Red alert in tiger country
First Published : 18 Apr 2009 07:06:00 AM IST
Last Updated : 18 Apr 2009 09:30:36 AM IST
The Naxal rebellion now threatens the tiger conservation project in Orissa’s Similipal Reserve, says Siba Mohanty
About a year after Charu Majumdar died in Calcutta’s Alipore Central Jail, Project Tiger, one of India’s most ambitious wildlife conservation programmes, took birth. Little did anyone know then that the bloody peasant rebellion Mazumdar and his associate Kanu Sanyal led in Siliguri’s Naxalbari village during 1967 to fire a million minds would enter the tiger territory a good four decades later.
From exploited and oppressed landless farmers to tribal inhabitants of Indravati, Nagarjun-Srisailam, Palamau and now Similipal, the red rebels have charted new territories to take forward their militant struggle. This time, it threatens to jeopardise conservation of the large cats.
In Similipal Tiger Reserve (STR), located in Orissa’s Mayurbhanj district, the situation is unravelling. In the last few weeks field staff of the forest department were subjected to series of attacks by the rebels.
Beginning March 28, a band of armed Naxalites blasted forest range offices and rest houses, and drove away tourists in their attempt to seize control of the jungle. They targeted seven different wildlife offices. At one place, they even targeted three elephants trained to take on smugglers and poachers. Fear-stricken forest staff fled and now don’t want to return. It was only after security forces were deployed that they began to move back.
But mobilising the Special Operations Group strike force is hardly the answer to a problem that is multi-layered. Similipal, a famous tourist draw, is shut for visitors after the incidents and the extremists have probably achieved what they wanted. Take the experience of the Indravati and Nagarjun-Srisailam tiger reserves, and Simlipal appears to follow a trend.
In any case, the event was probably just waiting to happen. Mayurbhanj district has long been a haven for Left-wing extremists, given its geographical advantages. It is contiguous to Jharkhand, a hotbed of Naxals and although they have lain low in the past, they gave enough signs of their intentions in last couple of years when the district reported Naxal violence. If intelligence reports are to be believed, they are attempting to create a corridor that connects Jharkhand with Keonjhar and Jajpur, where they have made significant inroads already. The 2,750 sq km Similipal forest, home to about 71 tigers, is the perfect passage.
The Naxals have been encouraged by the tacit support they enjoy among forest dwellers and tribals, long at the receiving end of the measures the forest department took to check akhand shikar (the ritual mass hunt) that commences in mid-April every year. The nature and timing of the attacks suggest that. Those who launched the attacks in the last couple of weeks were supported by a posse of locals armed with traditional weapons.
“They could be local inhabitants or even poachers denied entry into Similipal for the last four years or so,” notes a senior officer of the forest department. The extremists, on their retreat, left posters and pamphlets demanding the rollback of Project Tiger, giving ample example of their intention.
The problem has taken on serious dimensions over the years, with issues of resettlement and rehabilitation coming to the fore. “Tackling the extremists in Similipal cannot be a policing problem,” says a senior police officer. “In fact, deployment of security forces not adept at handling wildlife could complicate the issue. The real problem is that the state government, over the years, has shown no commitment to free the sanctuary’s core area from human habitation. The problems arising from it have just worsened.”
The core zone of Similipal, spread over 1,194 sq km, comprises four villages that need to be shifted. Of about 149 families, the forest department has been able to shift less than half in the last several decades. “Land acquisition for the identified families is complete. While 41 families were shifted to Kapahandi, another 31 were rehabilitated near Ambadiha village. Process for the rest continues to drag even though the families have received compensation,” says a source. With local politicians unwilling to antagonise voters, the issue has only fuelled discontentment.
Last year, the forest department employed 500 locals on ad hoc basis as part of a Tiger Protection Force to strengthen the enforcement and conservation. After the attacks, it has begun to look at the credibility of the members since they failed to warn what could turn out to be a disaster for Similipal.
Now the Orissa government has revived the need for establishment of a battalion exclusively for the tiger reserve, as suggested by the Centre in the last budget. It could work but will take a few years to raise, by which time the problem will surely be worse.
Analysts say the issue needs attention as a national concern. The problems in Indravati (in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region) and Nagarjun-Srisailam (Andhra Pradesh) tiger reserves show that the central government has not shown sufficient commitment to handle the insurgency in tiger territories.
In both these reserves, tourists are not allowed while conservation has been hit to a great extent since forest officials are at risk. Even the tiger census could not been carried out properly last time. Similar is the story of the Palamau Tiger Reserve. The last assessment report by National Tiger Conservation Authority posed the queries but has not found any answer yet. Will Similipal be the next victim?