The recent killing of a 24-year-old youth in a tiger attack in Wayanad, has once again amplified the debate over turning the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (WWS) into a tiger reserve and relocating locals to a safer place. While conservationists say both the measures will not only safeguard the animals and minimise man-animal conflict, but also provide a security net for locals and help them avail better compensation in case of casualties, the proposal has met with stiff resistance from locals.
Siva Kumar, a tribal youth from Karuvakkunnu Basavankolli Kattunaikka colony at Wayanad’s Pulpally was suspected of being killed by a tiger when he had gone to the forest to collect bamboo on June 16. Mangled parts of his body were recovered from the forest a day later. The rest of it was suspected to have been devoured by the predator. “The body was found to be dragged around 100 meters, the marks on the body and the footprints found at the scene suggest that he was killed by a tiger,” The DFO Renjith Kumar told The Federal, adding that camera a trap has been installed to identify the tiger.
Waynad’s history of man-animal conflict
Man-animal conflict has been a common occurrence in Wayanad for a range of reasons – from climate change to the increasing population density in and around the wildlife sanctuary which is one among the ecologically fragile biodiversity hotspots in the Western Ghats. According to sources, 46 people have been killed in Wayanad in human-animal conflict in the past 10 years. Of them, 38 were killed in attacks by wild elephants and five were killed in tiger attacks.
On December 25, 2019, 60-year-old Jadayan, belonging to the primitive tribe of Kattunaikka was killed by a tiger in the Kurichyad forest range. Sibi Vadakkanad, a farmer in Bathery has lost 10 cows to tiger attacks in the past three years. “Last year, when the tiger attacked my cow, the two-year-old child of my neighbour was playing outside the house. Luckily, the toddler was spared. We are too scared to send our children to school. We live in the fear of tigers all the time,” he says.
‘Waynad, the safest haven for big cats’
According to the 2018 Tiger Census, WWS has the largest tiger population in Kerala. Flaunting a strength of 75 to 80 tigers, WWS has outnumbered the big cat population in the two tiger reserves – Periyar National Park and Parambikkulam Tiger Reserve – in the state, which have 25 tigers each.
The state, as per a report released by the Prime Minister in July 2019, is also touted to be the safest place for big cats. With a total population of 190 tigers, Kerala scored 90.23 per cent, the highest MEE (Management Effectiveness Evaluation) score, among 18 tiger states in the country. MEE is the assessment of how well-protected a reserve is.
In view of this aspect of security too, there have been demands to declare the Wayanad sanctuary into a tiger reserve.
“This will not only help to put an additional layer of protection for tigers but also ensure more amount of compensation to people suffering from the attack of wild elephants,” says Bala Subramaniyam, a wildlife biologist at Parambikkulam Tiger Reserve. He says that tiger reserves get more central funds, which could be used to compensate affected people co-habiting with the wild.
Indigenous tribes cry foul
There, however, has been widespread resistance from tribal and non-tribal communities against the proposal to notify WWS into a tiger reserve and another to relocate locals out of the sanctuary.
The Kerala Forest Research Institute in a study found that 110 settlements with a population 2,613 households required to be relocated out of WSS. Dr Sankar, a scientist with KFRI who conducted the study, says the high level of human interactions in tiger habitats leads to such incidents.
He, however, says that the proposed relocation is voluntary and not a forced one.
“In my interactions with several tribal communities, I understand they want to come out of the forest and live in the mainstream,” he says.
Contrary to this, tribal organisations like Gothra Mahasabha have protested against the proposal stating that it will uproot tribal communities from their natural habitat.
In a petition filed with the National Human Rights Commission in October 2019, M Geethanandan, the then Chief Coordinator of Gothra Maha Sabha requested the commission to direct the state government to give up the plan of relocation. The ‘Voluntary Relocation’ was a project initiated by the Ministry of Environment and Forests with an objective to relocate forest dwellers from critical wildlife sanctuaries.
Tribal activists say any such attempt to relocate tribal communities would be a plain violation of the Forest Rights Act of 2006.
But along with genuine concerns of eviction, there are baseless stories related to the tiger reserve proposal that are doing the rounds, raising the concern of locals, mostly the non-tribal population.
“We will be asked to paint the houses green and cover the wells. We wouldn’t be allowed to cultivate crops of our choice,” says Surendran, a farmer who is an office-bearer of an organisation called Haritha Sena.
Environmentalists, however, call such news as an organised attempt to spread lies.
Is a reserve really feasible?
According to a study by WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), India supports 50 per cent of the world’s tiger population and Western Ghats is one of the most important tiger landscapes in the world. The tiger occupancy landscape of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is reported to be 2,387 sq km with an estimated population of 80 tigers according to the 2018 Census.
However, there are serious contentions raised by experts on the veracity of the methodology and the transparency of the whole process of the tiger census itself. Dr Ullas Karant, a leading wildlife expert and the director of Centre for Wild Life Studies, Bengaluru is highly critical about the lack of transparency in the process. He alleges that there has been a bureaucratic monopoly in the whole process. Though it created much euphoria in the media, the details necessary to assess the reliability of the tiger numbers shown are missing, he says.
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Wayanad Wild Life sanctuary shares its border with the tiger reserves Bandipur and Nagarhole in Karnataka and Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu. “Wayanad is a small sanctuary that shares a lot of the same tigers with the adjacent tiger reserves. I do not know on what basis these 84 tigers were being claimed, that is a density of 24 tigers/100 sq km. My decades of study show densities of 10-15 sq km in the same areas,” Dr Ullas told The Federal.