Villages close to the Navegaon National Park demand ‘chulha mukti’ as fear of man-eating tigers continues to haunt the Gondia villages in Maharashtra

Sayabai Meshram of Chikhali village in Gondia district of Maharashtra is extremely worried these days. She cannot go to the nearby forest to collect sarpan (firewood), on which every family in her village depends for cooking.

“We were four of us including Vandana. We were hardly a kilometer away from our village when the tiger attacked us”, recounts 40-year-old Sayabai who had gone to collect firewood on January 1. “Three of us managed to run, but Vandana couldn’t run due a leg injury and the tiger killed her”.

Since the killing of Vandana no villager is ready to go inside forest to collect firewood. “We are managing on whatever we could get from the area near the village,” says Vandana’s brother in law Vasudev Meshram.

Chikhali village is situated near the Navegaon National Park, a protected zone for tiger, but does not come under the protected zone.

From December 15 last year to January 4 this year, a “man-eater” tiger ran havoc in the villages near the national park, killing five women who went to collect firewood. “The man-eater tigress” was shot dead near Malada village on January 12, but the villagers are not ready to believe that it was the same tiger which killed all the five women.

“Yes, it was a tigress and unfortunately we had to shoot it down because the very safety of our officers present at the spot was threatened,” said Mr.Rama Rao the Deputy Conservator of Forests, Gondia range.

On December 15, “the tigress” killed 32-year-old Chhaya Deshpande of Manegaon village. On December 24, a 54-year-old Muktbai Ganvir of Saleburdi village was killed. On December 29, the big cat killed Meerabai Bahekar of Gutri village. After Vandana, 20-year-old Bhagyashree Nevare of Bhivkhidki village became the fifth victim on January 4.

All the five villages lie in the territorial area of the Navegaon National Park.

After Vandana’s killing, the forest department swung into action and the permission was given to kill the tiger, “if it could not be tranquilized”. Apart from the forest department, 60 commandos of the special tiger protection force, Gondia district police and some commandos of the anti-Naxal C-60 force were deployed in search of the tiger.

“All the killings cannot be by the same tiger “argues Vasudev Bahekar , brother-in-law of Meerabai Bahekar. And the fear of the "man-eater tiger” continues to looms large on the minds of villagers.

The Sarpanch of Chikhali village Mr.Bhuvan Bhoir blames the forest department and the Sub Divisional Forest Officer (SDFO) Pramod Panchabhai for the incidents.

“In October last year, we submitted a proposal to make our village Chulha Mukt (an initiative of the forest department under which LPG gas cylinders or bio gas plants are distributed to villagers near the tiger corridor to make villages near protected area independent of forest for  firewood).  Even our Gram Sabha passed a resolution to this effect.  But there was no headway on it,” says Bhuvan Bhoir, adding that had the forest department distributed LPG connections the killings would not have taken place.

Of the five villages where “the tigress” killed women, only the people of Chikhali and its sarpanch are aware of the Chulha Mukt Gaon inititive.

The Chief Conservator of Forests (Territorial) Nagpur division Dr S. H. Patil agreed that there is such a government resolution to make villages less dependent on forest by distributing LPG. He also feels that the administration has to make such an effort to reduce the man-animal conflict.

Hardly 40 kilometers away from all these villages is village Chorkhamala, which serves as an example of a Chulha Mukt village.

It has 105 families, and every household has been given an LPG connection. “We don’t have to go into the forest for firewood anymore” says the Sarpanch of Chorkhamala, Mr. Madhukar Dahekar.

While Chorkhamala villagers now feel safe, villagers of Chikhali, Saleburdi, Gutri, Manegaon and Bhivkhidki continue to fear the tiger.