Pedda Vagu, the sinuous stream which originates in the Kerameri Hills of the Kumram Bheem Asifabad district in north Telangana, was a silent spectator of a ghastly incident over three months ago.
On November 10, a Koya tribal youth, 20-year-old Sidam Vighnesh , and his cousin, 12-year-old Sidam Srikanth, went fishing in Pedda Vagu. They laid their catch to dry on a flat boulder on the banks and went home. The next day, the two of them along with their neighbour P. Naveen (14) decided to divide the catch equally, so that they could use it as bait for bigger fish. Vighnesh went to the nearest semi-grown teak tree to pluck its leaves into which he could apportion the dried fish. Little did he know that a tiger lay in the thickly grown fire flame bush beside the teak.
“We thought Anna (brother) was playing hide and seek when he didn’t return. We approached the tree stealthily, but found him crouching near it,” Naveen recalls.
Vighnesh was gesturing to them frantically, asking them to leave as he had spotted the tiger. He did not notice that the feline was already creeping up on him. As Srikanth and Naveen ran for their lives, they heard Vighnesh scream.
Villagers from Digida, the remote hamlet in the Rebbana forest range where Vighnesh lived, rushed to the spot with drum beats and whistles, but they found neither Vighnesh nor the animal. Tell-tale signs of blood-soaked foliage, pug marks, and drag trail took them deep inside the thick forest, where, near a clearing, they found the body, a small portion ripped and eaten.
The tiger vanished into the woods on hearing the clamour, and then took a detour to head into the Pedda Vagu. “We saw the animal turn around midstream in an attempt to return. It fled after we threw stones,” recalls Kurshinga Diwakar, an eyewitness. This was the first human kill by a tiger in about 20-25 years in these parts.
A second victim
Eighteen days after the incident, on the other side of the Pedda Vagu in Penchikalpet forest range, Pasula Nirmala, 16, from Manneguda hamlet of Kondapalli village panchayat, was taken down by a tiger while picking cotton in a field.
“I was close by. Suddenly I heard her scream. I turned and saw her in the tiger’s jaws. Running behind, if I hadn’t fallen down on my face, I would have been able to save her,” rues her mother Pasula Lachhumamma.
But her nephew Annam Chakravarthi bravely ran behind the tiger and threw a stick at it. “The tiger dropped her and crouched. When I went closer and retrieved the body, the animal started following me, growling and roaring. It left the spot after we threw stones, but lurked in the surroundings for a long time,” says Chakravarthi, 20.
Following the ghastly deaths, the Telangana Forest Department has issued advisories to the villagers to be followed while moving outside their homes; supplied them with masks to be worn at the back of their head, to deflect tiger attacks; laid camera traps; and collected pug marks. A committee has been formed as per the standard operating procedure prescribed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), for technical guidance and monitoring of the situation on a day-to-day basis.
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“We have stopped going for work in the fields after the tiger attacks. We are not sure how effective the masks are,” says Tekam Sunitha from Manneguda. Chintapudi Gundaiah, another villager, says tigers are not new to this territory, but this one is different as the presence of humans does not seem to scare it.
The human kills by a tiger have caused panic and dismay in the villages. But they are not surprising: widespread habitat destruction, cattle grazing and resource extraction, along with an increase in the tiger population, have led to a man-animal conflict in the region and a dwindling prey base for the tigers.
Crossing the border
For a tiger to be declared a man-eater , it should have committed a series of human kills and partaken the flesh, according to the NTCA. In these cases, the proof is inconclusive as the bodies were retrieved soon after.
Besides, there is always the question of the identity of the attacker as there are several tigers in the region. Five adult tigers (two female and three male) were moving around in the Rebbana and Penchikalpet forest ranges, which fall in the corridor region of the Kawal Tiger Reserve, when the incidents occurred.
According to sources, the suspect tiger, identified as A2, was a male which had drifted into the area from the periphery of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. It was among the big cats that had made the premises of the Chandrapur Super Thermal Power Station its home for want of territory in Tadoba, where the tiger population is rapidly expanding. Maharashtra forest officials have reportedly confirmed that this feline was typically unafraid of human presence. It was listed there for capture before it entered Telangana.
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Efforts by the Telangana foresters to capture the animal, in coordination with their Maharashtra counterparts, have intensified since. Expert teams trained in the use of tranquilliser guns have been brought, and baits have been tied. The suspect, meanwhile, has been moving across the Pranahita river between the two States, keeping the foresters on their toes. Officials tracking the tiger say that the animal makes multiple kills in a short span, and does not return twice to the same kill, thereby thwarting attempts to capture it.
Areas outside the Tadoba and Tipeshwar tiger sanctuaries, which are located in the Chandrapur and Yavatmal districts of Maharashtra, respectively, have a sizeable tiger population. These tigers often cross the border in search of territory and enter the Kawal Tiger Reserve landscape in Telangana.
As per the All India Tiger Estimation, 2018 (Tiger Census) figures, the number of adult big cats in Maharashtra increased from 106 in 2006 to 312 in 2018 through successful conservation efforts. Of these, 93 were enumerated from regions outside the protected areas, such as the Chandrapur and Brahmapuri forest divisions.
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The Kawal landscape, including the core, buffer and the corridor areas, recorded two adult tigers in the Census. According to the Forest Department, the number of adult tigers in the core and corridor areas has now grown to at least 10, owing to increased protection.
An extended habitat
The Kawal Tiger Reserve was notified in 2012. It covers an area of 2,015.35 sq km under the present Nirmal, Mancherial, Adilabad and Asifabad districts. Of this, 892.23 sq km is classified as the core area, and the remaining as buffer. Given its connectivity with Tadoba in the north and the Indravati Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh in the east, Kawal was hoped to be an extended habitat for the spillover tigers from both States.
To facilitate migration of the big cat, the Telangana Forest Department has, in its Tiger Conservation Plan submitted to the NTCA, declared a tiger corridor in the Kagaznagar and Asifabad forest divisions.
Also read | Kawal reserve turns nightmare for tigers
The foresters counted 26 tigers entering the Kawal landscape so far, based on the data obtained from camera traps and pug marks. But several big cats which came either left or disappeared, till the arrival of Phalguna, the matriarch that gave birth to two litters of four cubs each in the Kadamba forest range in the Kagaznagar division.
With many tigers disappearing, the corridor area earned the disrepute of being inhospitable to the striped cats. Very few could stay/survive due to serious man-animal conflict. Of Phalguna’s first litter, only one tigress is seen roaming in Chennur division, with a wire snare around its hip as a remnant of a failed poaching operation. None of its siblings can be seen as adult members anywhere in the core, buffer or corridor areas. From Phalguna’s second litter, two female tigers are presently seen moving in the forest ranges of the Asifabad-Kagaznagar divisions, while a male is reported to have crossed over to Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district in search of domain. Phalguna herself has not been seen for the past two years.
While foresters routinely explain away disappearance of every tiger as a migration to Maharashtra, doubts linger about the truth in these claims. Official records mention three tiger deaths in the region since 2016, of which the last two were discovered within a short gap in January 2019. Both the instances came to light only when tiger body parts were confiscated from poachers.
An uproar ensued and a public interest litigation was filed in the Telangana High Court by wildlife conservationist Diya Sur Banerjee , who sought judicial intervention for unified control of the Kawal Tiger Reserve. “I had done a survey for the High Court, which exposed roads and electric wires going through the core area. Deliberate electrocution caused the tiger deaths. Like any other tiger reserve, Kawal too should have one demarcated core and one buffer which helps in unified protection and management,” Banerjee said, while speaking on her petition.
Responding to the petition, the High Court issued a slew of directions, which included controlling poaching, aerial bunched electric cabling in the core area, and unified command.
This led to a major reshuffle in the Telangana Forest Department. Anti-poaching measures were intensified, and wire snares and other poaching devices were confiscated from the farmers who used them against marauding wild boars. Subsequently, the number of tigers entering and surviving in Telangana has increased.
The next issue is heavy fragmentation of the habitat in the corridor region. As a consequence, tigers are unable to cross over to the core area.
Agricultural encroachments into the reserve forest are aplenty, especially in Kagaznagar division, often with political sanction. According to the Forest Department, encroachments in the Kagaznagar division amounted to nearly 17% of the forest land in the division. The Forest Department claims that the majority of them happened around the time of promulgation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 , owing to ignorance about the cut-off date, and misconceptions about the future regularisation.
The corridor area has 111 villages, of which 30-40 are unnotified tribal hamlets. Acres of cotton crop welcome visitors to these villages. ‘Cotton mafia’ is how the Forest Department officials and NGOs term the chain of cotton trading right from sowing up to the sale.
“The Sahukar lends us everything — seeds, fertilizers and pesticides — and helps us with money for the labour too. After the crop is harvested, he comes to the doorstep and purchases it,” says Manepally Chinnaiah from Manneguda. The Sahukar is not keen on investing in foodgrains. The higher the area under cotton, the louder the chimes in his coffers. Fertile forest lands brought under cotton cultivation yield better crop and double his profits. Besides, cotton does not need irrigation.
Kondapalle village, under the limits of which the tiger claimed its second victim Nirmala from a cotton field, has agricultural intrusions into the forest lands to the extent of 1,500 to 1,600 acres. In fact, a very narrow forest link remains amid a vast expanse of agricultural fields, due to which encounters with tigers have become common.
Also, since 2005, more than 200 new families have arrived and settled in the village with 480 households. “Since 2010, forest felling spiralled in the hope that the State of Telangana, once formed, would regularise the land. Blade tractors were deployed for clearing the woods. All this could not have happened without the connivance of the Forest Department. Now, officials from the department are claiming even our own titled lands as theirs,” says the Sarpanch of the Kondapalli Panchayat, Sanjeev Upasi.
Since registrations have been stopped for the lands till a joint survey is conducted by Revenue and Forest officials, none of the benefits announced by the government for the farming community are reaching the villagers. This issue assumed more importance than the tribal girl’s death when the villagers gheraoed Forest Minister A. Indrakaran Reddy, demanding titles for the lands, during his visit to the girl’s family.
‘Podu’, a form of shifting cultivation practised by Adivasis, is routinely invoked by political leaders to justify forest felling. But when an exorbitant premium is placed on land value, it is a fact that cultivation never shifts once the forest is cleared. “In the past, when there was plenty of forest area and populations were low, ‘Podu’ was perhaps a sustainable practice, but not anymore. In northern Telangana, the routine encroachments by non-tribal people with political patronage cannot be termed as ‘Podu’,” says Imran Siddiqui, founder of the Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society and NTCA’s representative in the committee formed in the aftermath of tiger attacks.
Inhabitants and foresters
The Mannewar Gond tribals populating the Manneguda hamlet do not have much land anyway. Even the little they had got in the Forest Rights settlement has been lost to moneylenders. Pasula Nirmala’s parents lost theirs to the Pranahita-Chevella project which is shelved now. The family has to depend on daily wage labour and occasional hunting for livelihood, as a result of which they are seen as wildlife poachers by the foresters.
However, when it comes to forest felling, all communities in the village use the services of this tribe. “Tribals hardly gain anything from forest clearance. They become pawns in the hands of other communities who use them to file cases against us,” says Forest Range Officer, Rebbana, B. Purnima.
The Revenue Department routinely grants land titles to the villagers in the same survey numbers previously allotted to the Forest Department for compensatory afforestation, which complicates the problem.
Mistrust defines the relations between the inhabitants and the foresters, evident in the former’s assumption that the feline attacker was let loose by the department in order to evict the villagers. The same suspicion was aired by the MP of Adilabad, Soyam Bapu Rao, who had warned the Forest Department officials to capture the tiger soon or see it poisoned.
Uniformed personnel slap criminal cases and penalties against people over small pretexts such as carrying an axe into the forest. Confrontations between villagers and the forest officials are frequent and occasionally violent.
Though relocation of villages from the core areas is part of the Project Tiger funded up to 60% by the NTCA, the initiative has not taken off in Telangana, as the State government has not released its grant, even after two villages were identified for a pilot and the residents volunteered to shift.
No smooth journey for the big cat
State and Central government projects in the corridor area too act as major disturbances for the migration of tigers. The Goleti mines of the Singareni Collieries and a minor irrigation project on Pedda Vagu at Ada village are existing disturbances, while a third broad gauge railway line connecting with the national capital, and the expansion of a national highway between Mancherial and Chandrapur, are upcoming hindrances.
“For Project Tiger to be sustainable, there should be undisturbed right of way for the tigers from Central India up to the Eastern Ghats. If they are obstructed from migrating, their gene pool can’t be maintained and inbreeding will threaten the very existence of the species,” says Field Divisional Officer, Kagaznagar, M. Vijaya Kumar.
As a consequence of habitat destruction, cattle grazing and resource extraction, there is a dwindling prey base for the tigers. For a sustainable prey base, there should be a minimum of 15 ungulates per sq km, as per the Wildlife Institute of India’s norms. Frequent cattle kills in the corridor area are evidence that the tiger is unable to hunt its natural prey.
“We are taking measures such as ridge-to-valley water shed management and grassland development to improve the prey base. We are making attempts to reduce biotic pressures. They are paying off, and we are hopeful that one female tiger making the core area its home and breeding here will change the picture of conservation in this region,” says Field Director-Project Tiger of Kawal Tiger Reserve, C.P. Vinod Kumar.
Calls are also mounting to declare the corridor area as the ‘satellite core’ of the Kawal Tiger Reserve, for intensive monitoring and better funding.
Considering that each tiger/tigress requires an inviolate territory of 25 to 40 sq km, all these measures could fall short of any result, if the human-animal conflict is not reduced to its minimum.
If the experience of Maharashtra and Telangana is any lesson, tiger conservation cannot be seen in isolation from the associated issues of poverty and livelihoods, which in turn determine political will. Without collaboration of actual stakeholders, there is a risk of Project Tiger becoming counterproductive.