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Forest hostage drama after mix-up

Sultan Bathery (North Kerala), Feb. 18: Tribals who have forcibly occupied the Muthanga wildlife sanctuary — an important elephant habitat — yesterday beat up 19 forest officials and wildlife activists, bound them and held them hostage for over 18 hours.

The group of 19 had gone to meet leaders of the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha (Tribal Council) and appeal to them to vacate the sanctuary, where they have been living for the past month and a half. But some tribals thought they were trying to set fire to the forest to force an evacuation and attacked them.

A freelance photographer, Sali Thankappan, who had accompanied the group, was also taken captive.

The hostages were released today at noon after talks between the district collector and the tribal leaders, but tension is mounting.

Wildlife enthusiasts and forest department officials have renewed calls for moving the 1,000-odd tribal families out of the sanctuary.

Mobilisation of forces and arms have been reported from law enforcement agencies, including Kerala police and forest officials, as well as the tribals. According to residents of Muthanga, the tribals have acquired a few guns, too, apart from traditional weapons such as bows and arrows.

“There could be some decisive action tonight,” a police source at Sultan Bathery said. The prospective action could lead to a bloody battle, if the current signals are anything to go by.

“We will fight to the finish,” vowed Gothra Mahasabha leader C.K. Janu. She said the sanctuary was occupied because the state government failed to live up to its promise of giving 5 acres of land to all tribal families in Kerala. The promise was made by chief minister A.K. Antony last year after a protracted agitation by tribal groups.

Wildlife activists and forest officials, however, point out that the tribals are obstructing an important elephant corridor (the path used by roaming elephant herds) in south India.

The sanctuary, located in the middle of a 334 sq km forest area is on the critical tri-junction between Muthanga, Wyanad and Bandipur National Parks and forms part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. The Noolpuzha river flows through the sanctuary and elephants from different parts of the Nilgiri range converge here in search of water during summer.

According to wildlife enthusiasts, the movement of roaming herds towards Muthanga would have started by now from places like Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu.

The Union ministry of environment and forests had taken note of the “tribal occupation” and the threat it posed to wildlife.

It sent a strongly-worded letter to the chief secretary of the Kerala government nearly a month ago, demanding immediate action. But this had little effect because the government was caught between concerns of wildlife protection on the one side and its political exigency of fulfilling its promise to tribals on the other.

Antony, on his part, had tried to give away parts of the sanctuary to the tribals. On two trips to Delhi, he even made a request to the ministry of environment and forests but was turned down on the ground that it would set a wrong precedent.

The state government’s inaction in vacating the sanctuary has also prompted the Wildlife Trust of India, a Delhi- based NGO, to file a petition before the Central Empowered Committee, created by the Supreme Court to vacate forest encroachments.

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