Making of a conflict zone: humans vs tigers in a Maharashtra forest

Vivek Deshpande
A tigress in a forest of Chandrapur. (Express photo by Deepak Daware)

Human deaths in wildlife attacks have been rising in the forests of Brahmapuri in Maharashtra, from six in 2006 to 18 in 2018, most of them in tiger and leopard attacks (The Indian Express, May 20). A look at the factors leading to the area s emergence as a human-wildlife conflict zone, and the mitigation measures taken or explored:

The area

The 1,200-sq-km Brahmapuri forest pision of Chandrapur district home to 41 tigers (16 males, 25 females, besides some 15-16 cubs) as well as 80-90 leopards is not a tiger reserve. It has been a mix of about 1,000 sq km territorial forest and about 200 sq km Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra area. About two years ago, 153 sq km of it was declared as Ghodazari Wildlife Sanctuary. It is a protected area from the perspective of commercial forestry, but not so from a wildlife point of view. Contiguous with the 625-sq-km Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) with over 44 tigers , Brahmapuri is today the most precious tiger-bearing non-protected area in the country.

Tiger population

Among the reasons for Brahmapuri emerging a hotspot for human-wildlife conflict, the most obvious is the growth of tiger numbers, from about 15-16 in 2013 to 41 now. With TATR packed with tigers, part of its population has dispersed to adjacent forests in Brahmapuri and other areas. Chandrapur district as a whole has more than 100 tigers, possibly the highest for a district anywhere in the country. Also, outside TATR, the tigers are spread mostly in Brahmapuri area. But while TATR’s 44 tigers have to live with only two yet-to-be-rehabilitated villages, Brahmapuri s 41 tigers have to live with over 610 villages, half of them close to the forest.

Cattle density

Among other reasons for the conflict are high fragmentation of the forest and high cattle density. Brahmapuri has one the highest numbers of roads for a forest teeming with tigers. In recent years, it has been vivisected by network of huge-sized canals of Gosikhurd irrigation project. And then there are agricultural fields all around. So, tiger dispersal or movement is bound to trigger conflict with humans, said Wildlife Institute of India scientist Bilal Habib, who has been working in the area.

READ | Shadow of tiger attacks on villages in Brahmapuri

According to Mohammad Talib, Chandrapur’s Deputy Commissioner for Animal Husbandry, Brahmapuri tehsil (part of which is in Brahmapuri forest pision) had a livestock population over one lakh in the 2012 census. The forest pision also includes parts of Nagbhid, Sindewahi and Chimur tahsils, with cattle populations of 70,000, 36,000 and over 90,000 respectively. Cattle being easy food for tigers, cattle kill cases have risen from 305 in 2009-10 to 852 in 2018-19.

Migratory preferences

Habib explained that the tiger population in Brahmapuri has increased also because of more breeding tigresses. Unlike males, females don t migrate long distances through fragmented forests. When they breed, the male cubs again can go long distances after separation but not the females. That s why we have females involved in most cases of conflict, he said.

Explained: What explains the spike in tiger attacks in Brahmapuri?

Habib and colleagues have recently radio-collared five tigers, including four females. One of the three radio-collared sibling females has been found responsible for one death this year.

Other factors

One major factor for the rise in tiger numbers has been a major crackdown on organised poaching gangs that had been operating since 2013. Earlier, the annual takeoff from Brahmapuri was about 6-7 tigers. That is not happening now. And there have been no local revenge killings either, said Nitin Desai, Central India director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

Another reason for rising conflict is the spread of the canal network of the Gosikhurd project, which has broken wildlife corridors connecting Brahmapuri to other forested areas. We had then suggested to the Water Resources Department that it build bridges across those canals to facilitate wildlife movement, former Divisional Forest Officer Sanjay Thavre said. The WRD eventually built some, and wildlife have started using these.

Mahua flowers

As with any forest, human-wildlife conflict is mostly due to people’s interface with wildlife. People go inside the Brahmapuri forest to collect minor forest produce and firewood. The conflict is generally intense during April-May, when people enter the forest to collect mahua flowers and tendu leaves, the latter used to make beedis. Mahua flowers are nutrient-rich and edible, and are also used to make liquor.

Mitigation measures

During his stint in Brahmapuri from 2008 to 2013, then DFO Thavre had systematically mapped the trouble-spots. We undertook a massive awareness campaign and expedited compensation cases that used to remain pending for years. We used to hand over compensation for victims families by hand to village and community leaders. We also carried out a tiger census to determine numbers and locations, which helped us keep guards in those areas. These measures helped mitigate the conflict a lot, said Thavre, now retired.

It was in Brahmapuri during Thavre’s tenure that the state government started providing LPG to villagers at 50% subsidy to reduce people s dependence on firewood for which they had entered forests. The result was that number of human deaths in wildlife attacks came down from six in 2008 to one in 2013. The effort won Thavre a gold medal for conservation from the state government, and the Vyaghramitra Puraskar in 2015.

Translocation option

This has so far remained unexplored. We need to shift females to areas like Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve that are deficient in female population. That will also arrest the fast breeding in the area, said Habib. He also favoured developing the neighboring Gadchiroli forest into an ideal tiger habitat so that the tigers could migrate there. Tigers have started migrating to Gadchiroli but very diffidently. In fact, it has led to a new conflict area being created in Gadchiroli s Wadsa tehsil adjacent to Brahmapuri.

Translocation, however, is hardly a long-term solution, since the vacant space eventually gets filled by another tiger. And the story continues.