The dreaded feline of Bandipur eluded its trackers for five days before it was finally captured last month. The four-year-old male tiger had killed a dozen cows and two men on the periphery of the tiger reserve and the Karnataka forest department had deployed seven trained elephants, 60 foresters and five veterinarians, apart from camera traps, to track it. Three days into the hunt, when nothing seemed to work, the department called on its secret weapon, the Soligas, a tribe indigenous to the Niligiri Biosphere Reserve in southern India. Within two days, Halalegowda, Halamale Gowda, Badegowda and Shivanna Gowda of Chamarajanagar district had spotted and helped nab the tiger.
This is not the first time that members of the Soliga tribe have been called upon by the department to deal with tigers. In 2014, in a complicated operation to capture a man-eater in Khanapur taluk of Belagavi, the Soliga tribals’ knowledge of the forest and animals, particularly tigers, had again proved crucial.
“The Soligas track the tiger by means of smell, pugmarks, claw marks on trees and scat. Their eyesight and hearing are very sharp. They are adept at tracking tigers through bird alarm calls and even (through) squirrel behaviour,” says C Madegowda, senior research associate at ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment) and secretary of the Zilla Budakattu Girijana Abhivrudhi Sangha, an organisation that works for the welfare of the tribals.
The Soligas, or Sholagas, are an ethnic group with origins dating back to 800-2000 BC. While Soliga means “children of bamboo”, Sholaga refers to people belonging to the Shola, tropical montane forests separated by grasslands found in the hill ranges of the South. Soligas are also believed to be the descendants of Karayya, a student of Male Mahadeswara, an incarnation of Lord Shiva. According to legend, when one of Karayya’s cows refused to give milk, he followed it into the forest where he noticed it pouring all its milk on an anthill.
Not knowing that Male Mahadeshwara was meditating inside the anthill, Karayya broke it with an axe and hurt his teacher. Riven with guilt, he ran into the forest and took refuge in the roots of a bamboo. Karayya’s descendents, thus, came to be called the children of the bamboo. To this day, many Soliga settlements are near the famous Male Mahadeshwara temple at MM Hills in Karnataka’s Chamarajanagar district.
Since Male Mahadeshwara is depicted riding a tiger, the feline, too, came to be worshipped as Huliveerappa (Huli is Kannada for tiger) by the Soligas. “Knowledge of the forest is passed down through the generations,” says Madegowda, who is a Soliga from BR Hills in Karnataka. The gods they worship include the dodda sampige tree that is 2,000 years old, the sun, rain and a bear god called Karadi Devaru.
As with the other tribes of the region, the forest is the axis around which the Soligas’ lives revolve. It is their primary source of livelihood and every Soliga child grows up deeply familiar with its secrets. “Even a child in our families can identify around 200 species of medicinal plants, herbs and roots,” says Karanaketha Gowda, a resident of Muttugadagadde village settlement in BR Hills. This ancient relationship is what gives the Soligas invaluable knowledge of the forest and the animals residing in it. “A certain sound made by a kind of woodpecker is a good indicator to a Soliga that rain is imminent. They can even predict rainfall by the change in the flight of swallows,” says Jade Gowda, an associate professor at the College of Forestry, Ponnampet, Kodagu.
In a press conference after last month’s capture, chief wildlife warden Sanjay Mohan said that the Soligas proved crucial in spotting the tiger and hitting it with the dart that immobilised it. But protecting their way of life has been an uphill battle for the Soligas. In 1974, using the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the Karnataka government declared the BR Hills reserve forest as the BRT Wildlife Sanctuary. They stopped the practice of shifting cultivation by the Soligas, and evicted them from their ancestral home. In 2006, the collection of non-timber forest products (NTFP), on which the Soligas depended for their livelihood, was banned as well.
In 2008, the tribals moved the Chamarajanagar district court, asking that their rights be recognised under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. Two years later, the court ruled in their favour. Again, in January 2011, the sanctuary was declared a tiger reserve, and a case filed against them for collecting NTFP. In October the same year, the court dismissed the case and upheld the Soligas’ rights over their land, making them the first tribal community, living inside the core area of a tiger reserve in India, whose forest rights are recognised by law.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘At Home in the forest’