Along the length of Mizoram’s border with Bangladesh lies the Dampa tiger reserve, sprawled across 1,000 sq km. This tropical forest stretching over hills and valleys has few – if any – tigers and leopards. But there are large numbers of smaller mammals – martens, civets, clouded leopards, binturungs, golden cats, marbled cats, leopard cats, and vulnerable species like the Malayan Sun bear. Despite the rich fauna, the camera traps laid by biologists to photograph the prowling cats often end up taking images of gunmen. 

The park is overrun by assorted gunmen, from local hunters to armed insurgents. A senior forest official in Mizoram's forest department estimates that, given Dampa's location, abutting Mizoram's border with Bangladesh and Tripura, the reserve is used by as many as 12 separatist groups variously to enter or leave India.

Key among them are splinter groups of the Shanti Bahini, which is fighting for Chakma autonomy in Bangladesh, and the National Liberation Front of Tripura, which wants to establish the state as an independent Christian nation.

In recent years, the NLFT has carried out a set of kidnappings in and around Dampa. The most recent took place in February, when NLFT insurgents, working with the Bru Democratic Front of Mizoram, kidnapped 22 workers of the Border Roads Organisation near Dampa. While the Mizos were released the same day, two non-Mizos were taken hostage. Unconfirmed reports suggest they were eventually allowed to go, but only after ransom payments were made.

Armed insurgents, however, aren’t the only threat to the park. Dampa exemplifies the complexities of wildlife conservation in the North East, a region where not just animals, even people are caught in the throes of upheaval.

Squeezed by people

The villages near Dampa are home to people of the Bru tribe, an ethnic minority in a state where the Mizo tribe is dominant. Violence against the Bru people in 1997 and again in 2009 drove thousands of them to flee Mizoram for neighbouring Tripura.

Over the last couple of years, they have begun to return. Pu Sanga, a resident of Damparengpui, a village close to Dampa's core area, is one of the Brus who stayed on. In his fifties now, Sanga estimates that over the last two years, the village's population has swelled from 300 families to 500.

The increase in population has a direct impact on the reserve. The Brus are dependent on the traditional livelihood of jhum, or shifting cultivation, where the community farms in a different part of its traditional lands each year, burning a a patch of the local forest to create a clearing. After the end of the farming season, the patch is left fallow to recover, while a new one is cleared elsewhere for the next season.

Ever since the refugees began to return, Priya Singh, a wildlife biologist studying clouded leopards at Dampa, has noticed an increase in the clearing of forests in the park's 500 square kilometres buffer zone.

But shifting cultivation alone cannot support households for an entire year, especially with rising numbers. People have always turned to the forest for hunting and gathering minor forest produce. But as the buffer crumbles, most of them are now heading into the park's core area.

Failed attempts

Mizoram's response to these threats is weak. For years, successive governments have been running programmes to wean people away from shifting cultivation. The latest iteration of this programme, started by the Indian National Congress government shortly after it came to power in December 2008, is the New Land Use Policy. However, ask people in the villages near Dampa about it and they are categorical that most benefits have gone to people close to the Congress.

To tackle the insurgents, India is erecting a 62 km-long fence along the western flank of Dampa. The Supreme Court directed the government last December to expedite work.

As for the threat of poaching, Dampa is ill-equipped to combat it, given the systemic problems with its staffing and funding. The state government has very few permanent staff at the park – just 17. The bulk of the patrolling is done by 170 forest guards, drawn from villages in Dampa's fringe, who are hired as daily wage workers. These workers are not paid by the state forest department but from central funds given by the National Tiger Conservation Authority for Project Tiger.

Usually, forest guards are not posted for duty in the village they belong to, since this results in a conflict of interest as they are reluctant to catch offenders from their own village. In Dampa, this rule is not followed. In Terei village, about 12 km to the east of Damparengpui, 16 people of the village work in the forest department. All of them are stationed in Terei itself. At least one attempt to transfer them was reportedly stymied after the guards approached local politicians for help.

Unpaid salaries

While the job of the forest guard is a valued one, the salaries remain low and stagnant. “All of them make Rs 6,600-Rs 6,700,” said Singh, the wildlife biologist. “Even those who have been working for almost 20 years get paid as much as someone hired a month ago.”

But for the last six months, even these low wages have not reached the forest guards. The Guwahati-based regional director of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, DP Bankwal, told that the money for the salaries had been released by the organisation. “We released one-third of the park's allocation in June, even before the budget had been passed,” he said. The allocation was sent to the state finance department which was supposed to release the money to the forest department, but a senior wildlife official said that the money had not arrived in the department coffers.

In terms of scale, the problem of delayed payments is larger than just Dampa, said Rajesh Gopal, the former head of the the National Tiger Conservation Authority. The problem plagues most states in the North East. “There was a similar delay in releasing funds at Kaziranga [in Assam]. In Nameri National Park [in Assam's Sonitpur district], with great arm-twisting, we were able to get 2013-'14 salaries paid out a few months ago.”

Underfunded and unprotected

Mizoram, said the state wildlife official, allocates very little money to the forest department – one reason Dampa uses centrally allocated Project Tiger funds for paying forest guards. The underfunding has ensured that the state forest department has – at best – antiquated guns like .303 rifles. This is the reason that the guards cite for not patrolling the western flank of the park, which borders Bangladesh, and sees the movement of insurgent groups. A local forest officer told Scroll, on the condition of anonymity, that “patrolling is underway only in the east and the south”.

The outcome: parts of the park are entirely unprotected. Singh, while installing her camera traps, could only cover the north-eastern part of the park. The rest of the area, the forest department told her, was not safe.

But the National Tiger Conservation Authority is getting impatient with the poor results. “All this talk of insurgency is an excuse,” said Bankwal, the organisation's regional director. “What is stopping them [the forest guards] from going on patrols with police?” There might be some merit in this view. The forest guards are drawn from the same community as the insurgents, which makes it less likely for them to get targeted. But another reason for their reluctance to patrol could be their low and irregular salaries.

Incidentally, in Mizoram, it is not only the forest guards who are getting delayed salaries. A health department staffer told, on the condition of anonymity, that even National Rural Health Mission salaries were late. Community health volunteers under the ASHA programme were yet to get their dues amounting to an average of about Rs 6,000 each. The day Scroll travelled to Dampa, students in Aizawl and other towns were protesting against the delay in the arrival of their scholarship funds.

The next story in this series will look at why the state is failing to make these payments on time. In the meantime, the future of Dampa, which Gopal describes as "an important forest linkage between Bangladesh and India," looks uncertain.