On January 5, forest guards in Goa’s Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary were alerted about the presence of a tiger carcass in the dense jungles near Golavali village in Goa’s North East Sattari taluka.

In the early hours of January 6, the team located the dead tiger – a male, with its claws missing, initially estimated to be four years old because of its large size. Later estimates pegged the age at 1.5 years. Bearing no injury marks, the tiger was suspected to have been poisoned. Forest teams began combing the vicinity and recovered three more dead tigers on January 8 – a tigress and her one-year-old cubs, one of them, a female.

Chief wildlife warden Santosh Kumar said that forest teams had been monitoring the area ever since a domestic cow and buffalo, belonging to the four Dhangar tribal families residing in the deep forest village, had reportedly been killed by a big cat on December 22 and December 30. They rigged up cameras near the buffalo carcass to capture images of the tigress and her cubs who, they knew from earlier camera images, inhabited the area. But this time, the tiger family did not return, and instead the carcasses were found hastily buried in the forest floor.

Forest officers apprehended three male members of the tribal family that owned the buffalo and two more persons were arrested in connection with the suspected poisoning. All five were released on bail on January 17. When the postmortem proved inconclusive, samples of the buffalo kill were sent for further forensic testing, although forest officials unofficially claimed that anti-tick medication was probably sprayed on the buffalo carcass.

Man-animal conflict?

The death of the tiger family was met with nationwide shock and censure from political parties and conservationists. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant promised stern action against the perpetrators. But images of the impoverished tribals, who had been arrested, drew sympathy as media spotlighted their plight and the loss to their sources of livelihood due to tigers killing their cattle. Blame shifted to the forest department and the administration for delays in payouts when domestic animals were killed in the sanctuary.

“Dhangars have been living in forest areas for decades and are dependent on forests for their livelihood. The arrested persons have no history of killing wild animals. Around 25 days ago, a milch cow was killed by a wild animal and the Dhangar family had complained to the authorities. However, no action was taken. After a few days, a buffalo was also killed in the same area. If the complaint had been acted upon by the department, then the tigers would not have been killed,” BD Mote, president of the Goa Dhangar Samaj Seva Sangh, told the media recently.

Delayed compensation from the government, in case of bovine death caused by a wild animal, has also been cited a reason for the Dhangars’ frustration. “The maximum compensation is Rs 16,000. This reaches the beneficiary via the veterinary officer, the range officer, a district-level committee and the mamlatdar or taluk officer. This takes about one or two months,” admit officials.

The Goa administration has been planning immediate ex gratia payment to be made within two to three days of a domestic animal loss in order to reduce the man-animal tension. Although chief minister Sawant recently announced that shifting and resettling families from the core forest areas would be the only way out. While the matter is under investigation, another cow was reportedly killed in a different area of the sanctuary, where tiger movement is suspected.

“We estimate there are still four tigers in the sanctuary,” says Kumar. Five adult tigers were counted in the 2014 and 2018 tiger census in the Goa sanctuaries. The loss of the tigress is a huge setback for conservation efforts. The three sub-adult cubs had not been enumerated in the 2018 survey, officials said, but showed up on camera traps in December 2019. Breeding in the natural wild had indicated a healthy trend in conservation efforts and would have taken the number up to eight had the cubs survived over two years, say officials. “Although whether there is a sufficient prey base and habitat to support eight tigers would be a question,” says Kumar. By December end, foresters and locals in the area, including plantation workers, were aware of the presence of a tigress and three sub-adult cubs in the vicinity and the resultant scare was reportedly keeping away workers from nearby plantations.

Nevertheless, not everyone is buying the man-animal conflict narrative or that the poisoning was a simple survivalist act or even that the Dhangar tribal family had acted on their own. According to former Goa chief minister and MLA from the area Pratapsingh Rane, the poaching angle had to be investigated thoroughly since the claws of the first tiger were missing.

The forest department’s actions have also come under scrutiny for delays in paying compensation, failure in containing the conflict situation and in educating forest dwellers on the importance of wildlife conservation. The department has defended itself, saying it lacks manpower and that the creation of forest rights to original tribal inhabitants puts them on the backfoot in managing forests. Environmentalists, meanwhile, worry that sections of the forest department were unwilling and unable to stand up to hostile land and plantation owners, including encroachers, still operating in the sanctuary.

Not everyone believes that the Dhangar tribes are to blame for the tiger deaths. Credit: Hrishikesh Karanjikar via Mongabay

Had the tiger population gone up from five to eight in the area, the justification for a tiger reserve would also increase – a cause for concern for parties that are against increased no-development buffer zones.

Two opposing forces

According to environmentalist Ramesh Gauns, the impunity of the tiger poisoning crime points to the increasing aggression of hostile anti-sanctuary forces. There were initially 28 villages counted in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, most of them on the periphery and a few forest dwellers and pastoral villages in the core area of the sanctuary. Influential local landowners and plantation owners and other economic interests in the Sattari taluka, where the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary is located, have resisted the sanctuary actively, albeit surreptitiously, ever since it was first notified in 1999.

Conservationists point out that this small section has, while staying in the background themselves, been riling up impoverished villagers against the sanctuary, carrying on a misinformation campaign and instigating tribals to resist conservation efforts. The Mhadei sanctuary has a long history of resistance from local plantation owners, including encroachers, who are locked in a resource battle with the growing tiger and wildlife population. Although the area has been notified as a wildlife sanctuary, they continue to hold rights and resist forest department interventions.

In May 2019, 200 farmers, under the Sattari Bhumiputra Sanghatana banner, staged a protest against the forest department in Valpoi, for allegedly preventing them from working on their plantations. Unknown persons burnt a sanctuary check post, uprooted poles demarcating the protected area and damaged the sanctuary gate, after an eight-hour-long protest. On January 17 this year, after the tiger poisoning incident, the SBS were back protesting the forest department’s plans to demarcate sanctuary areas and demanded legitimising ownership rights.

Matching the protestors’ fervour is the rising demand for a tiger reserve, brought once again into the foreground by the tiger family poisoning incident. “During the mining boom years, the Goa administration was unwilling to even consider that Goa had a tiger population, although tiger presence has been part of Goa’s folklore,” says Rajendra Kerkar of the Vivekananda Environment Awareness group. In 2009, when Kerkar raised an alarm on a tiger killing in the Mhadei sanctuary, he was made a party to the case as a form of harassment since the official track was to deny tiger presence in Goa. Only when mining wound down in 2012 and camera trap methods were commissioned did the first recorded presence in 2013 get acknowledged.

Things have changed since then. The Wildlife Institute of India’s 2014 and 2018 census indicated presence of five tigers in Goa. Former Union environment ministers Jairam Ramesh and Jayanti Natarajan both sought Goa’s response to a tiger reserve during their tenures. More recently, the National Tiger Conservation Authority also mooted a tiger reserve to be carved out from uninhabited core areas of Goa’s sanctuaries. The case for tiger conservation is strengthened in the NTCA and Wildlife Institute of India’s 2014 report, Connecting Tiger Populations for Long-Term Conservation, which warns that small isolated tiger populations are likely to face extinction due to demographic stochasticity, inbreeding depression and poaching. Contiguous forest habitat connectivity, it says, is critical for genetic exchange and dispersal between tiger populations for the long term survival of the species.

Landowners and plantation owners have been resisting conservation efforts in the sactuary. Credit: joegoauk69 via Mongabay

“The tiger populations in Goa and Maharashtra depend significantly on the narrow forest connectivity of the Western Ghat ridge...However, the connectivity is threatened by plantations, agricultural and infrastructural development. It would be prudent to timely identify and legitimise the minimal corridors needed for the conservation objective of ensuring gene flow between the Western Ghat tiger populations in times to come,” the report states. The Western Ghats tiger conservation landscape, identified as a Tiger Conservation Unit I, ranks second after the Sundarbans in India and eighth in global importance. “Even if the integrity of the sanctuaries is maintained, it will be something,” says sanctuary proponents like ex forester Richard D’Souza Foresters.

New threats

While mining has traditionally taken the rap for land and forest degradation, new threats to conservation efforts have emerged. Infrastructure development for a coal corridor and expansion of national highways will eat into significant swathes of sanctuary area.

A previous Mongabay-India story highlighted that permissions have been sought to divert 41 hectares of forest land for the NH4A expansion which runs for 13 km through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park in Goa, while 23 hectares of protected and reserve forest is sought to be diverted for NH17 expansion.

Even though Kerkar admitted this has adverse implications for wildlife movement, the State Wildlife Board approved the diversion for the four-lane road in December 2017. Currently a seven-metre wide road suffices. An additional 32 hectares of reserve forests will be diverted along 65 km of NH4A outside the sanctuary area. Tree felling for NH4A tree inside Dandeli sanctuary, bordering Karnataka, has been stayed by the High Court, but 12,258 trees outside the sanctuary were felled.

Furthermore, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife, in its 56th meeting, approved the diversion of 137 hectares of forests for double-tracking of the Madgaon to Kulem – 16.514 hectares – and Kulem to Castlerock – 120.87 hectares – sections of the South Western Railway. These sections pass through the Mollem National Park and the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary. The permissions were conditional to authorities putting up an animal passage plan to avoid wildlife being trapped in the long railway tunnels, but the spectre of 80,000 trees being axed indicate the impact these projects are likely to have on wildlife and forests.

A chequered history

It’s a conflict that has simmered for two decades since the inception of the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary. When in 1999, political upheavals saw the state placed for a brief few months under President’s rule, conservationists and dedicated foresters saw an opportunity to place critical endangered ecosystems of Goa’s Western Ghats under sanctuary protection – something that was unlikely to happen with regional landowning politicians and miners calling the shots in regional politics. In a move backed by the Centre, the then Goa Governor Lt Gen JFR Jacob signed the decree carving out the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary and later, another decree demarcating the Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary further south.

Mhadei and Netravali completed the broken stretches left by the existing Bhagwan Mahavir National Park, Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary.

When the regional government was restored in June 1999, political and economically powerful lobbies began a process to retract the sanctuaries’ boundaries. Politicians voiced displeasure in the Goa Assembly at the notifications and set up the DY Karapurkar Committee to study the issue and hear representations from affected persons.

In the following years, the demarcation of the sanctuary boundary and associated ownership rights has been the cause of much debate and legal tangles. Now, twenty years on, a two-member team, dispatched by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change after the tiger family poisoning, found the Mhadei sanctuary still un-demarcated. Forest officials in Goa willingly admit that no proper survey has been undertaken and neither is there any signed demarcation maps of the area.

Protection of the area so far halted any potential drastic degradation of these pristine forests, which have a high degree of endemism, besides 48 genera of mammals, 278 genera of birds, 60 genera of reptiles, including many unrecorded species. Sanctuary proponents like D’Souza feel the conservation efforts are worth it as they have helped restrict unbridled development in this key forest corridor area, which is also a huge water source for the state.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.