THE capture of the image of a tiger in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary at the beginning of the ongoing wildlife census has not only brought cheers to foresters and wildlife enthusiasts but also revived the demand for a tiger reserve in Goa. The presence of tiger was assumed after 11 samples of scats (droppings) of big cats were found in Mhadei, Mollem and Netravali protected forest areas during the first phase of the census commonly known as sign and line transect survey. However, the existence of tiger was confirmed after a night-vision camera captured the image of a big cat in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary. Forest department officials are hopeful of detecting presence of more tigers during the census. Image capturing to detect presence of various animals will continue till end of May and then the cameras recordings will be brought back for analysis and estimation to get a clear picture. The image capturing is expected to give better results and fair assessment of number of animals, including tigers, present in the state. The forest department has placed 15 cameras in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, 10 in the Mollem National Park and two in the Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary. The last census in 2014 had revealed the presence of at least five tigers in Goa.
Enthused by the capture of tiger image, the forest department officials have begun the process of conducting an impact assessment study on the proposed tiger reserve in and around the protected areas of the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary and the Mollem National Park. The aim behind the study is to revive the proposal for declaring Mhadei as a tiger reserve. Given the fact that the state government has not been able to decide on the proposal since it was first mooted in 2011, it is unlikely that a decision would be taken any time soon. Nevertheless, forest department officials would make field visits and gather information to prepare site evaluation reports to push for the acceptance of the proposal by the state government. The decision to conduct a detailed study was taken at a wildlife board meeting held last December to map encroachments in the proposed tiger reserve and the socio-economic impact on the livelihoods of the local people. The department is also looking into the habitation rights claims from tribals living in the proposed tiger reserve areas and exploring a plan for their rehabilitation.
According to an official estimate, at least 40 per cent of the Mhadei and Mollem protected areas are used by tribals for cashew and rice cultivation and other activities. If a tiger reserve is set up, about 1,000 tribal families will have to be moved out of the area and helped to find alternative livelihood. It is paradoxical that on one hand there is a proposal for declaring 208 square kilometre area of the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary and 240 square kilometre are of the Mahavir National Park as a tiger reserve, and on the other, the government is being assailed by tribals living in those areas for not giving them forest rights. If we are going to get a tiger reserve, the government will have to settle the tribals’ claims and find land to rehabilitate them. The government will also have to declare certain area around the tiger reserve as buffer zone, in which there would be restrictions on economic activities.
Given the sensitivity of the issue of displacement of tribals and the restrictions on economic activities in the buffer zone, it remains to be seen whether the politicians whose constituencies have parts of those areas allow them to be declared as a tiger reserve. In the past politicians have resisted moves to declare the areas as tiger reserve and mobilized people to pass resolutions to bring the proposal to naught. They are going to get active again, once the government starts considering the proposal. However, the proof of presence of tigers in the area could fortify the forest department’s proposal for declaring the areas as tiger reserve. Another fact that could help strengthen their case is that the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary is contiguous to the 1,300 square kilometre Kali tiger reserve in Karnataka which has 35 tigers. The process for tiger estimation based on data collection through camera traps and scat-collection for DNA-based estimation could take some time as various authorities including Wildlife Institute of India have to validate it. Meanwhile, the state government should start working to find ways and set a timeline for removing the obstacles in the way of declaration of a tiger reserve in the state with a buffer zone.