Conservation benefits humans and wildlife in Bihar’s Valmiki Tiger Reserve

The team of tiger trackers at the Valmiki Tiger Reserve. Photo by Gurvinder Singh.

  • With the forest department employing local youth in forest protection at Bihar’s Valmiki Tiger Reserve, it has managed to keep away youngsters from migrating and succeeded in using their local knowledge for conservation.
  • Through these conservation efforts the number of tigers in the reserve registered nearly a four-fold increase in the past decade.
  • Inadequate staff numbers and unavailability of funds for timely payment of casual staff members is a problem that is still vexing the management of the tiger reserve.
  • During the Wildlife Week, Mongabay-India reports its first field story from Bihar.

Mithilesh Kumar has been employed as a member of the patrolling team of the Valmiki Tiger Reserve (VTR) in Bihar for the past six years. He earns a monthly salary of Rs. 9500, which he mostly spends on the education of his children. The additional income from farming helps him keep the wheels of the family running. The 26-year-old who stays close to the Manguraha range of the reserve sounds happy despite not having a well-paying job.

“The income is lesser when compared to that of other jobs, but I am able to spend time with my family after the working hours. I do not have to migrate to other states in search of work, which obviously increases the food and lodging expenses. I manage to do some savings too,” he said. He keeps a watch for poachers and illegal timber extractors inside the reserve.

His friend Vivek Kumar Badal (25) works as a guide for tourists who come to the reserve to catch a glimpse of the wild animals. He had gone to Mumbai to try his luck in acting but gave up and returned a few years ago, after failing to get any projects. Badal is involved in official work of the reserve when he is not busy with the tourists. His knowledge of the local history proved handy for him to get the job.

At a time when human-wildlife conflicts are held responsible for the dwindling population of the wild animals, the Valmiki Tiger Reserve presents a unique example where both humans and wildlife have benefited and are thriving in the presence of each other.

The VTR landscape. Photo by Gurvinder Singh.

Humans for wildlife and vice versa

“We have managed to get jobs near our homes because of the presence of wild animals, especially tigers that remain the centre of attraction for the tourists coming from far flung areas to see them. Our survival would have been virtually impossible without the big cats,” said Badal.

Around 548 young people from the nearby villages have been deployed on casual basis as tiger trackers, members of anti-poaching team and patrolling team among other jobs inside the reserve.

“We had noticed in the past that those involved in poaching and timber extraction were aided by the locals who had full knowledge of the area. Large-scale unemployment had forced the local residents to help criminals. The authorities then decided to employ the youth staying close to the reserve,” said S. Chandrasekar, conservator of forests and field director of VTR, adding that their employment had begun in 2012. “It was thought that the jobs would not only dissuade them from helping criminals but will also make them guard wild animals. The plan worked and we managed to virtually curb the killing of animals and wood theft.”

GPS-based forest patrolling. Photo by Shariq Shafi.

A four-fold increase in tiger numbers

It comes as no surprise then that the reserve has managed to increase its population of tigers in the past few years and has also earned kudos from the Indian government. The population of big cats that stood at eight in 2008 jumped to 31 in 2017. It included around 10 female tigers.

The official figures for 2018 are yet to arrive as the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) census has just concluded. Officials estimate the numbers of adult tigers to be as high as 33 excluding 12 cubs.

The use of modern technology such as the global positioning system (GPS), monitoring sensors and cameras, has also helped the forest department trace the exact location of big cats inside the reserve and have proper planning for their protection.

The Valmiki Tiger Reserve was conferred with the Earth Heroes Award in recognition of its efforts at habitat and species management in the reserve area in 2017. Situated at the Indo-Nepal border in the West Champaran district of Bihar, VTR is home to many wild animals such as tigers, elephants, sloth bear, leopard and chital, among others.

It is spread across an area of around 898.94 square kilometers with core area of 589.79 square km and buffer area of 309.14 square km. It is contiguous to the Chitwan National Park in Nepal across the border and lies adjacent to the Sheopur range of Sohagi Barwa Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh.

A map of Valmiki Tiger Reserve. Image developed on Google My Maps.

Rescuing VTR from a poachers’ heaven

The journey from oblivion to stardom has not been easy for the reserve. It has taken years of concentrated efforts and outsmarting the threats of poachers to script the success story. The extensive forest area of Valmikinagar was previously owned by the Bettiah Raj and Ramanagar Raj until the early 1950s, when the state government took the over the management under the Bihar Private Protected Forests Act (1947). From early 1960s to 1974, the forests were under the management of the Bihar Forest Department.

In 1974, the entire forest was handed over to the Bihar State Forest Development Corporation on lease, which managed the forests with commercial objectives. The wildlife protection took a back seat and the forest was full of people and machines engaged in pebble mining that obviously took a toll on wildlife.

On 11 March 1994, Valmiki was declared as 18th tiger reserve in the country and was brought under Project Tiger but poaching and mining continued. The stone crushing units and generator sets threw up dust and noise. The thinning herbivore population was also affecting tiger density. Funds for staff salaries and conservation programmes were short and the tiger census was irregular.

The major boost came in 2002 when the Supreme Court banned mining from the river Pandai and the green cover began to improve. “The major problem that we faced was the shortage of grassland areas for the herbivore. We first focused our efforts on removing weeds to make way for grasslands. It increased the prey population. The trackers were equipped with GPS-enabled gadgets and were trained, entrances were barricaded, tourists flow were regulated to ensure that the core area remained untouched,” said Gourav Ojha, divisional forest officer, Division- 2, VTR.

Testing the camera trap. Photo by Shariq Shafi.

A significant breakthrough was also made in the crackdown of poaching syndicates. The state was jolted when four tigers were killed between December 2015 and March 2016.

The entire state machinery swung into action and sixteen poachers were nabbed within two months of the incident. It was for the first time in Bihar that warrants were issued against the poachers that led to the crackdown of international poachers, with arrests spreading to Nepal. Since then there has been no incident of poaching reported.

World Wide Fund for Nature – India (WWF-India), played a significant role by imparting technical training to casual workers and other staff members for increasing tiger population since 2012. “We helped in capacity building of the staff members of the reserve for tiger monitoring,” said Shariq Shafi, project officer (species conservation), WWF, India.

“Apart from identifying pugmarks, the technology helped in tracking the movement of tigers and take concrete steps for their protection. Around 463 pairs of cameras were used in 2016-17 to track tigers. The manual patrolling has given way to GPS-based app mode of patrolling. A detailed report about the presence of tigers and other wild animals is prepared on day-to-day basis and sent to the senior forest officials,” Shafi said.

Training the field trackers. Photo by Shariq Shafi.

More visitors, more money but less staff members

The efforts are clearly visible in terms of the increase of ecotourism with the rise in the numbers of Royal Bengal tigers. According to figures made available by the officials, around 14,629 tourists visited the VTR from January to June 2018, helping it generate a revenue of around Rs. 580,000 as compared to 2012-13 when 1,921 tourists had visited the reserve, generating revenue of Rs. 159,000.

But everything is not hunky-dory in the reserve. The major problem is that of a severe staff crunch. The reserve has just ten forest guards against the sanctioned strength of 167. There have been no appointments in the post since 1989. Retirements every year have added to the woes. There is severe shortage of manpower in almost every part of the forest department.

Another issue is the delay in the clearance of salaries of the casual staff, which often takes months to come, “They are paid too little and the situation turns adverse when they are not paid for months. Even this year, the salary had been delayed for six months. We fear that they might be lured by poachers because they are locals and well aware of the topography of the forest and movement of tigers. The intense economic pressure might stray them into wrong path,” feared a senior forest officer requesting anonymity.

Moreover, the tiger trackers who roam in the forest round the clock have just bamboo sticks to save their lives. “We are like sitting ducks. We do not have any weapons to chase away the wild animals. There have been attacks, though rare. We also remain at the receiving end of threat of poachers. It often becomes difficult to run our family with non-payment of salaries for months,” rued a casual staff wishing not to disclose his name.

“We get amount for payment to casual staff members from NTCA which has been approved and now we are awaiting the approval for matching grant from the state government. In order to avoid this sort of delay we have proposed a revolving fund under the disposal of Valmiki Tiger Reserve Foundation. Presently the said proposal is being considered by the state government,” assured Chandrasekar.

Banner image: The local community who have been drawn in as watchers. Photo by Gurvinder Singh.

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