October 18, 2007 12:55:58 am
Fifty-year-old Sonabai Gurnule from Sonapur village was working in a farm with some other villagers when a tiger, hiding in the fully grown paddy crop, pounced on her from behind. Other farmers raised an alarm, forcing the tiger to run into the forest, just 20 metres from the farm, but not before killing Sonabai.
Raibhan Shende (45) from Yenoli (Mal) village, about 3 km from Sonapur, was lucky. “I was in my paddy farm removing the grass when suddenly a tiger attacked me. Luckily, I had a sharp-edged cutter in my hand and I tried to fight the tiger with it. Some villagers working in their farms saw me and raised an alarm, forcing the tiger to run away. However, the tiger managed to injure me badly,” Raibhan told The Indian Express, showing his wounds caused by tiger nails.
On Monday, Ramesh Kulmethe from neighbouring Kacchepar village also got mauled by a leopard. He is recovering in a Chandrapur hospital.
Sonabai is among the 20 people who were killed while Raibhan and Ramesh are among the eight lucky survivors residing near the forest around Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) who were attacked by the animals in the past 22 months.
Strikingly, 11 of the 20 deaths have happened in a small belt between Nagbhid and Sindewahi tehsils on the northeastern side of TATR. Here, all affected villages aren’t more than 30 km from each other, if connected by a straight line.
The forest officials are equally alarmed. “We have a serious situation on hand,” said Principal Chief Conservator of Forest B Majumdar.
“We will have to study the problem more closely. Over the years, population in the surrounding villages has increased manifold. People are venturing out deeper into the forests for tendu, mahua, firewood etc, which brings them into conflict with a sizeable tiger population,” Majumdar said.
Courtesy some good conservation effort for nearly a decade now, TATR, once claimed to have no tiger population, is now one of the most flourishing tiger reserves in the country. It has a population of 40-45 tigers in its expanse of over 625 sq km. Over the past few years, tiger count in the neighbouring Territorial and FDCM (Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra) areas, too, has been steady around 22.
The Forest Department has put up warning boards and has, of late, also launched an awareness campaign among villagers in a few pockets. But that hasn’t stopped the attacks.
“Villagers are poor. They can’t afford to buy kerosene. So, they are forced to go to the forests for firewood. Also, for tendu leaves and mahua flowers they have to go there. How will they not go?” asked the villagers of Kodepar.
Gajanan of Minthur village was killed by a tiger in the forest adjoining Kodepar, last year. He had walked about 10 km from his village to the spot to collect Sindi leaves. When The Indian Express visited the spot on Tuesday, fresh pugmarks were found close to the spot, showing that the animal has stayed on there since then.
In most villages, people say they don’t remember a tiger killing humans in the village in the past. “Earlier, forests were not forbidden. People freely ventured into the forest and maybe the tigers stayed away. But not any more,” said Vinod Deshmukh of Kodepar village.
Two years ago, during summer, a tigress and four grown-up cubs had stayed for nearly a month at a water hole near Tadgaon village, seated on the edge of the forest surrounding TATR. The animals had no problem with the crowd of visitors trying to catch a glimpse. The unusual spectacle provided by the human-shy animal, was to many forest officials indicative of a desperate situation to seek newer territories.
And these attacks are now not restricted to summer when tigers fan out in search of water. So, have the tigers come to stay in these areas?
“It is difficult to say,” said Majumdar. Vidya Atre, who pioneered a study on leopard-human conflict in western Maharashtra, said, “If the attacks are concentrated in a small pocket, it could be an aberration where a tiger or two could be behind all the attacks. But it really seems very worrisome.”
According to activist Nitin Desai, older tigers find humans easy preys and can attack them. Many villagers say there is not a very good prey base for the tigers around.
In the cases The Indian Express inquired, the tiger was known to have killed and eaten the carcass of its victims. Sign of a man-eater on the prowl? “I don’t like the term. I would prefer to call it problem animal. If that is the case, it needs to be trapped,” Atre said.
The Forest Department is confronting the proverbial “who will bell the cat” situation around TATR.
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