August 2011: The monsoons are always a special time in the emerald world of Melghat. But this year was extra special. I was driving through the Wan Sanctuary of the reserve, listening to the experiences of the young and dynamic forest officer, Sreenivasa Reddy, who had been posted here for the last three years. We stopped the vehicle near a nullah. It was here that Reddy had spotted a tiger just the previous week. I thanked Reddy, because it was his contribution along with a few others that had made such a difference to a reserve that had been systematically ignored and abused for several years. There had been occasional tiger reports from here but the recent frequent sightings and renewed conservation initiatives spelled hope for this beautiful tiger forest of unending hills and jagged cliffs in the Amravati and Akola districts of Maharashtra.
This bear paw print was sighted along the relocated Amona village within months of the village being moved out. The forest staff now patrol the area 24x7 and the desilted lake has begun to attracts hundreds of water birds. Nature heals itself quickly when humans allow it to.
A long time coming
The Melghat Tiger Reserve was established in 1973-1974 and is one of the largest and oldest tiger reserves in India. In the 1990s, livestock herds had laid assault to southern Melghat. Overgrazing, lopping of trees and poaching joined forces to plunder the forest. In 1997, Madhav Gogte succeeded in obtaining wildlife sanctuary status for Wan, Ambabarawa and Narnala forest areas that are contiguous with Melghat. In 1999, following a huge tiger poaching case, P. K. Sen, then director Project Tiger, and Valmik Thapar visited the area and sanctioned some funds under Project Tiger to the newly-declared sanctuaries. Questions were raised about the allocation as these were not a part of the Melghat Tiger Reserve. The Nature Conservation Society, Amravati (NCSA), an NGO, then began working to get them notified as tiger reserves. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) agreed to accept the recommendation of the state expert committee set up to declare critical tiger habitats (CTH) according to the Wildlife Protection Act 2006 amendments and this helped obtain CTH status for Wan, Ambabarawa and Narnala along with Melghat. The state committee recommended that the compact cluster of three Protected Areas (PAs) Wan, Narnala and Ambabarawa be incorporated into this Melghat CTH to which the state and the NTCA consented (see Sanctuary Asia Vol. XXVII No. 5, October 2007). Over the years, several officers have played a role in Melghat’s resurrection. Mukul Trivedi and Imptee Enla Aao, both Deputy Conservator of Forests, battled poaching, illegal grazing by the pastoral Kathewadi community, timber smuggling, NTFP trade of gum and musali, and tried to protect the forest. Sreenivasa Reddy is now furthering their good work. Today camera traps have been set up to monitor tigers amongst other key initiatives. He is overhauling protection, research and resettlement in Melghat and ensuring that tigers have a safe place to breed and hunt. The future of Melghat lies in the hands of such dedicated forest officers who can work with NGOs active here to safeguard the habitat and garner local support.
Resettlement is not a bad word
Resettlement has always been blighted with the anti-people stamp especially when done to protect wilderness areas. In reality, when undertaken with sensitivity and consideration for the people involved, prioritising their demands and with their approval, it is a win-win for all. After all, it is these forests that nourish and sustain the lands and water sources these communities need to survive. In India, studies in the Kanha Tiger Reserve in the Satpuda landscape of central India and Corbett Tiger Reserve have shown positive biological impacts of resettlement. In Kanha, the highly-endangered swamp deer or barasingha population jumped up from just 66 in 1970 to 350 in 2005. Five villages were resettled along with their livestock in 1974-75 and 15 more by June 1977. The effective removal of 25,000 cattle to grazing grounds outside the reserve made a huge difference. Large scale movement of gaur Bos gaurus and sambar Cervus unicolor was also seen in the vacated meadows post resettlement. We saw the same thing happen in the Corbett Tiger Reserve, when the relocation of 411 families encouraged the recovery of 273 ha. area for wildlife. Subsequently, the tiger population increased by 52 per cent between 1984 and 2002. In Rajaji , tiger and prey density increased after relocating 193 Gujjar pastoral families. When resettlement is handled well, the locals benefit as well. Living inside reserves is not easy – they battle for space with wildlife, their agricultural yield is affected by crop raiding, the government is reluctant to invest in infrastructure for few families and even if they do, few teachers, doctors and officers are willing to serve in remote villages. Relocated communities stand to gain when they are moved to electrified areas with access to market, clean drinking water, hospitals and other facilities, their children could attend school and they could move from a hand-to-mouth existence based on the availability of forest produce to a sustainable agro-based income generating lifestyle.
Tigers in every landscape need core areas, buffers and safe corridors to ensure a healthy exchange of genes with other source populations. A source population needs roughly 10 breeding females with two cubs each and an equal number of non-breeding females, perhaps with 8-10 males, plus something like six female and four male sub-adults (plus transients and a few older male/female tigers). To maintain a viable population of 80-100 tigers, they require an inviolate space of 800 -1,000 sq. km. The central government has now declared a policy to resettle 48,549 families from 762 villages, situated in the core areas of 39 tiger reserves (statistics exclude new tiger reserves and new families identified as per the new family definition). This means the government is planning to relocate selected villages from the core of the tiger reserves. However, few buffer areas and corridors feature in the relocation list. Providing tigers inviolate areas is vital but given the huge economic and social costs of relocation of villages, it is essential to demonstrate that we are serious about addressing the decline in tiger numbers and that this will not result in a backlash from the locals who must leave their homes.
In Bori and Kund, gaur Bos gaurus have returned.
The Melghat Experience
Melghat has already shown that relocating villages can be done seamlessly. A wonderful group of people that comprised both state and central authorities worked hand in hand and made it possible to resettle three villages in 2001-02 and five villages between 2008 and May 2011. Between 2001 and 2002, the villages of Bori, Koha and Kund were relocated after villagers expressed their willingness to do so. Sudheer Goel and Rajgopal Deora, both Divisional Commissioners, attempted to shift two other villages in 2006-07, but the news of a probable hike in the resettlement package hijacked the process. Praveen Pardeshi who had worked in the area as Chief Executive Officer of Zilla Parishad, Amravati in 1991 joined as Divisional Commissioner in December 2010. Having valuable expertise in resettling villages affected by natural disasters such as earthquakes and even the tsunami, he took just five months to smoothly resettle five villages from the tiger reserve. Every family had his cell number to contact him directly when they faced a problem. Vairat and Churni, two villages on the eastern boundary of the tiger reserve and Barukheda, Amona and Nagartas, three villages on its southern tip were resettled successfully, bringing renewed hope to the reserve.
How it happened
The main tribal communities in Melghat comprise the Korkus, Gonds and Balais. While agriculture is the main livelihood of the tribals, a pastoral community like the Gawalis who are dominant in a few villages have always been dependent on livestock and therefore the forest for fodder. Limited agricultural lands and growing village sizes have resulted in an increase in illegal encroachments in the forest. The sanctuary villages with increasing livestock populations suffer due to free overgrazing. The invasive raimunia Lantana camara weed has taken over such degraded lands and caused a huge anthropogenic change in the tiger habitat. Crop raiding by wild herbivores and livestock losses due to predator attacks is a regular affair. Villagers as well as wildlife suffer due to this situation and hence most villagers were and are open to relocation. In 1999, government officers documented the expectations and demands of villagers living in and around their park about the resettlement package and designed it in consultation with them. The government decided to select villages with small population sizes and those with a dominant grazing community for the first phase. On October 29, 1999, an open consultation was held in Bori village in which government officers, villagers from Bori, Koha and Kund and non-government organisations decided that Bori village would be shifted first. Villagers selected a plot of land 15 km. away from the southern boundary of the tiger reserve, near Rajura Girwarpur in Akot block of Akola district. The village required 35 to 40 ha. out of a total 188 ha. land which was available at the new place. As the legal title of 95 ha. of the total land selected by the villagers, was forest land without forest cover, the Forest Department sought permission from the government of India under The Forest Conservation Act of 1980. On February 5, 2000, the district rehabilitation committee was set up by the Amravati collector to implement the resettlement programme. Koha and Kund villages situated on the boundary of the Gugamal National Park in the Melghat Tiger Reserve were also relocated after Bori, during 2001-02. Following the resettlement, the administration worked to revive the meadow habitat and established staff quarters to build protection camps. The rest was left to tigers. And not surprisingly, nature reclaimed her lost paradise.
An emerging threat to the Melghat Tiger Reserve is the Harisal Akot-Warangal highway that meets the Paratwada-Dharni State Highway at Harisal. This cuts through the heart of Melghat's Gugamal National Park. The NCSA has threatened legal action if the PCCF does not oppose the construction, which would undo all the ecological gains of the past few years.
The Barukheda, Amona and Nagartas examples
The Akola district administration and Akot Wildlife Division of the Melghat Tiger Reserve took great efforts to resettle Amona and Nagartas from the Wan Wildlife Sanctuary of the Melghat Tiger Reserve. After the relocation of Churni and Vairat villages, the Divisional Commissioner Amravati and the tiger reserve administration had decided to grant the request of Nagartas village. The Divisional Commissioner had conducted a meeting at Nagartas on February 24, 2011 and geared up the administration as per the decisions taken at the village meeting. All 63 people in Nagartas opened a bank account at the Hiwarkhed SBI branch. The DCF Akot deposited Rs. 14,000 in each account (they would eventually get Rs. 10 lakh per family). The villagers vacated their old village and moved to an irrigation colony where they received beautifully renovated houses. On April 18, 2011, Nagartas village was totally shifted. Similarly in Amona, the first meeting was conducted on February 22, 2011. Though the villagers had expressed their willingness to move, they had certain conditions, for example, that the new village layout be similar to that of their old home. This was arranged and funds at the rate of 10 lakh rupees per family was transferred to DCF Akot and by May 2011, the whole village had moved. In Barukheda, a very sensitive village in terms of anthropogenic pressure, the DCF Srinivasa Reddy, under the guidance of the Field Director A.K. Mishra, conducted meetings and once the 236 families agreed to be shifted, he helped plan the arrangements for the move. Everything from fitting hand pumps, digging wells, ensuring water supply, issuing ration cards was undertaken by Collector Muthukrishnan Sankaranarayanan’s team who ensured a smooth move for the villagers by May 2011.
The Melghat strategy is a recipe for success – a hands-on approach that prioritises local communities and values their knowledge of the forest. If both forests and people are to benefit, neither can be ignored. A fact that must be internalised by Forest Departments and other concerned authorities across the country is that locals have unprecedented knowledge of the forest – they must be involved in conservation initiatives and given suitable employment that allows them to benefit from forest protection rather than destruction. Within a few short months after the relocation, teams visiting the newly vacated land were pleasantly surprised. Already the forest had begun to creep in – lush grass carpeted once dry, muddy paths and a smattering of trees adorned the area. Forest guards reported seeing gaur more often and it was evident that nature, left to her own devices, had reclaimed her lost lands.
I recently completed my study in Oxford, U.K. on the biological impacts of the resettlement of the three villages which were shifted in 2001-02 from the Melghat Tiger Reserve. From the large data collected by the reserve’s staff between 2006 and 2010, the selected ungulate and carnivore data was considered for this analysis. Human and livestock populations around sanctuaries and reserves confine the movements of wildlife. Considering this, all transects surveyed in 2006 and 2010 within a 10 km. periphery of the three resettled villages were categorised as “shifted”. The transects in the Gugamal National Park were categorised as “undisturbed”. Considering the demographic and topographic status of the three resettled villages, a similar area of Melghat Sanctuary where 15 villages from the remaining 19, are situated was categorised as “disturbed-wildlife sanctuaries”. The results clearly showed that in the interval between 2006 and 2010, tiger signs increased rapidly in the areas from which villages had been removed than in the adjacent sanctuary areas, while more modest increases were seen in the undisturbed Gugamal National Park. Sambar, gaur and chital appeared more frequently in the shifted area when compared to other herbivores. Gaur and sambar have the best habitats in the undisturbed area of the national park. After the resettlement of the villages, gaur showed a preference for the flat areas close to water sources. Overall, most of the herbivore species showed highest preference to shifted area than other two scenarios. This showed that after eight years from the resettlement of villages, the sites had dramatically improved.
Amona village in Melghat was relocated as recently as May 2011. Today, the landscape is already lush green with grassland colonising what once were fields.
The way ahead
There are 17 villages that remain to be resettled from the Melghat Wildlife Sanctuary. Out of the four villages from Wan, three have been resettled and the remaining one and three more from Ambabarawa Sanctuary will need be shifted as per the WPA 2006 amendment which states that the core must be inviolate. The newly declared buffer (in 2011) of the Melghat CTH has more than 100 villages. The most serious problem in Melghat has always been overgrazing so much so that it was once called a ‘cattle’ reserve. If Melghat is to truly flourish, the government must release the Rs. 74 crore proposed for relocation and not delay the funds. If the 21 villages from the critical tiger habitat are resettled, tigers will have one of the largest inviolate areas in their range. However, once this is achieved, every care should be taken to ensure that wildlife is safe from poachers and other threats including roads, mines and hydroelectric projects. A strong community-based conservation model in the buffer must be encouraged to allow Melghat to be a home of the tiger forever.
By Kishor Rithe