The threat of Maoist conflict is now looming in Chhattisgarh’s Achanakmar Tiger Reserve. The central government recently included Mungeli district, where the tiger reserve is located, in the list of Maoist-affected districts of the state.

The classification of districts affected by Maoist insurgency is done to deploy resources and plan interventions. Mungeli has been included in the list of districts that are covered under the Security Related Expenditure scheme as well as under a new category, “Districts of Concern”, created to counter the spread of Maoist ideology and insurgency to new areas and stop resurgence in some areas where it is controlled.

Two of the three tiger reserves in Chhattisgarh, Udanti Sitanadi Tiger Reserve and Indravati Tiger Reserve, have been Maoist-dominated areas for years. Now, the increasing threat of Maoists in the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve has also increased concerns within the state forest department.

This comes at a time when the tiger population in Chhattisgarh has reduced to less than half in just four years. There were 46 tigers in the state according to the 2014 tiger census, while the 2018 census estimated that the state has only 19 individuals. Since the 2018 census, three tigers have also died in the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve.

The presence of Maoists in large parts of the states has curbed the activities of the Forest Department. The department’s officials and employees avoid stepping into the forest as they fear violence from the insurgents.

The entrance of the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve. The central government recently included Mungeli district, where the tiger reserve is located, in the list of Maoist-affected districts of the state. Photo credit: Abhishek Agrawal/Wikimedia Commons

Regarding the presence of Maoists in the new area of Achanakmar Tiger Reserve, SP Yadav, Additional Director General of Project Tiger in India and Member Secretary of National Tiger Conservation Authority told Mongabay-India, “Tiger conservation efforts will be negatively impacted due to Left Wing extremism. The problem causes poor presence and reach of forest front line staff in tiger reserve areas which result in poor monitoring of tigers and prey species, weakened anti-poaching activities, adversely affecting conservation efforts.”

Threat of violence

Indravati Tiger Reserve was the first tiger reserve to be notified in this area of Chhattisgarh in 1983. Spread over 2799.07 sq km, this tiger reserve has a core area of 1,258.37 sq km and connects to Kanha in Madhya Pradesh and Pench in Maharashtra via Chhattisgarh’s Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve and Achanakmar Tiger Reserve.

It is also connected to Tadoba and Sironcha in Maharashtra through Kawal in Andhra Pradesh. A part of this tiger reserve also joins Sunabeda Sanctuary in Odisha through Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve.

The Bijapur district, where this tiger reserve is located, has been dominated by Maoists for more than three decades and incidents of Maoist violence continue to happen here. On April 3 this year, 22 security-force personnel were reported to have been killed in an attack by Maoists in Bijapur. In September last year, Ratiram Patel, a range officer of Indravati Tiger Reserve posted in Bhairamgarh range, was also suspected to be killed by Maoists.

Due to Maoist violence, tourism in Indravati Tiger Reserve has been completely shut down for the last several years. Officials say it is impossible to install camera traps even in the buffer area for counting tigers. Further, the forest department has not been successful in rehabilitating or shifting even one out of 107 villages that lie in Indravati Tiger Reserve and Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve.

A family of Chital (deer) crossing the road in Achanakmar Tiger Reserve. Photo credit: Aditya Kar/Wikimedia Commons

A central government report states that the Indravati Tiger Reserve has been affected by Left Wing Extremism for more than two decades, and due to this, its notified core area is out of bounds for field staff. As a result, development works and monitoring activities have been adversely affected.

However, sitting in his office about 170 km from Indravati Tiger Reserve, Abhay Srivastava, the field director of this tiger reserve, opines the field staff is doing their job well. He says that 76 foot-guards have been stationed in the area of the Tiger Reserve and they patrol the area regularly.

Interference by Maoists

Talking to Mongabay-India, Srivastava said, “Our field staff is doing its job efficiently.”

“Three of our ranges are in the buffer zone, while five are in the core zone,” Srivastava said. “We are not able to enter the core area, but the field staff is doing a brilliant job in the buffer zone, despite the challenges. We are doing everything we can.”

A foot-guard working in the Indravati Tiger Reserve told Mongabay-India that it is not possible to roam in any area without the consent of the “overlords” (a term used for the Maoists). No one knows what is happening inside the forest. But the Maoists have been laying all the blame for the deteriorating condition of forests and wildlife on the government policies, he said.

In a release issued against the orders of the National Tiger Conservation Authority to shift the villages from the tiger reserve, the spokesperson of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of Maoists, Vikalp, said, “It is well known that for centuries wildlife and tribals have co-existed in forests and there is a balance and harmony among the forests, wildlife and tribals. Conservation and promotion due to this were unparalleled. Tribals have never harmed forests or wildlife and will never do so,”

“First the British imperialists, later the forest laws made by the exploiting-ruling classes of India, and then the anti-people, anti-tribal policies adopted by them, indiscriminate exploitation and plunder of water-forest-land and resources, forest cutting, government protection and participation are the main reasons behind this destruction,” he added. “Due to the continued looting by forest mafia, mineral mafia, wildlife hunting mafia, the natural system and coordination among forests, wildlife and tribals deteriorated. It even adversely affected the lifestyle of tribals and posed a threat to wildlife.”

Ayush Jain, Sitanadi Udanti Tiger Reserve deputy director, says, “Any development work, which affects their goal, is stopped by the Maoists. The most challenging task here is to set up camera traps.

There is a movement of tigers in the area of Kulhadighat, but if we are able to install camera traps even for five-10 days in a year, it is a big achievement for us. This is the reason why even tiger census cannot be carried out smoothly in this area.

The story of the state’s Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve, adjoining the Indravati Tiger Reserve, is no different. This tiger reserve, notified in 2009 with an area of 1842.54 sq km, has a core area of 851.09 sq km.

So far, the Maoists have not harmed any person of the forest staff in Sitanadi Udanti Tiger Reserve.

New challenges

There have been reports of the Maoist movement in the area of the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve from time to time for the last 20 years, but the authorities always dismissed these reports. Officials say that now, when the pressure of security forces has increased on the Maoists in the Bastar area, they have started expanding their MMC Committee (Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh Committee) and have begun their activities in the forests of Achanakmar in Mungeli district. Spread over a total of 914.017 sq km this Tiger Reserve has a core area of 626.195 sq km, and connects to Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh via Bhoramdev.

A leopard in Achanakmar Tiger Reserve. There have been reports of the sMaoist movement in the area of the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve from time to time for the last 20 years. Photo credit: Harsh.can/Wikimedia Commons

“There is a need to increase the number of security forces in sensitive places where such activities are likely to increase in future,’ Ratan Lal Dangi, IG Police, Bilaspur Range, said. “We do not want the Mungeli area to come under the control of Naxalites (Maoists) under any circumstances.”

However, S Jagadeesan, field director of Achanakmar Tiger Reserve, says that they have not seen any such activities in Achanakmar on the basis of which they can surely say that Maoists are active in the area.

The state’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Narasimha Rao is unaware that the state government has included Mungeli in the Maoist-affected districts, which is home to Achanakmar Tiger Reserve. He also denies any difficulty due to Maoist interference in Indravati Tiger Reserve and Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve.

On the issue of the lack of tourism in Chhattisgarh’s tiger reserves, he says, “It is not because of the Maoists but because of lack of facilities here that there is hardly any tourism here. There should be proper development, rest-houses for guests and activities to increase tourism here.”

But well-known wildlife expert Rajesh Gopal said, in a conversation with Mongabay-India, that be it Kanha in Madhya Pradesh or Palamu Tiger Reserve in Jharkhand or Achanakmar Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh, Maoist activities have a negative impact on the employees of the forest department.

This adversely affects tigers as well as other wild animals too. Gopal says that Chhattisgarh is an ideal area for tigers, but there is a need to make coordinated efforts for the conservation and promotion of tigers.

Gopal, who was the coordinator of Project Tiger in India and Member Secretary of National Tiger Conservation Authority, has headed many Tiger Reserves of Central India for several decades. These days, serving as the general secretary of the Global Tiger Forum, he opines that leaving the Maoist intervention to the police alone will not suffice.

“This is a big challenge that needs to be tackled,” he said. “Factors like the reasons behind the Maoists’ entry into the area need to be looked into. Issues like employment and development also need to be addressed. If we are unable to adopt a wholesome approach, the forest department and staff may face many difficulties.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.