Government should make people partners in forest conservation
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has said what Goans want about the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary: it has recommended upgrading of the sanctuary to a tiger reserve. There is little to disagree when the NTCA says the protected area could become a deathtrap if it was not managed properly. The NTCA report, prepared by assistant inspector-general of forests Rajendra Garawad, advises the government to take immediate steps to enhance the status of the sanctuary to a tiger reserve and give it a legal status. There are obviously roadblocks between recommendation and realisation. The state government does not share the NTCA’s sense of urgency, which could be damaging to wildlife conservation and ecological balance for which Goa is famed. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant’s response that the government would study the feasibility of setting up a tiger reserve suggests the proposal is going to take a long time and a long struggle before it can be implemented. Sawant, who holds the forest portfolio, pleaded that the NTCA report had not yet been placed before him.
Although the state government, for popular consumption, might cite the livelihood issues of the people residing in forest areas as a prime reason, the real worry that holds back endorsement of the tiger reserve proposal is the reduction in the land areas available for development. A tiger reserve comes with a lot of restrictions on commercial and residential use of the land within and in the vicinity of the reserve. However, the state government cannot ignore the seriousness of the matter. The NTCA recommendation came after a thorough probe by the central officials into the death of four tigers in Golavli village in Sattari taluka, which is part of the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary. The central team indicted the state forest department for failing to monitor tigers whose presence it had found in the area. The failure to quickly pay compensation to the families that lost their cattle provoked them to kill the tigers. While four tigers were killed, one has been found moving in the area and there is possibility of presence of more tigers. Therefore the state government can no more delay the tiger reserve proposal on the plea that tigers were not ‘natives’ to the area but ‘guests’ that wander to the area in search of prey.
The state government has to realise that the shifting of people from the area once it is declared a tiger reserve would help the NTCA provide the much-needed access to technical, financial and monitoring support for safeguarding the conservation values of the sanctuary. It is true that many people have been making a living by carrying out traditional occupations in the area but the expansion of families has led to curtailment of fodder and prey for wild animals, throwing them into direct conflict with the humans. The conflict has resulted in the death of many domesticated animals and wild animals. There also have been few cases of humans targeted by wild animals, though not by tigers. In order to prevent direct conflict between humans and wild animals the government should explore the possibility of utilising funds available under the tiger conservation programme and provide people living in sanctuary area developmental opportunities through voluntary resettlement scheme to help them join the mainstream society.
The government needs to heed the NTCA warning that the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary could become a deathtrap for tigers if it is not upgraded to a tiger reserve to put a strong protection regime in place. The government is believed to be under pressure from some politicians with interests in the lands of the sanctuary areas, which explains its indecisiveness on declaring it as a tiger reserve. While protecting the rights of locals in the area the state also has a duty to protect wildlife and cannot allow it to perish by sitting over the recommendations. Even as the government decides on the issue of declaring Mhadei as tiger reserve it can implement other recommendations which include setting up of anti-poaching camps, delineation of boundary of sanctuary, among others. These will help protect plant and animal species in the area. Such steps will go a long way in helping the government in implementing its decision to preserve medicinal plants. They could also provide opportunities to people living in the sanctuary or its periphery and make them partners in forest and wildlife conservation.