Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve - a blip on the map that evokes a thousand stories of India’s famed wildlife, a park that has achieved international significance as the capital town of wildlife sightings of India. A park that has emerged as one of India’s favourite tourist destination with hordes of people thronging its gates at Moharli, Khutwanda, Junona, Dewada, Agarzari, Madnapur, Pangdi, Zari and Kolara.
With more than 125 Gypsy vehicles entering this 1700 sq km verdant landscape of undulating hills and vast grasslands, just south of the large central Indian town of Nagpur, tourism has brought Tadoba into an unprecedented limelight of international significance.
And so, inadvertently, change has come as well. With hundreds of tourists visiting daily and much of the economy increasingly dependent upon this source of economy, tourism has come to stamp its authority on all aspects of life in Tadoba. With it has come a lot of good and a few bad things too.
About 25 resorts and more than 50 home stays have brought sorely-needed resources to the western portion of the park. Almost all families have at least one member, who works in some capacity in one of the many resorts, that adorn the park like a garland. The seasonal stress due to lack of good agricultural produce has reduced. Even firewood collection has reduced, as a result of the recently launched Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Jan Van Yojana, which has attempted to divert pressure from the forest by providing alternative livelihoods, erecting solar fencing for croplands and providing LPG gas connections to families living in border villages. With the change has come the awareness that real benefit to the local population lies in the protection of the forest.
However, there are negative developments as well, especially with regards to the steady erosion of the local culture which is being replaced by the homogeneity imposed by the tourists. Main languages have come to dominate most of the discourse and local languages such as Gondi have become marginalised.
Waste management has become a serious issue, and one look at Moharli village, makes one quickly cover one’s nose. The proliferating stay options incorporate minimal planning and most of the waste ends up stagnating, just beyond the view of the tourist. As a local researcher mentioned, Moharli looks like 'an oversized mela at night' with little compunctions about maintaining its old culture.
Above all, tourism has led to a magnified importance of money and the cash economy. Guides, shopkeepers and local home stay owners are often oriented towards earning as much as possible without caring for the prescribed rules of the forest. Currently, tourism in Tadoba looks like the proverbial double-edged sword which has the potential to cut the arm that holds it.
But Tadoba’s problems are manifold, and improperly managed tourism that pays only the barest minimum lip service to the principles of ecotourism, is only one of the problems the reserve faces. The bigger threats lie outside the public eye and have started to silently gnaw at the reserve from all sides, as vigorously as an insatiable virus does to a human body.
Roads rank high in this list of woes, with widening undertaken at many places and new projects being planned almost on a daily basis. A look at the map of Tadoba will clearly show that the reserve is being boxed in a road-construction rectangle that will essentially reduce the landscape into an island. The projects on Naghbid-Mul road on the east, the Hinganghat-Mul road to the north and east, Chandrapur-Allapalli road to the west and south will effectively do what years of poaching and deforestation could not do -- they will effectively cut all the corridors and leave the ‘inmates’ of Tadoba to serve out rest of the time in a giant zoo.
The reserve, which at the time of its creation was the third such wildlife sanctuary created in the year 1955 and became a critical tiger habitat in the year 1993, faces yet another threat. Coal mining, which is considered absolutely necessary for the country’s growth, has run into a hurdle at Tadoba. Here, pitched against each other are activists, who are fighting tooth and nail to protect the forests, and mining lobbies, the latter having managed to divert more than 2500 hectares of nearby forest land in the last 15 years and continuously seeking to divert more land.
These mines have irrevocably damaged corridors to the south and south-east of the reserve which previously connected the local population to Bor, Indravati, Navegaon-Nagzira and Chaprala forests. On a lighter note, an activist noted that the tigers of Tadoba could be the first tigers in the country who may suffer from asthma and other lung-related diseases in the future.
While the forest department has managed to reduce anthropogenic pressures on the forests and has been attempting to relocate villages inside the forest, it remains to be seen how much of its voice will be heard.
An open cast mine just a kilometre away from the Padmapur gate
The super thermal power plant about 5 kilometres away from the village
With most of Tadoba having a healthy prey base, cases of tiger-man conflicts are relatively less as opposed to other parks in the vicinity. This factor itself adds to the rather strange problem of tigers spilling over to the nearby reserve forests and farmlands. As more areas get cut off by mines and roads, tigers will seek to venture in search of abundant prey. As is visible in other parts of the country, this will in all likelihood lead to increasing conflicts with mankind.
Each news about a farmer killed by a leopard or a tiger adds up to a feeling of disquiet which often manifests in violent revenge killings that are often accompanied by celebratory recording of such events. With a large number of tigers living outside core tiger habitats in Maharashtra and other tiger states, these statistics could see a spike in the future, especially as more and more tigers spill out of the inviolate tiger reserves.
The great forests of Tadoba, which were once ruled by the Gond Rajas of Chandrapur and which got its name from the tribal god Tadu, who fought against a tiger, is currently fighting another war – that of its very own survival. As each day passes and the threats loom closer, it remains to be seen whether the gods and the forests have the resilience to stand up to their mortal enemy manifested in many forms - as mankind, as road, mines and power projects -- and if Tadoba survives into the next century as the tiger capital of India.
Written By Kunal Sharma
(The views expressed here are those of the writer, who is an environmentalist, having formerly worked as manager with Jungle Lodges and currently is a technical expert with GIZ. All the pictures are from the author. Kunal blogs at http://livingforest.blogspot.com/)