Where is the Melghat Tiger?
NAGPUR, FEBRUARY 25
What is the real tiger count in Melghat? That's the question confronting wildlife activists and the Forest Department alike. While the Forest Department gets away with putting the count between 65 and 70, activists have always been discounting the claim, saying it would be good news if the 1,150-sq km tiger reserve has even 25 big cats.
Last month, the sustained interrogation of a poaching accused brought to fore how organised poaching has been on in Melghat over the past 25 years, lending credence to the dwindling tiger count.
According to exclusive information available with The Indian Express, Sachmer Singh alias Dadi Pardhi has told investigators that the infamous Katni poachers from Madhya Pradesh were active in Melghat for over 25 years before they tactically reduced their presence there following the arrest of Sansarchand, India's most notorious poacher. They, in turn, have been in league with similar gangs in Rajasthan and central India.
The 40-year-old Dadi, arrested on January 22 in connection with the seizure of a leopard skin at Betul in Madhya Pradesh, is understood to have revealed how Dharni, the tehsil headquarter of Melghat, has been a camping site for organised poaching gangs for long. "All your tigers have gone via Dharni," he is reported to have told the officials.
Dadi recollected how as a child he would visit those camps with his father who had regular contacts with those people. He said the Katni gang had formed a league with the Pardhis in Betul and Khandwa districts bordering Melghat, whom they would pay for killing wild animals, including tigers and leopards. The Pardhis, in turn, took help from Korku tribal herdsmen who could track the movement of cats in the area.
Incidentally, Jagan Dhurve, one of the suspects arrested on February 2 in the Betul case, was a Korku herdsman in Melghat. He had admitted to killing a tiger in the Jarida range of the reserve three years ago. He later took Forest officials to the spot, from where a tiger skull was recovered. A frightened Dhurve, however, hung himself in the custody on February 3.
Dadi has also admitted to knowing some of the big names in the world of poaching, like Ricard Pardhi (accused in a tiger poaching case in Tadoba reserve), Harprasad Pardhi (accused of tiger poaching in Bandipur and Nagarhole) and Siddhesingh Pardhi.
Incidentally, Dadi's brother Laxman Pardhi has been absconding since middlemen Rafiq and Hafiz Qureshi blew the lid off massive leopard skin movement in the area. Laxman was one of the main links in the gang and a visiting card of Sansarchand was found in his house in Betul, establishing the link from Fatehpur to Melghat.
"I have been claiming for many years that organised gangs of poachers have been active in Melghat. All these links conclusively prove that it is a truth that can't be denied. There is no doubt that poachers could be smuggling away a lot of tiger and leopard skins and, as such, the Forest Department's claim that the reserve still has around 70 tigers appears too far-fetched," says Wildlife Protection Society of India's (WPSI) central India director Nitin Desai. Desai, who was a member of the WPSI team that cracked the tiger skin trade in Tibet last year, blames the erstwhile forest managers of Melghat for not making a serious effort to nip the trouble in the bud.
Melghat field director Nitin Kakodkar, a decorated officer known for his excellent conservation work in Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve prior to being posted in Melghat about two years ago, says: "I would still dare to say that there are about 67 tigers in Melghat. The difficult hilly terrain is what makes tiger sighting difficult here, but no sighting doesn't mean no tigers."
Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) B Majumdar says, "I am sure there has been no organised poaching in Melghat. How can you say there is organised poaching based on man's statements? If that were the case more traps would have been found there than tiger reserves like Pench and Tadoba where indications of poaching pressure are more evident."