Pandharkawda is no tiger reserve. Yet, one of the most gripping tiger stories to have emerged out of India’s forests in recent times was in this forest division in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, where T1, a tigress nicknamed Awani who had been declared a maneater, was shot dead last year in controversial circumstances.
Over 150 km away, is Bramhapuri. Like Pandharkawada, this forest division in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra has had its share of man-animal conflicts. Over the last seven months, tigers and leopards have claimed about 10 human lives and the Forest Department has had to move out at least two tigers and two leopards.
With the 2018 tiger census revealing a growth in tiger numbers in non-protected areas such as these, experts say the current tiger conservation model has to move beyond the reserves or the protected areas, that account for a mere 2.2 per cent of India’s forests.
According to the 2014 census, about a fourth of India’s tigers lived outside protected areas. But areas such as Bramhapuri, which is adjacent to the Tadoba reserve, hold more tigers than the protected area — while Tadoba had about 44 tigers as per the 2014 census, the areas outside had nearly 60 tigers.
Tiger experts attribute this rise in numbers to the transient tiger population — tigers who fail to mark their territory in reserves and spill over into non-protected areas.
Among the biggest challenges to conservation in such non-protected forests, besides human-wildlife conflict, are the eternal development-conservation dilemma and poaching.
Insisting “human-wildlife conflict has to be addressed on priority”, Wildlife Institute of India Director V B Mathur says, “We need to evolve a robust mechanism to make sure that both infrastructure development and conservation happen in a win-win manner. We also need to evolve a management paradigm for transient tigers.”
On July 24, a tiger was caught on camera waiting for an opportunity to cross the National Highway 7 that cuts through the tiger corridor of Pench forest. It then jumped over a highway barrier to enter the other side of the forest.
Maharashtra Principal Chief Conservator of Forest Nitin Kakodkar says it’s important to take conservation to the people. “We need to reduce the dependence of people on forests by giving them livelihood options. Also, we must use technology like e-surveillance and give people real-time alerts about possible conflict. All this will come at a cost but we have to bear it. In Pandharkawada, we have a team of villagers who do patrolling and alert people of the movement of tigers.”
Wildlife expert and Central India Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, Nitin Desai, says that with the rise in number of tigers outside reserves, “poaching will remain one of the biggest threats. Historically, poachers have targeted tigers in areas adjacent to the reserves. Such areas, earlier dismissed as ‘sink’, are in the reckoning given the large number of tigers they hold today.
So wildlife management and quality of protection must be enhanced in such areas and made comparable to tiger reserves.”
For areas like Bramhapuri, conservationist Valmik Thapar suggests the creation of “tiger wildlife refuge” with locals being part of the management. “Communities must feel like they are the protectors,” he says.