GADCHIROLI district, home to over 100 tigers about four decades ago, had lost all of them to several factors such as hunting, poaching and eroded preybase. But over the last five years or so, the district has been slowly witnessing the return of the big cat. While that appears to be good news from a wildlife point of view, experts feel that it comes with a price.
The pace at which tiger numbers are growing in the district suggests that the Forest department is faced with a huge challenge. From just one or two transient tigers about five years ago, the district now has at least 22 tigers located in the three divisions of Wadsa, Gadchiroli and Alapalli. While some of these are transient, about eight are cubs.
One of the unavoidable implications is already panning out, much to the Forest department’s concern. This year, the district has seen five human deaths in tiger attacks, the latest one on Wednesday, when a 58-year old woman from Gadchiroli city was killed in tiger attack barely 2 km away from the city, when she had gone to collect firewood. This was the second human death in two months in Gadchiroli division. Earlier, three deaths were reported from Wadsa division, which has the most number of tigers.
According to Assistant Conservator for Forest of Wadsa, Bhaskar Kamble, the division has 12-14 tigers, including three cubs.
Wadsa gets its tigers from the adjoining Brahmapuri division forest in Chandrapur district. Brahmapuri, despite not being a protected wildlife area, has 53 tigers and is the biggest man-big cat conflict hotspot in the state.
“Since Brahmapuri is saturated with tigers, they are now moving toward Wadsa across the Wainganga river,” said Wadsa Deputy Conservator of Forest (DCF) Niranjan Vivarekar. “Some became resident tigers here and some have moved further up to Gadchiroli division,” he added.
Brahmapuri itself gets its tigers from the adjoining Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR).
According to Gadchiroli DCF S R Kumarswamy, there are nine tigers in his division, five of them cubs. “The two human deaths in the past two months are by two different tigers,” he said.
Already, two tiger deaths, one stated to be natural and the other in a territorial fight, have been recorded in Gadchiroli in January and June this year. Back in 2017, a tigress had to be captured in Wadsa division after it had killed two persons.
Alapalli division has only two transient tigers. “They were not seen over the past about eight months. But recently, they have come back and have killed cattle,” said Alapalli DFC Chandrakant Tambe. All three divisions have been recording growing number of cattle kills, as revealed by the three DCFs.
Thus, the Gadchiroli tiger story has quickly acquired all the trappings of a major man-tiger conflict.
Nagpur Chief Conservator of Forest Kalyan Kumar, who was Gadchiroli DCF between 2015 and 2017, said, “A lot of water conservation work under MGNREGA has helped improve the habitat in Gadchiroli during the past few years, leading to an increase in wild preys. This has also attracted tigers to Gadchiroli in recent years.”
Going by tigers’ preference to move into Gadchiroli at a pace that not many could have expected and given a very poor natural preybase there, tiger-human conflict could be much more intense there than in Chandrapur, which has a much better prey population.
With five deaths so far this year, Gadchiroli is the next big hotspot after Chandrapur, which has recorded 26 human deaths in tiger attacks.
“We are staring at a challenging situation in Gadchiroli, where tigers will have to survive mostly on domestic cattle since the natural preybase is very poor. That will keep the tigers close to the human population, resulting in conflict,” said Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) Nitin Kakodkar.
The other major implication is for Community Forest Rights (CFR) activity. Gadchiroli has the biggest CFR movement in the country, with over 1,300 gram sabhas acquiring rights for community management of their forests under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Gadchiroli’s CFR activity currently doesn’t have to negotiate with predators like tigers and leopards.
Devaji Tofa, who spearheaded the CFR movement at Mendha-Lekha village in Dhanora tahsil, widely reckoned as the cradle of the FRA movement in the country, said: “We will have to put our heads together about the prospect of tigers making our forests their home. Earlier too, we had tigers but there was hardly any conflict. But the situation has changed a lot since then. Clearly, we need to factor in the tiger issue in our future strategies.”
Social and health activist Prakash Amte, who has been working for tribals in remote Gadchiroli villages at Hemalkasa in Bhamragad tahsil, said, “When we established our centre here in 1973, there were tigers at many places till 1980. But poaching and revenge killing by villagers against cattle predation saw them vanish. But then the population of Gadchiroli was very small. Over the past four decades, it has gone up multifold and so has human footfall in the forest. So, conflict with tigers would very much be a challenge to be expected.”
Amte also runs a zoo at Hemalkasa and had received a Padmashree for his work towards human as well as animal welfare.
Another major hurdle in the management of tigers in the district would be the presence of Maoists. “It will be very difficult to do it in those pockets. With both police and Maoists operating there, a chance encounter with a tiger for either of them could prove fatal for the big cat as well as for the armed adversaries. Decimation of tigers in the neighbouring Indravati Tiger Reserve, nestled in the Bastar forest of Chhattisgarh, is too well-known a fact in this respect,” said Nitin Desai, central India director of Wildlife NGO Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Fireline worker dies in tiger attack
A woman fireline worker was killed by a tiger in the core area of TATR on Thursday morning. Fireline work is clearing of vegetation between two parts of a forest to prevent a forest fire from spreading from one part to the other.
“Fireline worker Vidya Waghade, 38, was killed by a tiger at 8.30 am on Thursday. This was the first human death in tiger attack in fireline work. We have decided to deploy a security person to alert the workers in all future operations with immediate effect,” said TATR Field Director Jitendra Ramgaokar.
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