TRACK­ING THE BIG CATS

Tigers are mak­ing fre­quent for­ays into ur­ban ar­eas around Bhopal, but thank­fully there have been no hu­man or fe­line ca­su­al­ties—so far

India Today - - WILDLIFE - By Rahul Noronha

At around 4 pm, as they usu­ally do on most days, Gi­tali Mehra and her son Sid­dharth left for their farm near Kerwa Dam, some 5 km from their house in Chun­ab­hatti, a rel­a­tively new res­i­den­tial neigh­bour­hood in South Bhopal. As Sid­dharth, who was driv­ing, took a sharp turn near the Kalia­sot reser­voir, he was forced to a halt by a traf­fic jam caused by a num­ber of cars and buses parked hap­haz­ardly on the road. The kids on a school­bus looked ex­cited and seemed to be point­ing at some­thing some dis­tance away. There, about 40 yards from the road, was sprawled a male tiger, lick­ing his paws, per­haps after a ful­fill­ing meal of the hind sec­tion of a bul­lock that was ly­ing next to him. The tiger—and the traf­fic jam it had caused—sat there for about an hour be­fore the lo­cal for­est depart­ment pa­trol ar­rived and asked ev­ery­one to leave.

This scene did not play out in one of the famed tiger re­serves of Mad­hya Pradesh, but on a road about 4 km away from a prom­i­nent res­i­den­tial area in a state cap­i­tal. Ac­counts of tigers be­ing sighted by ev­ery­day folk—school and col­lege stu­dents and pic­nick­ers—close to res­i­den­tial ar­eas in this part of Bhopal are now ap­pear­ing with alarm­ing fre­quency. The for­est depart­ment is find­ing it tough to keep man and an­i­mal away from each other, and for the mo­ment, there seems to be no solution in sight.

A couple of years ago, a tiger en­tered the premises of the Na­tional Ju­di­cial Academy, lo­cated close to Kerwa. Last year, an­other tiger was cap­tured from the Nabibagh-based In­sti­tute for Agri­cul­ture Engi­neer­ing, while yet an­other—later found to be from the same fam­ily as the Kerwa tigers—was cap­tured from Sha­japur district. As per for­est depart­ment records, there are 7 adult tigers, 3

males and 4 fe­males, around the Kalia­sot-Kerwa-Ko­lar reser­voirs axis, a stretch of for­est mea­sur­ing about 60 sq km that falls un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of three for­est di­vi­sions— Bhopal, Se­hore and Raisen. While one end of this for­est is con­nected to the Rat­a­pani sanc­tu­ary, the other end of this for­est stretch merges with a densely pop­u­lated res­i­den­tial area of the ex­pand­ing city of Bhopal along the Ko­lar road and the Kerwa area, char­ac­terised by in­sti­tu­tional/ low den­sity hous­ing.

Is the pres­ence of tigers in this area a one-off event? Not re­ally. The for­est area along the Ko­lar road and Kerwa reser­voir has tra­di­tion­ally been a tiger habi­tat, with records sug­gest­ing their pres­ence till as late as the 1980s. How­ever, weak pro­tec­tion mea­sures on the part of the for­est depart­ment led to tigers dis­ap­pear­ing. Sev­eral prob­a­bly just moved away from hu­man habi­ta­tions— deeper into the rel­a­tively undis­turbed forests of the Rat­a­pani sanc­tu­ary. The strength­en­ing of pro­tec­tions in the last decade has led to an in­crease in tiger pop­u­la­tion in the sanc­tu­ary, with num­bers said to be touch­ing al­most 30. Be­ing ter­ri­to­rial an­i­mals, the big cats re­turned to the Kerwa area, only to find their home­lands marked by a much greater hu­man im­print—schools, col­leges, res­i­dences and farm­houses. Mak­ing their reap­pear­ance in 2010 in the form of spo­radic for­ays in the Kerwa area, the tigers have nonethe­less el­bowed their way back into the area. “Be­sides be­ing a tra­di­tional tiger habi­tat, the area also has nat­u­ral caves that act as breed­ing sites. There is a large avail­abil­ity of prey, and the es­tab­lish­ment of gaushalas near Kerwa and Kalia­sot have only added to the num­ber of cat­tle that tigers can prey upon. Also, lan­tana of­fers good cover in the area, there is a high avail­abil­ity of wa­ter as well,” says S.P. Tiwari, con­ser­va­tor of forests, Bhopal.

One of the sec­tions of for­est where the tigers roam is lo­cated be­tween the Ko­lar road and Kerwa. From the 1990s on­ward, the ar­eas sur­round­ing the Ko­lar road have been among the fastest grow­ing res­i­den­tial ar­eas in

A TRA­DI­TIONAL TIGER HABI­TAT, THE AREA ALSO HAS CAVES THAT ACT AS BREED­ING SITES. GAUSHALAS NEAR KERWA AND KALIA­SOT ONLY ADD TO THE NUM­BER OF CAT­TLE THAT TIGERS CAN PREY UPON S.P. TIWARI Con­ser­va­tor of Forests, Bhopal

Bhopal. Scant re­gard for any reg­u­lated ur­ban plan­ning has led to a con­crete jun­gle in the area—one that is ex­pand­ing rapidly—and with the new four-lane roads in the area, con­struc­tion is ad­vanc­ing into the real jun­gle. Kerwa, on the other hand, un­der the city’s devel­op­ment plan, has re­stric­tions in place on con­struc­tion of reg­u­lar hous­ing colonies. But that hasn’t come in the way of the place be­com­ing the des­ti­na­tion of choice for the rich and fa­mous of Bhopal. Top ver­nac­u­lar me­dia houses, Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Ja­gran, have set up a school and univer­sity bang in the mid­dle of the for­est, and top politi­cians of all hues, as well as bu­reau­crats and lead­ing busi­ness­men have in­vested in farm land in the area. Many also own farm­houses that have been con­verted to full-time res­i­dences be­cause of their prox­im­ity to the city. Till a few years ago, this area was known mostly for the vil­lages here—Men­dora, Chan­dan­pura and Barkhedi—but what one sees now are plush man­sions in­stead.

With man and tiger run­ning into each other al­most on a daily ba­sis,

what do the au­thor­i­ties plan to do? The for­est depart­ment in MP does not have a clear strat­egy to deal with the sit­u­a­tion. On two pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sions, it brought in ele­phants and vet­eri­nar­i­ans in an at­tempt to tran­quilise the tigers and move them to a tiger re­serve. Both at­tempts failed, with the tigers of the area—un­like the tourist-friendly big cats of na­tional parks that are used to pos­ing for cam­eras—re­fus­ing to come within range of the dart guns. “I think it is nec­es­sary to move the Kerwa tigers into a more se­cure habi­tat rather than wait for some se­ri­ous in­ci­dent to hap­pen around Bhopal. Tigers and hu­mans can­not live to­gether at high den­si­ties of both, with­out com­ing into con­flict. Tiger den­sity around Bhopal must be re­duced to make it safe, both for hu­mans as well as for tigers,” says for­mer chief wildlife war­den for MP, H.S. Pabla. “We’ve been very lucky as there has not been a sin­gle in­stance of at­tack on a hu­man be­ing as yet, not even a mock charge. But that will not al­ways be the case, and an un­for­tu­nate in­ci­dent might oc­cur any day. If some­one gets killed, that’s the end of the tigers,” he adds.

At the mo­ment, how­ever, the for­est depart­ment seems to have changed tack. Now, it wants the tigers to re­main in the for­est ad­join­ing the city. “This area has been a tra­di­tional tiger range. If we translo­cate one spec­i­men, an­other tiger will re­place it as they are ter­ri­to­rial an­i­mals,” says Tiwari.

Mon­i­tor­ing the tigers in an area that has high hu­man in­ter­ven­tion is not easy for the for­est depart­ment. There are ded­i­cated pa­trolling ve­hi­cles do­ing the rounds, new check posts have been set up, and a chain link fenc­ing, 10 feet high, has been erected over 4 km on the bor­der be­tween the for­est and habi­ta­tion to pre­vent con­tact be­tween tigers and hu­mans. “We have also in­stalled an elec­tronic sur­veil­lance sys­tem called the E-eye that sends real-time images of the for­est to a con­trol cen­tre in Bhopal and to mo­bile de­vices,” says Tiwari. When tiger move­ment is re­ported, the Bhopal col­lec­tor im­poses Sec­tion 144 in the area at night.

But is the for­est depart­ment do­ing some­thing about the mush­room­ing con­struc­tion in the area? “Part of the forests fre­quented by tigers are rev­enue forests, and part of it is un­der the cap­i­tal project ad­min­is­tra­tion where the writ of the for­est depart­ment does not ap­ply. Build­ing per­mis­sions are ei­ther given by the town and coun­try plan­ning or by pan­chay­ats and there is no process for con­sul­ta­tion with the for­est depart­ment,” says ad­di­tional prin­ci­pal chief con­ser­va­tor of forests (wildlife) R.P. Singh, adding that the wildlife wing has writ­ten to the col­lec­tor, de­mand­ing that the rev­enue forests be trans­ferred to the for­est depart­ment as pro­tected forests so that the depart­ment has some de­gree of con­trol over what hap­pens next. “Right now our only job is to phys­i­cally en­sure that chances of man­an­i­mal con­flict are min­imised. There is noth­ing we can do as a long-term mea­sure,” he says.

The district ad­min­is­tra­tion does not want to give up con­trol over that area so eas­ily, and nei­ther are the res­i­dents of the area very keen that the for­est depart­ment, armed with strin­gent en­vi­ron­ment laws, come into the pic­ture. “We have taken all rel­e­vant per­mis­sions for con­struc­tion from con­cerned agen­cies. Now if a tiger en­ters a hu­man habi­ta­tion you can­not hold the hu­man be­ing re­spon­si­ble and force them to lead a life with re­stric­tions,” says a res­i­dent of the Kerwa on con­di­tion of anonymity.

The forests in which the tigers op­er­ate are patchy, filled with shrub veg­e­ta­tion, with trees only on higher ground. Part of the pop­u­la­tion of the area also de­pends on the for­est for their nistaar re­quire­ments. The forests also pro­vide the tigers with some of their prey, in the form of wild boar, blue bulls and the oc­ca­sional four-horned an­te­lope; but these are not enough to sus­tain the tiger pop­u­la­tion. The bulk of the tiger’s di­etary re­quire­ment is met from cat­tle, both feral and from the lo­cal vil­lages’ herds. From April 1, 2016 on­wards, the Bhopal for­est di­vi­sion alone has paid out com­pen­sa­tion to the tune of Rs 2.65 lakh for the 29 head of cat­tle killed by tigers. Many more cat­tle kills take place, but are un­recorded as many cat­tle are feral. Be­sides this, cat­tle are also killed in the Se­hore and Raisen for­est di­vi­sions that bor­der the area.

A few days ago, a tiger made re­peated at­tempts to lift cat­tle from Sa­mas­garh vil­lage, a habi­ta­tion about 10 km from Kerwa. Armed res­i­dents spent en­tire nights on pa­trols, es­pe­cially after a tiger climbed on the roof of a house and re­moved the tiles in an at­tempt to en­ter the cat­tle pen.

“The sit­u­a­tion bor­ders on help­less­ness as all govern­ment agen­cies claim to be con­cerned about the tiger but im­ple­ment only cos­metic mea­sures,” says wildlife ac­tivist Ajay Dubey. “The NGT has in con­nec­tion with an­other mat­ter said the Wildlife Pro­tec­tion Act, 1972, is be­yond its ju­ris­dic­tion. We don’t know who to turn to.” It’s a no-win sit­u­a­tion.

A TIGER LEAPS ONTO THE ROOF OF THE CEN­TRAL IN­STI­TUTE OF AGRI­CUL­TURE ENGI­NEER­ING IN BHOPAL DUR­ING AT­TEMPTS TO CAP­TURE IT

GETTY IMAGES

BHOPAL RES­I­DENTS MAK­ING NOTE OF TIGER PUGMARKS NEAR THE CITY

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