone for the last few years.
Two years ago, the ministry allowed the expansion of the highway through the state’s Pench tiger reserve in spite of the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s objections.
Recently, the Centre allowed the expansion of a railway line through the Melghat tiger reserve after the Railways said laying an alternative route will result in the “felling of thousand of trees”.
The National Democratic Alliance government has approved over 150 projects in and around 764 project areas – constituting 4.98% of India’s geographical landscape – since 2014. Some of these figure in tiger reserves such as Periyar in Kerala and Nagarhole in Karnataka.
Palamau’s condition, however, is worse. Given its bad state, the reserve needed sustained efforts at wildlife conservation instead of an irrigation project that promises to damage it beyond repair. “I will not be surprised if the Palamau reserve goes off the country’s tiger map. Development at the cost of a nation’s bio-diversity must be discouraged,” Pradeep Kumar, former principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), Jharkhand, said.
Kumar said the reserve has suffered significant damage due to expansion of the state’s road and railway network. “Projects like these are nothing but politically motivated strategies to appease people at the cost of wildlife habitats,” Kumar said.
Palamau, notified a year after former PM Indira Gandhi announced Project Tiger in 1973, is one of the oldest among such reserves in India. According to Main Baagh Hoon, a book authored by Kumar, Palamau had 22 tigers in 1972.
The tiger reserve recorded a spike in tiger population in 1995, registering as many as 71 cats. However, the number began dwindling soon afterwards – touching three in 2014. This was in sharp contrast with other wildlife reserves in the rest of the country, which saw a 30% increase in tigers between 2010 and 2014.
Other inhabitants of the reserve – which accommodates 47 kinds of mammals and 174 species of birds in a territory extending over 1,129 sq km – have also suffered a drastic decline in population.
A recent census estimated that the number of elephants in Palamau has fallen from 238 in 2012 to 186 in 2017. With sambars also disappearing fast, around 16 were brought from Ranchi’s Bhagwan Birsa Biological Park recently to improve the tiger’s prey base.
State wildlife board member DS Srivastava also blamed developmental activities for the fall in animal population. “Around 2,000 animals, including snakes, are killed on the 50-km-long state highway passing through the tiger reserve annually. On the other hand, the railway track – which runs through 20 km of the reserve’s core area – has been the cause of several elephant deaths,” he said.
With wildlife conservation already being hampered by constant anti-Maoist operations and the presence of 160 villages (constituting 30,000 people and 1.5 lakh heads of cattle) in the tiger habitat, allowing the construction of the incomplete North Koel reservoir is sure to sound the death knell for the once-flourishing tiger abode.
However, Jharkhand chief wildlife warden LR Singh claimed that the Centre has approved Jharkhand’s Rs 100-crore site-specific wildlife management plan specifically to mitigate losses in the Palamau tiger reserve.
“The area of the reserve and protected zones will only increase under this plan. It includes a proposal for improving the habitat by relocating villages and enhancing forest cover as well as water resources,” Singh said.
He said the dam will benefit people as well as wildlife. “Palamau is a dry zone that faces acute water crises every summer. The reservoir will also help quench the thirst of wild animals,” he said.
(With inputs from Pradip Kumar Maitra in Nagpur and Neeraj Santoshi in Bhopal)