Tale of Mhadei and Ratapani Sanctuaries

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Tigers

On July 24, the Goa bench of Bombay High Court took the help of an ancient Indian epic Mahabharata to explain  the state government the importance of  the tiger . “If there is no forest, then the tiger gets killed; if there is no tiger, then the forest gets destroyed. Hence, the tiger protects the forest, and the forest guards the tiger!” The court cited the epic  while directing the government to notify the 208 sq. km Mhadei wildlife sanctuary and its surrounding areas as a tiger reserve, and issue a notification within three months.  But the state government of this popular tourist destination has decided to challenge it in the Supreme Court. Over 1200 kms away from Goa, Ratapani sanctuary  in Madhya Pradesh has been awaiting  tiger reserve status for the last one and half decade.  In 2022, six tigers were recorded in Goa, an important tiger corridor in the Western Ghats where the big cat numbers are on decline. Against the six tigers in Goa, there are more than 45 in Ratapani, a source population for over 10 urban tigers of Bhopal, still the BJP government has refused to recognize the issue . Do we also need a High Court prod to shake the government ?

Saving Tigers in Western Ghats means protecting the Mountains

Tiger in Western ghat

Mhadei along with  Bhagwan Mahavir national park, Netravali and Cotigao wildlife sanctuaries lie in the 600 sq km  stretch of  the Western Ghats  on Goa’s eastern coast. A UNESCO World Heritage Site , the Western Ghats is a mountain range that covers an area of 160,000  sq km traversing the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. A public interest litigation  was filed by Goa Foundation, a local NGO in the Goa bench of Bombay high court after tiger poisoning- one each a tiger and tigress and two cubs- in January 2020.  The tiger claws were also missing indicating poaching.    According to the Status of Tigers 2022 report by the National  Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the tiger population in the Western Ghats has shrunk to 824, down from 981 in 2018. This decline is in contrast to the national level increase to 3080 tigers from 2461, during the same period.  

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After almost two and half years of  trial, on July 24, the Goa bench of the Court  directed the state to designate the 208 sq km Mhadei and its surrounding areas as a tiger reserve. It also set a deadline of  three months to  implement the order.  In the times when the world is facing the fury of global warming and its consequences of climate change, the  court tried to convince the Goa government with a Sanskrit verse from  Mahabharata, a famous Indian epic. “If there is no forest, then the tiger gets killed; if there is no tiger, then the forest gets destroyed. Hence, the tiger protects the forest, and the forest guards the tiger!”  When the forests are protected, one more line can be added, they give us water and fresh air. But it did not seem to work. And the state doesn’t seem to understand the significance of the forests at a time when India intends to cover  33 % of its geographical area with  forest cover.  

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In the 94-page order, the High Court passed several directions. The court also directed the state government to take all steps to prepare a tiger conservation plan as contemplated by the Wildlife Protection Act, and to forward it to the NTCA within three months from notifying the Mhadei sanctuary and other areas as a tiger reserve. The bench went on to direct the state government to set up anti-poaching camps at strategic locations, to be staffed by forest guards, watchers, etc., in the wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in the state of Goa, and said this must be completed within six months and also to settle the rights and claims of the Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers “preferably within 12 months from the day the HC issued directives.  But Goa’s forest minister Vishwajit  Rane said  the matter would be taken to the Supreme Court.

Why Ratapani in Madhya Pradesh Should be a Tiger Reserve

Urban tiger of Bhopal

Tiger population of Ratapani is unique. Tigers dispersing from Ratapani have been knocking the doors of Bhopal city. Their biological details do not match either to the tigers of Kanha national park or those found in the Pench tiger reserve. This has also been proved in the laboratory of the National Centre for Biological Science,  forest department sources said. There is  also no movement of tigers from Satpura tiger reserve  of the state to Ratapani wildlife Sanctuary. As the tigers jostled for space in Ratapani, they dispersed. Ratapani- Bhopal is an old tiger corridor used by the big cats for ages. But as the state capital expands, people started noticing the tigers in the city.  Ten of them have become resident tigers of Bhopal’s tiger landscape spread over a vast swathe of  about sq 200 km forest.  “  Ratapani  sanctuary  to Kerwa   dam  in Bhopal  is a  200 sq kms of forest area. We need to develop it further and maintain the forest corridor for the dispersing tigers of Ratapani”, an IFS officer explains.  

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 From Ratapani, the tigers move out towards Kheoni sanctuary in Dewas, a distance of  over 200 kms,   and while doing so they cross  Bhopal”,  those monitoring the big cats said. And with the availability of water and  stray cattle, 10  tigers have  started liking the city environs. Dotted with educational institutions and residential colonies, the tigers are spotted regularly in the region . The state forest department calls them Urban Tigers. But the tiger population is handled by the territorial forest officers and not those in the  wildlife wing of the department. “ We need to manage Ratapani  sanctuary by making it a tiger reserve  to manage Bhopal’s tiger population”, said an officer , “ but  the  government is not taking the issue seriously as it is linked with  notifying Ratapani as a tiger reserve”, officials claimed. 

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Sitting in the lap of Vindhya hills, Ratapani is a hidden jewel. Besides 40 plus tigers, it has an added attraction of Bhimbetka rock shelters, a world heritage site nestled in the lush green  teak forests  of the sanctuary.  It is mainly due to population pressure in this area and impact on business activities like mining that the chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has not shown interest in upgrading the status of the sanctuary. After continuing pressure, the chief minister  in January 2022 had asked the state forest minister to  hold consultations and mobilize the support of the people’s representatives of Sehore and Raisen districts where the 825 sq km Ratapani sanctuary is spread. It is located barely 50 kms away from Bhopal and could be a great tourist attraction. But the government has failed to exploit its potential. “The CM’s statement on consultation of the people’s representatives was an eyewash to postpone the issue ”, said a senior IFS officer in Bhopal, “ as one of the  people’s representatives happens to be CM himself.”   He represents the Budhni assembly segment of Sehore which is very close to Ratapani.”   A senior member of the NTCA said, “ Like in Goa, politicians in MP are interested more in votes and less in conservation . And  the tiger doesn’t vote.”  

By Deshdeep Saxena

Representative Image  by By Sudhir Shivaram from MP Tourism  corporation tweet,  Tiger in a degraded forest patch  of Western ghats by NTCA and Urban tigers of Bhopal  

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