Will the tiger stake its claim?

Will the tiger stake its claim?

prudence Activists are fighting tooth and nail for upgrading the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa to a tiger reserve. But will they win over antagonis

Will the tiger stake its claim?

The Status of Tigers in India report released in January 2015 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests has brought both elation and disquiet to Goa’s Western Ghats region, where it estimated the presence of five tigers. Environmental activists pushing for upgrading the 208 sq km Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in North Eastern Goa were elated and have stepped up their media campaign in favour of the reserve.

Environmental activist Rajendra Kerkar, spearheading the move to have the area declared as a reserve says, “Tiger is the main medium to protect the forest. One day or the other, a reserve will be a reality.” But this seems to be a dream.

According to Rajendra, influential land encroachers are afraid they will lose out and are instrumental in galvanising resistance and misinforming villagers about the proposed reserve.
Showing hostility
Consequently, villagers living in and around the sanctuary became openly
hostile to the plan. Recently, five village panchayats opposed all kinds of move to
designate it as a tiger reserve. Weeks later, villagers began consecrating a temple deep in the forests of the sanctuary.

Businessmen resurrected pleas for a tarmac road through the forests that would shorten access to neighbouring city of Belagavi. Although, foresters are of the opinion that this isn’t easy given the stringent procedures governing sanctuaries.

The conflict is nothing new. This battle has been going on since 1999 when the area was declared a wildlife sanctuary. In fact, the legal, political and economic battle over Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary and  Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary has still not abated and final notifications for large areas of the sanctuaries under Section 26 A have still not been passed.

Mining majors with considerable political and economic clout, who picked up large land parcels, have not given up attempts to mutate tenanted and government land in their names, taking advantage of imprecise surveys conducted in the past. Once the sanctuaries were notified, the forest department managed to prevent further encroachments. The forest department is fighting as many as 94 cases in various courts against encroachments and claimants to forest land, some for land parcels as large as 4000 ha held by mining firms.

While activists take a strident stand, Goa’s forest department is more circumspect. “One has to balance everybody’s needs – human needs, development needs, economy’s needs and so on,” says D N F Carvalho, Conservator of Forest.

Proving existence
Many believe the State Government is dragging its feet on agreeing to a tiger
reserve in Goa due to the powerful clout of the mining lobby. There are a large number of mines inside sanctuaries and as many as 33 mines fall within the one kilometre proposed buffer zones, that ruling politicians are attempting to dilute. Forest officials however, are keen to garner more substantial proof to justify a reserve, considering that resident villagers are already antagonistic to the idea.

Surveys by the Wildlife Institute of India on tiger presence in the Goa region found evidence of three tigers in the Mhadei region in 1993. The 2014 National Tiger Conservation Authority/Wildlife Institute of India study found evidence of five tigers.

The State Government in 2012 appointed noted expert Dr Ullas Karanth to conduct a detailed and proper study in the area, using the more reliable camera trap method to track presence and identify individual animals from a database. Ullas requested a five year time frame for the study and it’s due in 2017.

“Only then will we know for sure the real number of the tigers in the area and  if they are transitory or resident and if there is a sufficient prey base,” says Richard De Souza, former CCF in Goa, who oversaw much of this process.

There are other parameters to consider – at least one or two breeding pairs are necessary to avoid inbreeding and a large enough area to prevent conflict, both
between adult males and with humans. A Sahyadri tiger reserve, encompassing
areas in Goa and southern Maharashtra might be a more realistic coverage for a
reserve, rather than smaller pockets, he suggests.

Tigers need a 200 sq km area per adult male, and have been sighted all along the 750 sq km Goa-protected corridor. The Western Ghats is India’s second best and the world’s eighth best tiger habitat with a high degree of endemism, besides 48 genera of
mammals, 278 genera of birds, 60 genera of reptiles, including many unrecorded species.

Forest officials say that despite the media obsession and aura surrounding a tiger reserve, getting the area notified even as a wildlife sanctuary was a major task. Credited with being responsible for notifying sanctuaries in the Andamans, Richard staked much to push through sanctions for two wildlife sanctuaries – Mhadei and Netravali – in the State in 1999.

In effect, it created a contiguous protected corridor running the length of Goa from south to north and joining the tiger reserves and sanctuaries of Dandeli and Anshi to the south in Karnataka, the Dodamarg Reserve Forests in the north and the Bhimgad Sanctuary in the east.

But, the struggle to maintain the integrity of this eastern green corridor that ensures Goa’s water security and that houses some of the best natural forests in India, is far from over.

“Anyone may try to mutate their property, in the hope that they will be able to wangle something somehow. But ultimately, any dereservation of sanctuary area will have to go and be justified before the Supreme Court,” says Dr Claude Alvares of the Goa Foundation, whose petition halted mining and dereservation of areas in Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary.

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