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Crouching tiger, hidden ‘mafia’ hand

- Protests at killings by big cat spark suspicion of plot to pre-empt reserve tag

Thiruvananthapuram, Nov. 24: Killing of livestock by a tiger has prompted highway blockades and hartals by villagers around Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, but wildlife activists suspect the land-grab mafia fanned the panic to pre-empt a tiger reserve in the area.

Forest officials say big cats preying on cattle is not unusual in wildlife sanctuaries, and 83 such incidents happened last year too at Wayanad, nestled in the Western Ghats in Kerala’s northeast.

They are, therefore, puzzled at the sudden protests and demands for safety though they admit that the dozen cattle killed since mid-November constitute a rather high figure, and that one particular tiger may be involved.

However, with the protests gathering momentum and political parties joining in to show support for the local people, an effort has begun to catch the tiger or even kill it as a last resort — a move wildlife activists say would be “unethical”.

S. Guruvayoorappan, project officer with the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said the agitation was stoked by “propaganda by vested interests”.

He said it all had to do with “rumours” of a proposal to declare the sanctuary a tiger reserve, which would have led to a ban on construction, hit tourism and brought down land prices.

“The tourist resort lobby, which has been indiscriminately building in green areas across the state, may be playing a part. There is also an attempt to increase land prices by warding off any future moves for a reserve,” Guruvayoorappan said.

“There are 80 enclosures (revenue land surrounded by forest) inside the sanctuary — given to tribals and non-tribals in the 1960s to cultivate crops — and this land is prone to exploitation by outsiders.”

He added: “Initially, it was politicians who tried to make capital but then they lost control as people panicked.”

The “vested interests” probably hope that the public anger at the “rogue” tiger would make the idea of a tiger reserve unpopular.

The parties

The CPM is supporting the agitation. “The sanctuary is one of India’s best-kept and has an excellent record of protection of the forest and its animals. But there are people in settlements inside and they too have to be protected,” party district secretary C.K. Saseendran told The Telegraph.

He admitted: “There is also apprehension about what may happen if the sanctuary becomes a reserve as it would mean more restrictions and people will have to be relocated.”

Forest officials played down the relocation fears saying hardly any people live in the core area, anyway.

M.I. Shanavas, Wayanad’s Congress MP, says the “propaganda” about the tiger reserve is “baseless”. But, since no politician can ignore popular protests, he swears he is on the villagers’ side.

“I’m for the rights of the people rather than the animals. Their lives have to be protected,” he told a TV channel.

The ‘rumours’

The buzz about a reserve began early this year after reports that a survey of the 344.44sqkm sanctuary had found 72 tigers — higher than the count in Kerala’s two tiger reserves at Periyar and Parambikkulam.

“In reply to an RTI query, the forest department said there was a proposal to convert the area into a reserve,” said a resident associated with the agitation.

The department had actually issued two replies, one hinting about the plan and the other denying any such move.

Chief wildlife warden V. Gopinath cleared the air: “There was a communication from the Centre saying they would support any proposal from us to grant the sanctuary the status of a tiger reserve. But it is purely a state government decision.”

The state hasn’t taken any decision yet but the “vested interests” apparently don’t want to take any chances.

That the Wayanad sanctuary shares its boundaries with three tiger reserves — Bandipur and Nagarhole in Karnataka and Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu — lent credence to the “rumours”.

Guruvayoorappan feels the tiger count was wrong. “Tigers keep moving between reserves, and it is possible the same animal was counted in both states.”

The protests

The protesters have laid siege to forest officials and set bamboo groves on fire demanding the predator be shot. The panic peaked after goats in three houses were attacked the same night. Loudspeakers atop temples and churches have been warning people against venturing out of their homes.

There was some relief after a female tiger, about 15 years old, walked into a trap set by forest officials in Tirnuelli. But people turned furious after wardens released it into the nearby Bandipur forest. However, the tiger attacks continued, proving the captured animal was not the culprit.

Tempers cooled somewhat after chief wildlife warden Gopinath issued orders saying that “all options were open” in tracking the tiger down.

“Tranquillisers, traps and all other means to capture it alive will be tried before the last option (shooting) is attempted,” he said.

The hunt

.P. Kaler, the chief conservator of forests (Palakkad division) who oversees the sanctuary, and his team of about 20 men have been combing the jungles for the past seven days. Over 80 other personnel have been mobilised from the police, rapid response team and the forest department’s flying squad.

“On Thursday, we spotted it thrice in Narikkolli but it was moving and we could not dart it,” said Arun Zachariah, the department’s veterinarian, adding that the animal was probably a male.

“We spotted it again yesterday, but there is a thick undergrowth and the animal was moving very fast. We could see it only for a fraction of a second.”

Crowds have been following the team, hampering their efforts.

Kaler personally feels the animal should not be called a rogue. “We did not find any abnormal behaviour. There was no growling or violent reaction when it spotted us. It appeared a bit weak and I think it came out to the settlements because it could not hunt in the forest.”

Conservationists are despondent. “Only man-eaters are allowed to be shot, but in some cases the warden has the powers to allow hunting in an area. They are setting up traps.... I think all of this is not ethical,” Guruvayoorappan said.