Meet Ashok Khot
Photo: Kishor Rithe.
Additional Chief Secretary (Revenue and Forests), Maharashtra
The spate of leopard attacks on humans living around the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), Mumbai, was splashed across the national media in the month of June-July, 2004. Bittu Sahgal met the man at the centre of the storm to understand the official response to the problem. The situation with leopards is deteriorating across India and this had been predicted decades ago. Such human-animal conflicts could destabilise years of wildlife conservation efforts in India. And this is what Ashok Khot is trying to avoid.
You say you have no real experience with wildlife yet you seem to love being out in the wilds?
I do and I attribute this to the fact that I grew up in the heart of wild India. I was born in a village called Pandurna in Chindwara, Madhya Pradesh. My father was a Magistrate in the erstwhile Central Provinces and Berar and in Maharashtra, and I served in the Indian Army till I joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1973. All these jobs took me to where nature was. I will never forget the first tiger I saw when I was the Collector at Wardha. It did not do much, just sat there on a rock 25 m. from me. But the memory is still vivid.
After having worked in Planning, Public Health, Agriculture, Labour and now in Forests, you seem to have been catapulted suddenly to the centre of a "leopard storm" in Mumbai. Why are leopards suddenly attacking humans?
Much before Mumbai, the "leopard storm", as you call it had hit Junnar, near Nashik. We have had a really tough time handling the problem, but it is now largely under control, primarily by removing over 100 leopards from the area. The problem took place because forests in which leopards lived their secretive lives were disturbed, in part thanks to the loss of forests at the hands of projects such as the Malshej Ghat Pumped Storage Project. This forced the Junnar leopards to come out and find shelter in sugarcane fieldsâ€¦ and into conflict with us.
And in the case of the SGNP?
Here the cause is even more defined. Despite High Court orders, we have not yet been able to clear all encroachments. But we have come a long way from when 62,000 encroachers, their chickens, goats, dogs and other domestic animals resided in the park. These were easy prey for leopards, which were literally lured towards human settlements. We have also closed all illegal quarries within SGNP. But the boundary is porous and each day anti-social elements manage to sneak in. They threaten and are threatened by leopards.
What has been the official response to mitigate the leopard problem?
We have held a series of meetings, first at the site of the attacks and then with officials, experts and people's representatives in Mantralaya (government headquarters) in Mumbai. Clearly human life has to be protected at all costs and therefore our first response was to capture leopards and translocate them to other, less populated areas.
But this too has not found favour, either with wildlife experts, or with locals where the cats were released?
That depends on which experts you consult. Our officers have been studying this problem for years and we have always had a contingency plan for release of leopards into habitats where the prey density is high and human density is low. That is where releases were made and to date we have had no complaints. Now, however, to avoid all risk to human life a policy decision has been taken not to release any caged leopards.
During a recent television interview, the SGNP authorities were accused of releasing cats into the park and locals were up in arms against this?
We have not released even one outside leopard into the SGNP. The six leopards that have come in from Junnar are still in cages. This habitat is different and they would never have been able to find prey and would have starved.
Then why the recent hue and cry about leopard releases in the park?
Some people were clearly tutored. A lady named Shantabai actually accused us of releasing circus leopards with balis (ear rings) into the park! Others say that domesticated leopards were released to scare encroachers. How can anyone respond seriously to such tutored figments of imagination?
Photo: Rishi Bajpai.
But why the recent rise in attacks?
Plain and simple, these have taken place because of encroachments into leopard habitats. I think you yourself wrote in the Times of India that a "tipping point" had been reached in which leopards were being forced out of the park. What is as bad is that on Revenue lands abutting the SGNP, permissions were indiscriminately given to builders to construct houses and colonies without a care for safety from leopards. Most buildings do not even have protective walls. We totally sympathise with the victims, who have suffered terrible losses, but all blame should not be laid at the door of the Maharashtra Forest Department, or the leopards they are protecting.
What is being done for the victims?
If attacks take place outside the park boundary, compensation of Rs. two lakhs is paid to the next of kin. If the attack is inside, no compensation is paid. Rs. 50,000 is handed over to those injured by leopards outside the park.
Is this enough?
Nothing can possibly be enough. As you know I have spent sleepless nights in the park trying to prevent more tragic deaths. Money cannot compensate for any personal loss of this nature.
What specific plans are you now implementing?
We are going to build a wall, which is part of the High Court order. This wall will be topped by barbed wire and solar-powered electric wiring, essentially to train leopards not to try and cross over into human habitats. We are also putting the removal of encroachers on a war footing. Activists who used to oppose our relocation efforts are now invisible and people are queuing up for allocation of land. We are also actively considering captive breeding of wild herbivores to augment the food supply of leopards.
Do you have political support for all this?
Much more than most people realise. In the capacity of Forest Secretary, I have had to meet representatives from the widest imaginable spectrum of political parties. All support the construction of the wall, relocation of encroachers and improving the prey base. What is more, public opinion favours the leopards. The city of Mumbai wants to allow them a place to stay.
When you have meetings with such political parties, do you find it difficult to justify why a forest with wild carnivores should exist inside a mega city?
Some people are impossible to convince, but as I said, the majority is fully aware of the water contribution of SGNP and its lakes, Tulsi and Vihar. They are equally aware of the fact that forests to the north such as Tansa, Vaitarna and Tungareshwar are vital to the water security of Mumbai.
And yet the Forest Department seems never to have enough funds to undertake its task?
Yes, the State Government does have a financial crunch on its hands, but the Chief Minister and the Finance Minister have personally assured us that funds will not be an issue when it comes to solving the leopard problem, or the future protection of SGNP.
What is being done to strengthen and expand the other Protected Areas in Maharashtra?
We are working very closely with all groups to see that tiger habitats such as Melghat, Pench, Navegaon, Nagzira, Bor and Tadoba are protected. From some of these parks, villagers have petitioned us to relocate them to other sites, where they can avail of such developments as schools, hospitals, and jobs. This is surely going to help improve the quality of wildlife habitats and will give rise to more herbivores, therefore more carnivores.
Are you getting political support for such relocation plans?
As it turns out, yes. Because the local MLAs are being pressured by people to help them shift out. Thanks to help from Project Tiger and the Central Ministry of Environment and Forests, we are offering even landless people land, and we are paying for the construction of their homes. Persons such as Hemendra Kothari, Chairman of DSP Merrill Lynch Ltd. have further assured us of corporate support.
Photo: Saheel Latheef.
You seem upbeat about the wildlife situation in Maharashtra, while most states are hard put to keep pace with their problems?
I think upbeat may be the wrong word. I am confident that we will be able to tackle the problems that arise. NGOs often do not appreciate the constraints of government and it is out of such ignorance that unrealistic expectations are raised. No matter how much we want to, the procedures in government have to be followed, while NGOs sometimes want us to act almost as though we were doing so in our personal capacity.
Can you tell me about the tiger? Is the tiger safe in Maharashtra?
Frankly, the tiger is not safe anywhere in India. And Maharashtra is no exception. Poaching gangs are rampant. They have international connections. Besides, the slow erosion of forest land as it is converted to marginal agriculture continues apace. Wood from protected forests continues to be cut for sale in large cities. We try to counter all this, but sometimes we do get overwhelmed. But I must say that we are fortunate in that many really good NGOs work closely with us and this greatly strengthens our common goals. The real key is to be able to protect the forests that surround our sanctuaries and national parks, because this is where large cats are most vulnerable. But we are fighting back. Recently a gang of poachers has been caught with links to markets in New Delhi. Further investigations are on to uncover their international links.
And what about the forest-water connection? Are you likely to get higher budgets in the months ahead by pointing out how crucial forests are to the water security of Maharashtra?
I wish I could say yes, but that would be irresponsible. All I can say is that we have a greater rapport with all politicians on this issue than ever before. In Vidharbha, almost everyone now knows that five per cent of forest lands are providing more than 30 per cent of our fresh water. In the case of Koyna, Radhanagari and Chandoli in western Maharashtra too, even the irrigation engineers recognise that water from the forests is indispensable. All these are tiger forests and with the passage of each day, I expect public support and resource allocations to favour the tiger.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXIV No. 4, August 2004.