In April this year, forest guards, on their daily beat, heard loud growls of a tiger in the buffer region of Tadoba Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. Much to their horror they found not one, but two tigers trapped in iron jaws. One was dead and the other one had seriously injured one of his limbs trapped in the snare. He was rescued and sent to Nagpur for further treatment.
Forest officials also found several other traps around water holes. Accidentally, one of the forest guards got trapped in a jaw trap. He was saved by his boots or else he would have lost his leg.
The officials have not yet forgotten the sequence of events of the day that led to a major change in the reserves’ top leadership. Recalling the events of the fateful day, a senior forest official says, “It was shocking. Two victims of poaching in one night in a frequently patrolled region meant that some heads would roll. It was clear that poachers were involved.”
Meandering through the dusty roads in the periphery of the reserve, the officer adds that poachers, especially Bawariyas and Baheliyas, from the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh camped in the outskirts of the reserve. Poachers in the past have often wreaked havoc in the reserve and killed several tigers to feed the monstrous demand for tiger parts.
The news spread like wildfire and soon Tadoba became a hotspot for tiger politics in Maharashtra. Raj Thackeray visited the spot and pointed fingers at locals for assisting poachers. The principal secretary of forests of Maharashtra claimed that poachers had been paid Rs 40 lakhs for 25 tiger skins.
Recently, the forest department had made some arrests and claimed that the traps had been laid by the locals who wanted to kill herbivores for their meat. Interestingly, the traps had been left by a gang of poachers who had camped in the forests a few years back. Locals then concealed these traps and used them often to catch deer and wild boars.
According to the official, the villagers were preparing for a feast and decided to lay traps to catch deer. In one such conversation, a forest officer makes a shocking revelation and murmurs about a new threat that has put tigers at risk. He claims that certain high profile Delhi-based NGOs are abetting a demand for tiger parts.
According to him, NGOs are luring villagers with cash rewards if they provide them tiger parts.“We are keeping a close eye on certain individuals who are tempting villagers with cash. These NGOs want to establish that there is still poaching happening in the reserve to get foreign aid. These NGOs get Rs.1 crore from their foreign donors whenever they assist in making a seizure. And for this, villagers are sometimes paid in lakhs.”
He named a prominent tiger expert of a Delhi based NGO who he suspects is enticing villagers. “These people are well-connected so it’s hard for us to talk about them. Media should raise these issues but they too are sceptical of naming these giants of tiger conservation.”
Coincidentally, a few weeks before a sting operation aimed to nab poachers and middleman in Corbett National Park had brought to light how NGOs are posing as buyers to lure poor villagers into poaching.
In August, an operative of a prominent NGO came in contact with a person who wanted to sell a fresh tiger skin. The operative swung into action and decided to apprehend the poacher with the help of an enforcement agency.
The deal was struck and a team along with the operative went to collect the skin. As soon as they reached the spot they were shocked to see the Corbett Warden waiting for them. The warden had come to arrest the operative who he thought was a middleman. The team was then taken to another location and it was revealed that the man who had offered to sell the skin was a mole of the forest department. The whole sting operation turned into a sham, but it exposed how NGOs are getting involved in creating a demand by posing as buyers.
A senior official of the WCCB had earlier mentioned that they have recordings of a telephonic conversation of a high-profile conservationist pressurising field operatives to obtain tiger parts by any means. The official had then mentioned, “This is a disturbing trend as poor villagers might get tempted to kill a tiger for wards of cash. While the NGO would get funds from their foreign donors, these poor villagers might end up in jail if they are caught by the enforcement agencies.”
The trend is disturbing and certainly paints a grim picture of the future of tiger conservation. It also reflects poorly on NGOs who are facilitating such demand and putting lives of tigers at stakes.