Tigers in Goa? Forest minister dodges queries

Panaji, Aug 8 (IANS) Goa Forests Minister Filipe Neri Rodrigues questioned the existence of tigers in the state Monday, nearly two years after a male tiger was poached on the fringes of Mhadei wildlife sanctuary.

Replying to queries from the media Monday regarding steps taken by the Goa government to set up a tiger reserve in Mhadei wildlife sanctuary, Rodrigues dodged questions on whether Goa's forests had tigers at all.

'It is the job of the Wildlife Institute (referring to the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India). It is not my job to know whether there are any tigers here,' Rodrigues said, when asked if he was aware of tigers roaming the forested hinterlands of the state.

Rodrigues also said the state government would not reply to a directive from former union environment and forests minister minister Jairam Ramesh asking the Goa government to submit a proposal for setting up a tiger reserve, 'unless specifically asked for'.

'Why should we reply? We have not been asked to reply,' Rodrigues said, suggesting that setting up a tiger reserve would be an unpopular decision as far as people living in the vicinity of the proposed reserve area were concerned.

Ramesh, in June, had written to Chief Minister Digambar Kamat asking the latter to submit a proposal for setting up a tiger reserve because of evidence suggesting that Goa had a 'resident population' of the apex predator.

'We will not take a decision on the tiger reserve until we consider the views of the affected forest dwellers and the local elected representatives... The setting up of a tiger reserve also goes against the provisions of the Forest Rights act, which we are in the process of implementing,' Rodrigues said.

Green activists have alleged that the Goa government's sluggishness to acknowledge the presence of the tiger in Goa is linked to the state's Rs.6,500 crore mining industry, which rings the Western ghats and most parts of the tiger terrain near the Mhadei wildlife sanctuary, located 70 km from here, where a tiger was poached by a local hunting community in 2009.

According to anti-mining activist Ramesh Gauns, the declaration of a tiger reserve in the sanctuary would affect the open cast iron ore mining industry operating in the vicinity.

'One of the reasons why the forest department was not interested in pursuing the tiger poaching case is because if the Sattari area is declared a tiger reserve, mining companies will have to bid goodbye to the 81 mining leases located nearabouts,' Gauns said.

Wildlife expert Rajendra Kerkar, who has been campaigning for the setting up of a tiger reserve in Goa for the last 20 years, said mining is the real reason why the tiger has never been officially allowed to 'surface' in Goa's forests.

'It is beyond doubt that these forests are a home for tigers. However, if the state's handful sanctuaries are notified as tiger reserves, mining - illegal and legal - around these, carried out with the blessings of the politicians and state administration, would have to cease,' he said.