A tiger reserve in need of sanctuary

BHUBANESWAR, NOV. 27. Increasing human pressure, poaching, financial crunch, shortage of staff and vehicles and inability of the administration to shift four villages have put in peril the Similipal Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve in Orissa's Mayurbhanj district.

There has been no increase in the tiger population but a fall is likely if measures are not taken to improve the situation. The reserve, which now has 99 tigers, had 97 tigers in 1995 and conservationists feel that the number may decrease substantially if steps are not taken to check poaching, cattle grazing and deforestation in the periphery.

The biodiversity of Similipal, which is one of the richest in the country, is facing deterioration.

Covering 2,750 sq km, the reserve has 1,076 identified plant varieties, 242 bird species, 92 orchid species, 42 species of mammals and 29 species of reptiles. As per this year's census, Similipal has a total of 99 tigers and 119 leopards. It has 500 elephants, 10,000 wild boars, 1,000 bisons, 10,000 sambars, 3,500 spotted deer, 5,000 barking deer and 1,800 mouse deer. It is the largest watershed of Orissa and nearly 20 rivers and perennial `nullahs' originate from here.

The reserve has been facing a threat for long as the tribals in and around the park indulge in `akhand shikar' (non- stop hunting) for seven days starting from the `Vishub Sankranti' day in April every year. Over the years, the duration has only become longer with the hunting going on from December to June, according to the Conservator of Forest and Field Director of the Tiger Reserve, Mr. S.S. Srivastava.

Human pressure has been increasing since the tiger reserve was created in 1973. The population in 65 villages inside Similipal (61 villages in the buffer area and four in the core area) has since gone up by 40 per cent.

The 4.5-lakh village population is totally dependent on the forest. Apart from collecting forest products, the tribals fell trees and indulge in poaching.

According to Mr. Srivastava, the tiger population is not increasing mainly due to human pressure which denies a congenial atmosphere to the big cats. The tigers also face food shortage as the tribals kill many animals during the `akhand shikar'. He said that the tribals did not kill tigers, leopards and elephants during `akhand shikar'.

With biotic pressure on the rise, the park authorities cannot effectively protect the reserve as very little resource is available to them. Though it has an outer boundary of over 600 km, the authorities have only four vehicles for patrolling. These are used by the five range officers for carrying out their duty as well as for supply of rations to the staff. The range officers, stationed in the core area, do not have vehicles for protection duty.

The District administration has not been able to shift four villages from the core area, though the park authorities have deposited Rs. 47 lakhs with it for this over the past 20 years.

A village was set up at Amdiha near Udala to rehabilitate people from the four villages and the District administration succeeded in shifting 23 families in 1998. However, no family has moved to Amdiha since then.

Moreover, the number of forest guards for the reserve has not been increased from 127 since its creation, though the population in and around the park has increased manifold. As many as 40 posts are lying vacant. While the guards who joined service in 1973 are retiring, no fresh appointments have been made during the past two years. Without the adequate number of guards, the reserve is generally left unguarded.

The park management is in the red as the annual grant has been gradually diminishing. Three years ago, it was getting Rs. 70 lakhs a year with the State Government releasing Rs. 35 lakhs and a similar amount coming from the Centre. The State Government has now brought down the grant to Rs. 30 lakhs and the Centre's share has also equally decreased.

The park authorities are also not able to properly implement the eco-development programme aimed at reducing the biotic pressure and creating an awareness among the villagers of the problems facing the forest. Though the Centre gives money, the State Government always takes a long time to release the amount, making the exercise virtually meaningless.