Environmentalists revive contentious call to declare a tiger reserve in Goa

A tiger photo-captured by a camera trap in Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo from Vivekanand Environment Awareness Brigade, Keri, Sattari
  • An incident of tiger deaths in Goa’s Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in 2020 and concern over development activities affecting tiger movement around the Goa-Karnataka border, have revived the call for notifying a tiger reserve in Goa.
  • Declaration of a tiger reserve will ensure improved monitoring and perhaps lead to an increase in tiger population, while bringing enhanced technical and financial support from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
  • However, the demand for a tiger reserve is debated and political, with some members of the government claiming that a tiger reserve is not needed because Goa does not have a resident tiger population.

Incidents of tiger deaths in Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa, in 2020, was a trigger for environmentalists to refresh their long-pending demand for a tiger reserve in the coastal state. The controversial demand has come up again now, following Central Water Commission’s approval to Karnataka government’s detailed project report for the construction of dams on Mhadei river, even as the two states, Goa and Karnataka, are in conflict over the sharing of the river waters.

Environmental activist and tiger enthusiast Rajendra P. Kerkar, who, since the late 90s, has been advocating for a dedicated tiger habitat in Goa, says any kind of infrastructure development activity in the area will disturb the ecosystem where tigers roam. Twenty years since he made the case for a tiger reserve to the then governor of Goa, Kerkar, formerly working with the Bombay Natural History Society, is still advocating for the protection of tigers in the Western Ghats of Goa. The Ghats cover 600 sq. km. on the coastal state’s eastern side and include the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, Bhagwan Mahavir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary and Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary.

Western Ghats is a 1,600-km long continuous range of hills passing through six states, including Goa. Photo by Vivekanand Environment Awareness Brigade, Keri, Sattari.

Richard D’Souza, the former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests who played a crucial role in designating Mhadei and Netravali as wildlife sanctuaries in the late 1990s, had contemplated the possibility of declaring the area a tiger reserve. But decided to steer clear due to the complexitie, such as resistance from the industries and certain sections of the government. He, however, regrets this oversight on days when he hears news of tiger deaths, he tells Mongabay India. In 2020, a tigress and three young adults were found dead in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary. A probe by wildlife and forest officials from Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa revealed that the deaths were due to poisoning. A report authored by a member of the investigating team, Rajendra G. Garawad, Assistant Inspector General of Forests, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Bengaluru, reiterates its recommendation of “enhancing the legal status of Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary to that of a tiger reserve.”

“Declaring the sanctuary as tiger reserve will provide it much needed access to technical, financial and monitoring support from NTCA for safeguarding the conservation values of the sanctuary. It will also empower the local communities residing inside the sanctuary by giving access to development opportunities as they will be able to utilise voluntary resettlement scheme for joining the mainstream society,” it states.

Goa, an important tiger corridor

Tiger reserves are designated habitats for the conservation of tigers and their prey base. Under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, a tiger reserve is legally mandated to designate a critical core area over which human habitation and resource extraction is not permitted. This area is encircled by a buffer zone that permits multiple human activities which give precedence to conservation objectives.

Over the years, tigers have been spotted in the Goa part of Western Ghats. In 2022, the forest department recorded six tiger sightings in Goa. While it isn’t confirmed how many resident tigers are there in this area – and that is now a politically contentious issue – it is certain it is an important corridor area for the movement of tigers. Once it is converted into a tiger reserve, it could lead to rise in tiger population and creating a conducive environment for breeding. Declaring a tiger reserve will also prevent human encroachment, disallow red category industry operation and provide access to national and international funding for the upkeep of the tiger habitat. According to Kerkar, there is no minimum base population required to declare an area as a tiger reserve. He says even without the presence of any wildcat, a region can be marked as a tiger reserve if it can serve as a natural habitat, with sufficient prey base, for tigers.

However, politically there isn’t an agreement with the environmentalists’ demand. Vishwajit Rane, who currently holds the state’s portfolio for forest ministry along with four other ministries, in 2022, shot down the demand for Mhadei to be declared as tiger reserve, claiming tigers spotted on the Goa side of the Western Ghats were not resident tigers.

Rajiv Gupta, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Goa Forest Department, told Mongabay India that their department was studying whether the exercise for creation of a tiger reserve was worth undertaking. “If they [tigers] are only migratory, it’s doesn’t make sense to have a tiger reserve. A sanctuary, a national park or a tiger reserve have the same level of protection. With a tiger reserve, only monitoring is improved because the Central Government will be directly involved and it will also attract better funds,” he says.

One of the watering holes in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary frequently visited by tigers, cattle of settlers in the area and other creatures in the forest. According to National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the once contiguous population of Indian tigers is now scattered with source population contained in tiger reserves. Photo from Vivekanand Environment Awareness Brigade, Keri, Sattari.
One of the watering holes in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary frequently visited by tigers, cattle of settlers in the area and other creatures in the forest. According to National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the once contiguous population of Indian tigers is now scattered with source population contained in tiger reserves. Photo from Vivekanand Environment Awareness Brigade, Keri, Sattari.

Bureaucratic delays

The effort to develop a tiger reserve in Mhadei region began in earnest in 2011 when Jairam Ramesh, who, as the then Minister for Environment, Forest, and Climate Change and the NTCA Chairperson, wrote to the then Goa Chief Minister Digambar Kamat to submit a proposal. Next year, the Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan reasserted the Centre’s intent to create a tiger reserve in Goa.

These overtures from the Centre did not elicit the desired response from successive state governments, who either opposed or ignored it. Pratap Singh Rane, as the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly in 2011, attempted to denotify the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary claiming it was done without proper procedure and public consultation. His son, the then Health Minister Vishwajit Rane, also challenged the 1999 declaration of Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in the Bombay High Court at Goa.

The process of notification of the wildlife sanctuaries (before they are upgraded to tiger reserves) is still pending at the first step of settling the claims of human settlement under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. As per the Indian Forest Act, 1927, once the notification under Section 4 is issued, the state government has to appoint a forest settlement officer (FSO) to look into the land rights of people dwelling within the identified boundaries of the proposed reserve forest. “Normally, the FSO is not from the forest department. They are appointed from the revenue department as there may be many people claiming rights on illegal encroachments,” says D’Souza.

While the state government has appointed a Revenue Officer cum Collector (ROC) as prescribed under the Act, not much progress has been made on forest rights claims till date. The relocation and rehabilitation of the people is part of the process and is still underway. And until the reserve forest is free of human settlements, its boundaries cannot be demarcated and digitised for final notification of wildlife sanctuary or its enhancement to tiger reserve.

According to Status of Tigers 2022 report by the NTCA, the tiger population in the Western Ghats, has shrunk to 824 unique tiger individuals, down from 981 in 2018. This decline is in contrast to the national level increase to 3080 tigers from 2461, during the same period.  While tiger populations within protected areas have either remained stable or increased, tiger occupancy outside of these regions has significantly decreased, notes the report. The border areas of Goa and Karnataka is one region where tiger occupancy has decreased.

In 2020, the NGO Goa Foundation approached the Bombay High Court at Goa for notification of a tiger reserve in the state.  The petition, filed by the NGO, sought the court to direct the state to act on NTCA’s order to set up a tiger reserve in Goa.  The petition still remains in court.

One of the tigers captured on a camera trap in Sattari area of Goa. For long, environment activists have asserted the existence of tigers on the Goa side of the Western Ghats and have advocated for a tiger reserve to be established in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo by Vivekanand Environment Awareness Brigade, Keri, Sattari.

Kerkar suggests that irrespective of the forest rights claims being settled, the state government should proceed with delineating areas which have no forest rights under section 26A of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, along with four villages—Anjunem, Gullem, Kelawade and Ponsule—where people have already been rehabilitated due to the Anjunem dam and two more villages—Zadani and Pendral— which have zero rights settlement. “The government can start with these areas. It will not be more than 100 sq. km. The remaining areas can be added after the forest rights claims are settled,” he advises.

D’Souza, on the other hand, suggests a more cohesive area be demarcated as tiger reserve. “The core areas of Mhadei, Netravali and Mahavir wildlife sanctuaries can be put together as the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve; why only Mhadei? Tigers are everywhere [across the Western Ghats],” he says.

Saurabh Kumar, Chief Conservator of Forests (Administration, Wildlife and Ecotourism), Goa Forest Department, admits there is a need to expedite the forest rights claims settlements to speed up the final notification of the two wildlife sanctuaries set up in 1999, and thereafter declaration of a tiger reserve in the region. He informs that more than 50% of the claims are almost settled and the remaining 50% are held up because of the extensive scrutiny required to clear them.

Read more: Why are Idu Mishmis resisting a proposed tiger reserve in Dibang Valley?


Banner image: A tiger photo-captured by a camera trap in Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary. With inadequate monitoring of tiger movements and other activities in the region, five tiger deaths have occurred in the area over last one decade, prompting environmentalists to reiterate their demand for tiger reserve. Photo from Vivekanand Environment Awareness Brigade, Keri, Sattari.

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