The memorial in the middle of the farm reads: “Chetan Dadarao Khobragade. Birth: 8/8/1995. Death: 13/5/2018”.
It wasn’t an age to die. It wasn’t a way to die. Death probably came from behind, quietly. Chetan must have been unmindful. At 23, he had just begun his life – he was soon to see his elder sister get married, then himself.
“We knew there was a tiger in our vicinity,” Chetan’s elder sister, Payal Khobragade, 25, said with a frozen face. “It was not in the wildest of our dreams that my brother will be killed by a tiger, that too on our farm.”
It was about 6 pm on the hot summer day. Chetan went to his farm to fetch green fodder for his cows, never to return. When he did not return home by 7 pm, Chetan’s youngest brother Sahil and his cousin Vijay went searching for him to their farm. They saw his sickle lying there, but he was not to be seen anywhere. Later they saw him and also saw a full-grown tiger walking away.
The Khobragades’ five-acre field is barely 500 metres from their home across the road that runs between rows of houses on the one side and the fields on the other. There is a dry-deciduous teak and bamboo forest beyond.
In Amgaon, a village in the buffer zone of the Bor Tiger Reserve, one of the newest and smallest tiger reserves in the country, about 50 km from Nagpur in Wardha district, there is palpable fear, anxiety and a pall of gloom. The death of a young man, who used to take the lead in all the social and political functions of this small village, has sunk the people into silence. Rains are here, but the fields are barren – people don’t dare to venture into the fields.
“Just remove us from here, lock, stock and barrel,” said Babanrao Yeole, former panchayat president.
More conflict this summer
Amgaon found itself in the middle of an escalating man-tiger conflict in Vidarbha, the far eastern region of Maharashtra that is home to five tiger reserves and a few other important sanctuaries.
During this summer, starting March, the region saw a sudden spurt in tiger attacks in a sign of intensifying man-tiger conflict in the villages – almost all these incidents took place outside the protected forests.
What until now was a problem limited to the areas around the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur district, about 150 km south of Nagpur, seemed to have proliferated to other tiger landscapes of Vidarbha.
Tiger attacks were reported in the northern territorial forests of Nagpur district, in the shrub forests of Yavatmal, around the Bor Tiger Reserve in Wardha and also in the villages in and around the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve landscape. The incidents had a striking similarity: they were sudden, stunning, ambushes by the animal, either in the fields, or in the forest patches adjoining the villages.
Damu Atram, a Kolam tribal in village Hiwara (Barsa) in southern Yavatmal, was working on his farm, when the wildcat pounced on him. He counts himself lucky to have escaped with injuries on his head and neck – thanks to the other villagers who managed to save him.
“It came from behind while I was working on my farm in the morning; I had no idea there was a tiger around,” Atram recollected. “It pounced on me but when I shouted, it escaped into the shrubs.”
In a different landscape, Beersingh Birelal Kodwate, a 25-year-old Gond tribal farmer in village Pinkepar in north Nagpur, hasn’t yet reconciled with his near-fatal tryst with a tiger.
In early May, Kodwate set out on his bike, his three-year-old son Vihan with him, to collect tendu leaves from a forest patch. The Kodwates live on their farm along the backwaters of Bawanthadi reservoir, surrounded by thick forests of bamboo and teak, but never had a wildcat confronted them. This area falls around the Pench tiger reserve and falls in the tiger corridor connecting Navegaon, Nagzira in Gondia.
“Something suddenly jumped on us,” Kodwate recounted. “I was stunned; it was a big tiger,” he said. As they fell to the ground, he managed to get up, restart his bike and drive back to their house, grievously injured.
The father-son duo spent a week at the government hospital in Nagpur recuperating from the injuries and fear.
Kodwate’s wounds are fresh – his eyes are swollen; his ear has wounds caused by tiger-nail. Vihan does not sleep alone, his mother Sulochana said. “He’s got eight stiches on his skull,” she said. “It is lucky he survived.”
In Sindewahi, Talodhi and Chimur blocks around the TATR in Chandrapur district, at least ten people have died and several others injured in tiger attacks in the past two months bringing back the memories of a similar spurt in deaths in 2004-05. This is perhaps the world’s biggest hotspot of tiger-man conflicts – given the casualties. Most of the recent attacks took place on the fringes of village forests or on the farms bordering them.
On June 4, a tiger attacked Mahadev Gedam, a 65-year old tribal farmer, when he had gone to fetch fuelwood from his farm. His farm borders a small forest fragment. Gedam perhaps tried climbing a tree but it seems he was dragged by the beast and killed, villagers said. The old man was no match to the large cat.
Is it the same tiger or different ones?
“There are two or three sub-adult tigers in my forest beat where most of the recent attacks have taken place,” said Swapnil Badwaik, a young forest guard at Murmadi. “We don’t know if it is the same tiger or the different ones attacking humans in Sindewahi area. The saliva and other samples have been sent to the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology to confirm if it is one tiger that has turned a problem animal or there are multiple ones.”
If a tiger has been pronounced problematic, the forest department can take a decision to put it down.
This year, the drought aggravated the situation, the villagers said. Summers are usually a time when people step into the forests to collect tendu leaves and tigers are roaming in search of water and prey, both of which are becoming scarcer outside the protected reserves.
The human-wildlife conflict becomes worse when there are sub-adults moving out, trying to establish their territories. For instance, two sub-adult tigers probably dispersed from the TATR are suspected to be caused the recent deaths in Sindewahi, a forest official said.
In spite of mitigation measures, the battle of survival for the large cats and a growing human population in its landscape is turning dramatic and bloodier with every passing year. In the meanwhile, the number of tourists visiting the TATR is increasing.
Since 2010, about 330 people have died in Maharashtra due to this conflict, mostly tiger and leopard attacks. As many as 1,234 were seriously injured and 2,776 people suffered minor injuries, according to the data compiled by the Wildlife Wing of the Maharashtra Forest Department. While the data is statewide, a majority of these incidents were reported from around the territorial forests, the tiger reserves and sanctuaries in the Vidarbha region.
In the same time period, organised gangs in Vidarbha poached several tigers, several others had to be put down or captured and sent to rehabilitation centres and many others electrocuted to death.
Two processes are at the heart of this conflict, according to Ashok Kumar Misra, the principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife), Maharashtra. “On the one hand,” he said, “the tiger population is growing due to conservation efforts that includes a curb on organised poaching; on the other hand, high levels of anthropogenic pressures, including increased dependence of people on forests and an ever-increasing human population as well.”
“There is no information that at least I know of, of any alert about any organised gang of poachers in the last five years, particularly after 2013,” said Nitin Desai, a frontline tiger expert in central India who works with the Wildlife Protection Society of India. In last five years, there hasn’t been any unnatural taking down of tigers from these landscapes either, he said, adding that it has helped in the natural growth in tiger populations.
“Now, if there were 60 tigers in these regions then, there will be a 100 today in the same area. Where will they go? How will we manage a growing population of tigers in the same area? We don’t have any plan,” Desai said.
There’s a broad context in which the conflict is played out: The forests in Vidarbha and in central India are getting increasingly fragmented due to a plethora of development projects, including roads. We have islands of protected forests – sanctuaries, tiger reserves, etc. – and then increasingly fragmented landscapes shrinking every day.
The tiger habitats, Misra said, have shrunk, their corridors broken, leaving the tigers and other wild animals with no space to move. What else you expect but a conflict, he said. “It would be more intense if not for our efforts to curb it.” His contention is based on a study his office commissioned recently to the Wildlife Institute of India to understand the forest fragmentation in tiger landscape in eastern Vidarbha. This was the extension of other past studies that have pointed to the forest fragmentation as a major challenge in tiger and wildlife conservation.
Wildlife Institute of India’s report based on GIS-mapping and analysis finds that there are only six patches of forests in the entire region that could be said to be ideal habitats for the tigers: of more than 500 square km. Of them, four such contiguous belts fall in Gadchiroli, a district long torn by Maoist conflict and one that does not boast of a teeming tiger population.
A 2011 tiger estimation report showed a 10 to 12 percent rise in tiger population as compared with the 2006 census. But it warned of a heightened man-tiger conflict underpinning the fact that most of India’s reproducing tigers are now concentrated in 10 percent of all tiger habitats. The new tiger census is underway and officials expect a rise in the population, with an even-bigger problem of the man-tiger confrontation.
Roads, canals and projects
The report said, the Central Indian tiger population, although functionally connected, suffers from the presence of highly fragmented corridors and loss of habitat to agriculture.
Although a lot of research has been carried out to study the genetic connectivity of the landscape, none have attempted to study the patch characteristics of the fragmented remnants of forests in the corridors.
Eastern Vidarbha has a total forest cover of 22,508 square km, which is roughly 35 percent of the total geographical area, with a population of about 200 tigers or more, both inside and outside protected areas.
This area is dissected by 45,790 km of roads (as on March 2016), which consists of national highways, state highways, district roads and village roads (Source: Public Works Department, Maharashtra).
The fragmentation caused by roads creates 517 new patches, which are less than 1 square km and cover a total area of 246.38 square km.
In Vidarbha, man-tiger conflict has been intensifying over the last decade. Although the number of human deaths, cattle kills, tiger deaths, or encounters has more or less been stable on paper, on the ground, public anger has been simmering.
For instance, Chetan Khobragade’s death in a tiger attack sparked protests in about 50 villages around the tiger reserve, all through the second half of May, against what they called an indifferent forest department.
There were street protests, a protest march around the villages and a demonstration before the district conservator’s office in Wardha city. The people’s demands included of a complete relocation away from the reserve, among others.
In and around the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, similar protests have been simmering for a long time.
The villages in the buffer around the Tadoba reserve and beyond it in the landscape are embattled by an unending conflict with no end in sight. Successive governments have only managed to distribute aid and doles – but the people versus wildlife conflict has only worsened over the years.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.