Poonam Dhanwatey in TOI Crest
Vidarbha with its three tiger reserves, nine wildlife sanctuaries and national parks is unique with forests lying outside the boundaries of the protected areas, providing habitat for a large population of tigers. From 2005 to 2011, in Chandrapur district alone, there were 103 cases of tiger attacks, including 65 human deaths, while a large number of tigers were suspected of being killed by poachers using traps, poisoning or electrocution. Almost all these incidences occurred outside the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR)
Apart from the immediate contiguous forests of TATR, these tigers are living in fragmented corridors and human-dominated areas. But the fact that tigers are still breeding is a clear indication that, to a significant extent, these forests still retain their ecological identity. So how does one go about protecting these tigers?
There is hardly any policy in place that is concerned with wildlife outside the protected areas, which includes thousands of square kilometres and not just the immediate fringes of reserves now recognised as 'buffer zones'. The thinking and attitude in the highest portals, as also among the wildlife research fraternity, is that focussing management efforts and resources on the protected areas - the repositories of the vital 'gene pools' - is what really matters. The other (' lesser' ) tigers form the 'sink' populations which are not likely to survive in the long run and, hence, are dispensable. With declaration of buffer zones, the conservation efforts will now extend to the tigers of the fringe forests, but the populations away from the notified buffer zones are still left in the lurch. But in the present scenario, with the diminishing numbers of tigers, it is difficult to agree with this line of thought.
Firstly, are tigers living outside the protected areas really different from the tigers inside? Tigers do not recognise boundaries - their home ranges cover protected and unprotected areas. Hence it makes little sense if the same tiger enjoys protection when it is inside and is left to fend for itself when he steps beyond the boundary. Are we hamstrung by a system which allows protection only within the demarcated area or should we have a system that is tailored to protecting wildlife over its entire range? There have been occasions when officers have heaved a sigh of relief because a dead tiger lay a few metres beyond their area of command.
Secondly, are these tigers really isolated from the main populations? Many of the old corridors still survive in good forest patches connected by degraded areas along farms and villages. As the results of a recent telemetry done by Dr Vidya Athreya show, tigers are capable of travelling across such landscapes. Besides, there are no studies done as yet to establish if these tigers are genetically isolated from their core cousins.
Thirdly, to a wildlife manager, every tiger matters, wherever and however it may exist. This is also the mandate given to him by the Wildlife Act, and what the citizens expect him to do.
Poaching of tigers in this landscape area has brought Tadoba in focus. There is little realisation that though these tigers may not have been poached within the reserve, they had a home range with their biological and territorial imperatives requiring them to shunt between protected and non-protected areas. Thus they are very much a part of the gene pool that everyone is concerned about.
The buffer, the adjoining corridors and the other peripheral forests still do not have a wildlife management plan and hence there is no protection strategy in place. Therefore these 'lesser' tigers may soon be on the verge of disappearance unless some urgent pre-emptive action is taken. The argument that disappearance of these tigers will have no effect on the core tiger gene pool is thus not a valid one.
No strategy to protect and conserve tigers will be effective if it only focuses on the reserves and their immediate fringes, particularly for Vidarbha, where a very substantial part of the tiger population is surviving and breeding outside the reserves. There is an urgent need to encompass these 'lesser' tigers within an effective management system.
Today, the major constraint on protecting these tigers outside is poor knowledge and capacity of the ground staff when it comes to managing wildlife. To begin with, all such beats where the tiger's presence is marked should be identified as sensitive. The population estimation data from the census exercises, beside giving an estimate of the tiger population, should also identify the spatial distribution of tigers right down to the beats, followed by a system of monitoring tiger movements at that level. This will require capacity building among the beat guards.
Such capacity building, along with that for anti-poaching activities, must continue along with a clearly stated policy that in these sensitive beats wildlife protection will take precedence over forestry works like plantations, timber, bamboo or tendu extraction. All water holes in each such beat need to be shown in the beat map, so also locations of power lines, which need to be rigidly monitored for tapping.
Senior field officers and those above should be made accountable for overseeing monitoring by the beat guard. The mantra would be to be aware of the tiger's presence in the beat and thus pre-empt its possible attack on men and cattle and checkmate poachers.
With certain basic ground rules in place, tourists may be allowed to sit on a machaan or drive with spotlights. Cattle kills can be optimised as the monetary returns to locals from tourists will eliminate the tendency of villagers to remove the cattle carcass (and often poison it). The most obvious fallout would be an incentive to keep a strict watch on these tigers by a host of stakeholders.
Is the Maharashtra forest department prepared to accept and face wildlife management's biggest challenge currently - the safety of tigers once they are outside the protected areas? If we end up losing these 'lesser' tigers, we may end up losing the so-called protected ones too. They are one and the same.
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