Bhopal – with tigers in its peripheries

Regardless of the tons of toxic wastes littered in the Union Carbide factory site, the Madhya Pradesh government has been pursuing with the Centre a proposal for awarding the status of Global Environment City on Bhopal. The city already has a few of its components, such as some lakes – one of them even a Ramsar Site – hills and, of course, a lot of greenery which, though, of late has appreciably diminished at a rapid pace. Nonetheless, the government continues to pursue the ambition of having the city declared as an Environment City. What should strengthen the government’s claims in this regard is occurrence of a recent phenomenon – that of the big cats trying to convert the city into their haunt. With the wildest of wildlife in the city none would ever think of denying the sobriquet that the government so earnestly seeks, more so after the state lost its “Tiger State” sobriquet.

A tiger had been roaming the jungles near the town for a couple of years now. It strayed from the nearby Ratapani Sanctuary and came close to the town near the dam known as Kerwa. It had on occasions been seen wandering around in the massive complex of the local Judicial Academy. It would, however, retrace its steps and get back to the jungles close to Chandanpura near Kerwa and make meals of a few livestock in the forest villages. Sighted with two cubs in April last, the state Forest Department made all possible arrangements to ensure that they did not come to harm. Yet the tigress met its inevitable fate last June at the hands of poachers who cruelly electrocuted it. One was, however, expecting such a denouement, given the efficiency and commitment of our foresters. It seems, the poor creature was raising a family but was ruthlessly eliminated.

That, however, was not the end of the story. A few days ago a badly wounded tiger cub, presumably one of the two that were sighted in April, was found in the jungles close to Kerwa near Kathotia. Kathotia, incidentally, also has caves and rock-shelters with primitive rock-paintings like those in Bhimbetka, a World Heritage Site, around 30 kilometres away from Bhopal. The poachers seemed to have attempted trapping it and in trying to free itself the cub got severely wounded; its hind legs even got paralysed. It was rescued and brought for treatment to Van Vihar, an open zoo in the middle of the town that has somehow been given the status of a National Park. The vets there couldn’t save it and it died the other day.

The forest department has confessed that it failed in monitoring the movement of the tiger family. In fact, it did not even get whiff of them. No wonder the tigress and one of her cubs were lost to poachers. This is despite that there is an intense campaign to save tigers. Recall the NDTV “Save our tiger” campaign only a few weeks ago! The department is investigating the killing of the tigress but there has been very tardy progress. Even the National Tiger Conservation Authority has asked for a report in this regard. Clearly, because of ineptitude of the forest department precious wildlife outside the protected areas continue to remain unsafe.

To add to the discomfort of the Forest Department recent unconfirmed reports indicate that there are as many as three tigers – a male, a female and a cub (apparently the one that somehow escaped the poachers’ attention) –roaming around in these forests. The cub seems to be old enough but is unable to make a proper killing. The forest department is not yet clear about their numbers and are, therefore, collecting pug marks. One wonders whether all these tigers are heading for the same fate as the ones earlier.

The department has a stock argument of inadequacy of staff. It says that proper protection could be provided to the straying tigers only when the Kerwa and adjoining areas are converted into a “conservation area” which would ensure funding for appointment of the required personnel. Can one buy such an argument? After all, the strength of foresters is determined according to the spread of forests and there must be personnel for guarding these very forests. Why can’t they take care of the wildlife as well? If their strength is inadequate why more forest guards cannot be recruited? There is enough money and countless unemployed men and women available for appointment. It’s a pity that despite the Prime Minister’s directions about a year ago the Tiger Protection Force has not been created so far in the state.

According to the Forest Department Ratapani Sanctuary has become a little crowded for tigers on account of increase in their numbers and hence they are straying into the Kerwa area. That could be so. But that could also not be so. Maybe, the prey base has shrunk in the sanctuary with not enough ungulates to go round, forcing tigers to wander out of the Sanctuary for greener pastures. Not that Kerwa has a big enough prey base but at least cattle of the villagers, easy preys, are available. Whatever the reason, the tigers seem to be here to stay, having been here for well over two years now.

It is not tigers alone that seem to like Bhopal. Leopards, too, make frequent forays into it. They have been sighted in the Indian Institute of Forest Management Complex, the National Judicial Academy, in the vast grounds of the Indira Gandhi National Museum of Man and, of course, in Kerwa.

 It seems like the old times when, growing up in Gwalior in the midst of tiger-county in 1940s, we would hear frequent reports of tiger-sightings in the outskirts of the town. My eldest brother even claims to have seen one along with his friends around the mid-forties on the hillock near the Medical College that has a Scindia deity and another in the Tigra Dam area that is now being intensely colonised.

With tigers and leopards in its periphery, Bhopal is acquiring a certain uniqueness. Whether the status of Global Environment City is awarded or not, one wishes to God that these creatures and their new habitat in Kerwa are protected with all the resources that the government can muster.