The sudden spate of tiger poaching incidents have virtually created a flutter across the state. Poachers struck not once but three times in the last ten days in tiger reserves in Vidarbha, despite a red alert about possible strikes by Baheliya gangs from neighboring Madhya Pradesh. Finally the government issued shoot at sight orders to save the big cat. Forest Minister Patangrao Kadam spoke to Suyash Padate at length about the government’s action plan to tackle this sensitive issue.
What is the present situation in tiger reserves in the state?
In one word, it’s bad. It is a sad part of the story but the fact remains that there is a spurt in poaching of tigers around the protected areas. The government is trying its level best to protect wild life and has made adequate arrangements. The entire staff of the forest department is on its toes. So far there is no breakthrough but I am sure that we will crack the cases of poaching and zero in on this gang.
Your orders of shoot at sight were the only option left before the government?
Yes, in the present scenario and against the backdrop of the intelligence input, I have given these orders. The intelligence report has underscored the information that Baheliya poachers from Katni in Madhya Pradesh have been given a contract to procure 25 tigers from Vidarbha, for which Rs.40 lakh has been paid to them. First, we have issued an alert in the tiger sanctuaries in the state following information that poachers are preparing to hunt down tigers. But despite the red alert in reserves and protected areas, tiger poaching has regretfully continued in some parts. The body of a tiger chopped into 11 pieces with its head and paws missing was recovered last week. The incident took place at the Tadoba Tiger Reserve, which has seen a rise in poaching incidents. Just two weeks ago, the forest department found leg hold traps in which two tigers had been caught. One of the tigers died and the other was injured. As the killing continued, we have issued shoot at sight orders. We have asked the forest guards to take down any poacher hunting or laying traps in tiger reserves. However, this is not new as these orders are in place since 2002 when the department first decided to arm its staffers basically for self-protection.
But is the forest staff trained in the use of sophisticated weapons?
That is the real tragedy. The field staff is reluctant to use weapons as there is still little clarity in protocol. Selected forest guards and foresters have been given pistols but they too don’t use them. There have instead been cases of forest guards being booked for violating human rights. However, to save the tiger, the department has informed the guards that preventive shooting will not be treated as criminal offence. The action of guards will not be considered a crime. The legal provision has been made to protect these guards. Another factor is lack of training in the use of weapons. Of the total 11,000 employees of the department, till date not more than 1,000 field staffers have been trained in using weapons. They too do not get to practice regularly.
Is it correct to state that the entire forest department is understaffed and the guards and other field officials are over burdened?
Actually, 523 new guards will be recruited soon and will be deployed at four forest reserves like Tadoba, Pench, Melghat and Sahyadri. Apart from that, as many as 100 new patrol vehicles for range officers have also been allotted. Teams of State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) have been deployed in these forests. This will ease some of the burden on the staff.
A secret fund of Rs.50 lakh has also been sanctioned to give incentives to informers providing tips about smugglers and poachers to the forest officials. Now the officials can create their own network of informants.
Are these measures sufficient to tackle this poaching problem?
See, here I would like to tell you one thing, that the government has also appointed a four-member committee of experts to advise the government on steps to be taken for precautions against poaching of tigers. Steps have also been taken to keep electricity supply in check as one of the reasons for deaths of tigers has been electrocution. The irrigation department has also been alerted to ensure maximum water holes. I have asked forest officials for hundred percent monitoring of water holes in tiger reserves. Similarly, we have taken up advertisement and information campaign to apprise locals about the situation and promise rewards for information about poachers. The forest guards and foresters have been directed not to go on leave till June 15. The additional principal chief conservators of forests (APCCF) have been asked to obtain daily visit and digital image of guards visiting all catalogued water holes that are to be maintained. In addition to this, extra water holes will also be constructed so that tigers have alternate places to go to during the hot season. Similarly, rewards will be given to locals who pass on information about poachers to authorities and help protect tigers following the state government’s decision to involve them in having a positive stake in wildlife conservation. The move is aimed at avoiding tiger-human conflict in buffer zones outside tiger reserves. Many times poachers are helped by locals. We are trying to stop this.
Any progress in investigation?
Not really. Forest officials had heightened vigil and declared Rs 1 lakh reward for clues. But poachers managed to punch holes in the security ring around the Chandrapur forests. The Chandrapur forest has lost six tigers this year, five were either poached or killed accidentally and the sixth got mutilated in an iron jaw trap. In one case the tiger was electrocuted by poachers deep inside the forest. Later, its carcass was cut into pieces, stuffed into a gunny bag and transported in a four-wheeler to the Borda forest. The remains were then scattered near the road. A forest guard found the remains a few meters off the road. Forest officials rushed to the spot, cordoned off the area and sniffer dogs were pressed into service. Bu the whole exercise was futile.
What information does the government have about the Baheliya gang?
The Baheliya gang is known for poaching tigers with metal traps. Experts say members of this community simultaneously operate at multiple locations and are ruthless in their approach. The intelligence reports say that Bahelia gangs have been ordered to kill 25 tigers for their skins. These gangs have also been paid an advance of Rs 40 lakh. In international markets, a tiger skin would fetch $200,000 which is over a crore of rupees at today's rates. Their body parts like nails, hair, bones are sold at the rate of $1,200 per kg which converts to about Rs 6.50 lakhs.