In this tiger reserve, saving timber is priority

The Indian Express , Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Correspondent : Jay Mazoomdar
VAMIKINAGAR (BIHAR), APRIL 11: At Valmiki Tiger Reserve, too many people are on the move. Five companies of Sashastra Sena Bal (SSB) are camping inside the jungle to hunt down extremists from across the border. And the Nepal Maoists, with their Indian counterparts MCC, have gone into flash operation mode. In between ducking for cover, a handful of forest personnel devote all their energy to control teak-felling. The tiger, or any wildlife, is lost in the melee.

Officials admit that there is not even one forest guard per 10 sq km to keep track of the animals.Some startling finds from the Valmiki Reserve in West Champaran for the Project Tiger Steering Committee to chew on—it meets in New Delhi tomorrow:

• Ungulate presence is sparse in many areas. Depleting prey base cannot sustain all 52 tigers claimed in the 2003 census. A just-concluded Wildlife Trust of India survey could confirm ‘‘at least 12 tigers’’ in the 840 sq km Reserve. The same survey didn’t find any sign of tigers in the Raghia range where the 2003 official census claimed five tigers. Even the Project Tiger directorate in Delhi admits there is no system in place to correctly ascertain tiger density.

• Presence of a railway track inside the Reserve and a porous border with Nepal all along the northern boundary makes Valmiki an open field for smuggling of wildlife objects and timber. The Bagha-Chhitauni track runs across the Reserve and the embankment has caused permanent inundation of vast tracts in the Madanpur range. The forest department has sued the Railways seeking compensation and the case is pending with the Supreme Court

• The porous border means rampant poaching. Last December 16, a leopard was poisoned in the Ganauli range. The same year, Nepal authorities arrested seven Indian villagers carrying leopard skin and tiger bone at Triveni Bazar, across the border from Valmikinagar. In 2004, RPF confiscated leopard skin at Bettiah station. In 2003, forest guards caught a Nepal citizen with leopard skin. Recently, SSB personnel apprehended a Nepal policeman for straying into the reserve and shooting ungulates

• About 15,000 people in 20 villages depend on the core area. Absence of waste land between villages and jungle aggravates grazing problems

• Busy fighting the timber mafia, the forest department couldn’t achieve much in wildlife management. Forget advanced systems like grassland management, even effective beat monitoring is a luxury here. ‘‘Till date, Valmiki doesn’t even have certain basics in place,’’ admits Bharat Jyoti, field director, who took charge last September and has been trying hard to shift focus on wildlife

• Funds were a major problem till 2000 but acute staff shortage continues. ‘‘We are operating at 50 per cent of required strength. Many of them (staffers) are under suspension for either corruption or alcoholism. In division two, we have just 22 guards and 18 trackers to look after 500 sq km of forest,’’ says BB Paul, range officer, Madanpur

• Even after SSB deployment in 2003, the MCC and Maoists from Nepal operate in tandem. During the recent Assembly polls, two campaigning jeeps belonging to the RJD candidate here were burnt in the Govardhana range, say officials. In January, a tiger tracker was abducted from Madanpur range and killed. The Harnatan range officer claims to have received explicit threats. ‘‘The extremists want access to timber for villagers loyal to them,’’ says Braj Kishore, range officer, Ganauli

• Though Chhote Ram, commander of the SSB camps at Valuthapa and Valmiki Ashram, strongly denies any poaching instances, forest staff fear that ungulates can be easy bush meat

• A lavish tiger territory in the Seventies, Valmiki was handed over to the Forest Development Corporation in 1974. Result: pro-revenue management, teak plantation and rampant felling. It was declared a Tiger Reserve in 1990 and by the time the Bihar government implemented the order in 1994, it was too late. Tree-felling by villagers has become a normal affair

• Forest officials allege that even top government officials continue to join the timber hunt much after it became illegal. ‘‘Whoever gets posted in this area thinks it’s godsend to ensure timber supply for their generations to come. We even caught a Bihar Education Project vehicle smuggling out rosewood last year. The BDO with armed guard was escorting the loot,’’ says DFO, division one, BP Sinha.

• Boulder mining inside the protected area is a serious problem. Till date, there is no legislation in place to ban or control mining here, say officials

• Project Tiger director Dr Rajesh Gopal claims to have repeatedly sought adequate staff support from the state government and a better law and order situation. ‘‘Since there has been no response from the state, I have finally suggested that Valmiki be delinked from the tiger project. Let Bihar manage its forest the way it wants to,’’ says Dr Gopal.

SOURCE : The Indian Express, Tuesday, April 12, 2005

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