For the tribal population residing within and in the fringes of Buxa Tiger Reserve, tourism is a key source of livelihood. Its a sizeable population and makes up for a votebank, which is the deciding factor in the region. Eyes firmly fixed on this votebank, the ruling Trinamool Congress has promised a slew of measures to revitalize tourism here.
There is only one problem. There are no tigers left in the Buxa Tiger Reserve.
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Located in Alipurduar, the reserve runs along the Bhutan border with its eastern boundary touching Assam. Created in 1983 as India’s 15th tiger reserve, the big cat population in Buxa allegedly dropped from 20 to zero in four years — from 2010 to 2014.
While state government is yet to admit that there are no more big cats in the reserve, it had early this year submitted a proposal to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), which sources said, contained among others a proposal to augment the tiger population by relocating big cats from other reserves.
The forest department now says that “those 20 tigers might never have been there” in 2011.
An official explained: “While hunting, tigers travel large distances often moving from Bhutan to India and vice-versa. The problem is that tribal
hamlets have come up in the area and they’ve destroyed the local forest land. Moreover, the entire forest land has been decimated by ‘outsiders’, who are being aided by the government. They buy forest land from tribals and set up hotels and resorts here.”
State forest minister Benoy Krishna Barman too had earlier admitted in the Assembly that “increasing number of hamlets along the Buxa Tiger Reserve are responsible for the declining number of the big cats”. However, he had claimed that these hamlets are owned primarily by the tribals.
Those living within the forest, insist that their land is ‘legally owned’. “We got this land from the locals here and we paid money for it. How can it be illegal, if I have the rights for it,” said Ramesh Yadav, who owns a resort near the core area of Buxa.
Asked why the forest department doesn’t intervene when outsiders buy land in the area, a senior official said, “The forest department is working with just 50 per cent of the sanctioned strength. Of these, 20 per cent staffers are nearing retirement while another five per cent are working in spite of crossing the retirement age. Severely understaffed, doesn’t even begin to explain our predicament,” the officials said.
The local residents have already raised concerns over the decimation of the tiger population here. “Tourists who come here, leave disappointed when they learn that this tiger reserve has no tigers,” said Binoy Gurung of Jayanti village.
Trinamool Congress, meanwhile has promised a slew of measures upon being re-elected —- a rope way in the forest, resorts along the lines of eco-tourism and employment opportunities for locals.
However, all of this depends on the presence of tigers in the area. “Whether its tigers or elephants —- the two big attractions in Buxa – there are problems. With the rate of encroachment, we are going to witness a rising number of man-animal conflicts in the future. They have already started, but the more the man and animals fight for space, the worse it’ll get,” said Amal Dutta, environmentalist, who has been collaborating with Project Tiger and the forest department.