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
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
BHOPAL RESIDENTS MAKING NOTE OF TIGER PUGMARKS NEAR THE CITY