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New Delhi/Sitabani Reserve Forest: Do tigers know human boundaries?

The old Kumaoni stone hut where we lodged for our weekend stay had a cheerless history. It belonged to an old woman who lived there with her two buffaloes. Her source of sustenance was buffalo milk, which she sold to other villagers living in the Sitabani forest, adjoining the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand. From the dense cover and treacherous path covered with foliage, we could figure out that life was not easy for her. And the presence of the tiger made it dangerous. For days she would be holed up in her hut for fear of the lurking tiger. One night the inevitable happened—the tiger stealthily entered the cowshed just outside her hut and mauled the buffaloes to death. And then it stayed there for four days, consuming its kill. The old woman was trapped inside her house for those four days, traumatised. Later, she sold her hut and land and moved to a safer area. This is how we landed in the hut, which stood intact with an additional concrete room built by the new owner.

During our stay, we could feel the presence of the tiger, especially at night. Our local guide told us stories of tigers entering villages and mauling people, killing livestock and disappearing with small children. We were returning from the village bazaar with groceries and it was nightfall by the time we returned. There, by the wayside, hardly 50 metres away was this huge tigress, lying on the grass. We stood there transfixed. It was right beside the road used by villagers to commute.

Do wild animals understand human boundaries? Does wildlife obey rules and regulations of protected areas such as tiger reserves, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries? Do we know where man-eaters come from? If we happen to believe that wildlife is restricted to protected areas, we are fooling ourselves.

These areas, contiguous with protected areas, are commonly called buffer forests, officially known as reserved forest. Here the forest is also inhabited by people living in small village clusters. Millions of people who live in the fringes of forests— such as the woman in Kumaon—are exposed to conflict with wildlife, leading to crop depredation, livestock predation, damage to property and loss of life.

Contrary to popular belief, hunting is actually not an easy task for the tiger. Experts say a tiger manages a kill only once in nearly 10 attempts. It is even harder in fringe or reserved forests because of fewer species. Here tigers and leopards mostly live off livestock. While analyzing leopard scats, wildlife biologist Vidya Athreya found out that in Maharashtra, 87% of the leopard’s prey biomass consisted of domestic animals, with 39% of it consisting of domestic and stray dogs.

Humans are not natural prey to big cats but just one accidental encounter can transform a big cat’s predatory behaviour. Human beings are not fleet-footed which makes them easy to hunt down. And with the paths of man and animal crossing daily, attacks are becoming frequent.

Krishnendu Bose, a conservationist and wildlife film-maker whose new film “The Forgotten Tigers" documents the lives of tigers living outside the protection of reserves in human-dominated landscapes, says: “One third of the tiger population in India traverse through fringe forests close to human habitations and only come into news when they kill or get killed. They are the unprotected and the forgotten tigers. Do these tigers teach us something new about conservation?"

After the shocking news of the disappearance of the tiger from the Sariska and Panna tiger reserves in the early 2000s, the central government took stringent measures to protect the animal. Since then, the tiger population has increased across the country.

In the last decade alone, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has notified 22 new tiger reserves, bringing the total number of such reserves to 47.

But an area under a tiger reserve can only hold a finite number of big cats—what is known as the carrying capacity of a reserve forest. When the number of tigers increases, they have to disperse to new areas. These new areas are called fringe areas, densely populated by humans and falling outside the ambit of wildlife protection measures. Tigers from the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand, for instance, have migrated to fringe forests in Ramnagar (35 tigers) in the south and Lansdowne (25 tigers) in the north.

What we need is connectivity between such protected areas so that the tiger and other species can move from one forest to another without confronting man, whose numbers have grown exponentially.

“The tiger and other animals are killed because of lack of inter-connectivity between forests. They are bound to infringe on human territory. This is the reason behind the undoing of successful conservation measures," says Bivash Pandav, scientist and tiger biologist at the Wildlife Institute of India.

There are reasons for government inaction. In many cases, like the Sitabani forest, authorities are wary of upgrading the status of the forest into a protected area because they are reluctant to bear the cost of relocating and rehabilitating displaced villagers. In addition, in this particular case, the government would stand to lose revenue from sand and boulder mining from the riverbed—a classic case of conservation versus development.

“What we are witnessing is the flip side of the successful campaign to save tigers. Today, when the number of tigers has increased, the space for them to live and hunt has not. Experts did not take this side of the story into consideration while drawing plans to increase the numbers of tigers inside protected areas. The question is do we need more tigers before we can manage the ones we have?" says Bose.

Take the example of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra which can sustain 50 tigers. Its annual budget is 65 lakh. Right across its border is the unprotected Chandrapur forest (also in Maharashtra) which has about 40 tigers but an annual budget of only 6.5 lakh. NTCA’s budgetary allocation for tiger conservation for 2013-14 was 182 crore.

Pilibhit in western Uttar Pradesh, declared a tiger reserve earlier this year, is said to have 40 tigers. The forest is surrounded by sugarcane fields. A narrow path divides the forest and the fields, and the tiger sometimes doesn’t recognize this line and just hops across to these fields.

In 2012, a tigress walked into a sugarcane field and stayed there for six months, raising three cubs.

NTCA says in its census report that the area occupied by tigers outside protected areas has gone down considerably. It highlights the need for building secure corridors for tigers and other wildlife to move between forests. But, unmindful of conservation priorities, government agencies continue to divert forest land for development projects. It is hard to fathom these actions when the government’s Forestry Outlook Study says: “Without the ecosystem services emanating from forests, life on earth would not be possible."

Forest land diverted during the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-11)—197,907.61 hectares—is close to the combined area of the three tiger reserves of Sahyadri (Maharashtra), Panna (Madhya Pradesh) and Tadoba Andhari.

India loses 135 hectares of forest land every single day, according to data acquired last year from the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) through a right to information application filed by the Environment Impact Assessment Resources and Response Centre (eRc), a non-governmental organization.

The Supreme Court has put on hold all development projects cleared by the MoEF’s recently reconstituted National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). The court is of the view that the NBWL has not been constituted by the ministry in consonance with Section 5A of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. The NBWL is empowered to appraise all projects for environmental clearance that fall within or around national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves.

However, recently, the government put up a proposal for forest clearance to make way for the Ken-Betwa river-interlinking project, which involves diverting 6,000 hectares of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. And the Forest Development Corp. of Maharashtra Ltd (FDCM) has secured permission to cut clear about 96,300 acres of critical tiger habitat. Of this, nearly 50,000 acres of marked land is in Lendezari, a dense forest corridor between the Pench and Nagzira tiger reserves which is home to at least 50 tigers and their cubs. FDCM plans to replace this lush forest with commercial teak and bamboo plantations, without any plans for wildlife management or protection.

Are we serious about saving the tiger? Why is the government going back on its own commitment to save India’s national animal and other wildlife? Without forests like Lendezari, the tiger’s habitat will become more fragmented, isolating populations and greatly decreasing the species’ genetic diversity. These fragmented forests will only make tigers and leopards more vulnerable to poaching and human conflict.

“The Forgotten Tigers" will premiere on Friday at the Public Service Broadcasting Trust documentary festival, “Open Frame", in New Delhi.

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