A story of people at the forefront of wildlife conservation in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, India

India is a human-wildlife conflict hotspot in which an estimated 50 percent of the global wild tiger population exists in only 11 percent of the globally available tiger habitat. Between 2010 and 2015, up to 108,853 human–wildlife conflict incidents occurred in India.
Contrary to popular perception, wildlife is not limited to national parks and sanctuaries; it knows no human-drawn boundaries. Almost 30 percent of India's tiger population resides outside tiger reserves. Meanwhile, between 1975 and 1998, the number of national parks in India increased from 5 to 85, and the number of wildlife sanctuaries rose from 126 to 448. Five percent of the country's land surface is currently protected, and most of this land is located in areas of dense human population. Thus, areas that are set aside as parks frequently contain settlements.[1]
For those who live within or on the borders of these parks and reserves, where the habitats of humans and wildlife often overlap, human–wildlife conflict (HWC) is a persistent challenge that colors every area of life.
This three-part documentary project explores the issue of human–wildlife conflict in one such area: the community within and surrounding the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, which has experienced a resurgence in its tiger population over the last few years. The documentary examines three key aspects of this conflict through the story of different stakeholders at the forefront of wildlife conservation in the region. The first part looks at the relocation of tribal communities, a frequent consequence of forest management in India. The second part discusses how local communities become involved to create sustainable conservation initiatives. Finally, the third part focuses on a group of highly trained forest officials whose job is to mitigate conflict, reduce friction, and protect India's national animal.
Deep inside the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve lies the village of Palasgaon. Home to 160-odd families, Palasgaon is one of the last communities remaining in the core zone of the tiger reserve. "I have lost count how many generations have lived here before us," says Jayandra Kulmethe, the head of the village relocation committee. Jayandra is leading the negotiations with various government departments to ensure a smooth transition to their new home just outside the town of Warora, some 30 kilometers west of their traditional jungle abode.
Located in the Indian state of Maharashtra, Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve is the state's oldest and largest national park. Created in 1995, the reserve includes the Tadoba National Park and the Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary and consists of 577.96 square kilometers (223.15 square miles) of reserved forest and 32.51 square kilometers (12.55 square miles) of protected forest.
While tigers were once widespread, the global population dropped to an all-time low of just 3,200 in 2010. With protection measures, the number of tigers is slowly recovering. In India, the population of tigers has more than doubled in the past 12 years, reaching 2,967 in 2018. Likewise, the tiger population in Tadoba has grown significantly over the last four years, from 42 in 2014 to 88 in 2018.[2]
However, such recoveries bring with them increased conflict. An adult male tiger needs around 55–60 square kilometers of area while a female tiger needs around 35-40 square kilometers. As the population of tigers grows, they have to fight for prey and territory, and some inevitably move out in search of new territories or food, coming into contact with humans. Livestock makes for easy prey, and these tigers sometimes target these animals or even humans for food. An article from The Guardian states that 1,144 people were killed in human–wildlife conflict events in India between April 2014 and May 2017. Moreover, approximately one person has been killed on average every day for the past three years by roaming tigers or rampaging elephants. And it goes both ways: In the first five months of 2019, 51 tigers died in India. After Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra state recorded the highest number of tiger deaths in 2019.

India is home to more than half of wild tigers in the world, with an estimated population of more than 80 tigers in the Tadoba region.

In 2018, Sadanand and 12 others ventured into the jungle to collect bamboo like any other day. He was attacked by a sloth bear and lost a major chunk of his left arm.

Human–wildlife conflict depletes local support for conservation and results in the retaliatory killing of wildlife. Thus, unmitigated conflict presents a genuine, perceivable threat to the long-term survival of any species. Though the need for HWC mitigation is well-established, several factors make it incredibly complicated, especially within a conservation setting. Lethal elimination of problem wildlife is no longer a desirable option, while mitigation measures without a comprehensive understanding of species behaviors and human social factors often fail, and in some cases, even increase the level of conflict. Because of this, resettling communities within parks to outside the protected area is a common solution to the problem.[3]

Portrait of a family in the village of Palasgaon, in the core zone of Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. The village has been relocated as of July 2019.

Interactions with the inhabitants of Palasgaon revealed that they are generally not opposed to the idea of relocating, and in fact, many actively want to relocate. In the case of Tadoba, regulations under the Wild Life (Protection) Act (1972) are currently enforced, and villagers experience severe restrictions on their rights to collect minor forest products, grow crops, and graze their livestock. Consequently, the villagers are viewed as encroachers on their land. Moreover, due to their remote locations, none of these villages have ever received substantial development assistance. Therefore, they lack access to all-weather roads, and thus, access to markets, schools beyond fourth grade, and healthcare facilities.[4]
Jayandra is resolute that he does not want to see his children grow up isolated from educational opportunities like he did.
Similarly, the main reason why many of the villagers want to relocate is the bleak future associated with living within an extremely remote protected area. The desire to shift is also fueled by the fact that some villagers, by exceptional means, managed to receive education outside the tiger reserve, and have seen the outside world and the potential development opportunities that it holds.
“The forest department gave us land for houses and farms but that’s not enough, we need education and irrigation facilities to sustain ourselves.”- Shankar Meshram. Shankar, is a resident of Jamini Village which was relocated in 2014.
“The forest department gave us land for houses and farms but that’s not enough, we need education and irrigation facilities to sustain ourselves.”- Shankar Meshram. Shankar, is a resident of Jamini Village which was relocated in 2014.
“The forest department gave us land for houses and farms but that’s not enough, we need education and irrigation facilities to sustain ourselves.”- Shankar Meshram. Shankar, is a resident of Jamini Village which was relocated in 2014.
“The forest department gave us land for houses and farms but that’s not enough, we need education and irrigation facilities to sustain ourselves.”- Shankar Meshram. Shankar, is a resident of Jamini Village which was relocated in 2014.
In India, where wildlife coexists with some of the densest human populations in the world, most forested areas are found in human-dominated landscapes.
For this reason, HWC needs to be managed in a way that strikes a balance between being publicly acceptable and not jeopardizing wildlife conservation goals. By the early 1990s, awareness of these problems led to a change in policies, with an increasing emphasis on involving local communities with forest management through community forestry and co-management initiatives.[5][6]
Tourism is one of the areas where the links between people, the economy, and the environment are clearly visible. The Tadoba forest department has been hiring locals as guides and drivers, which has changed people’s perspective towards conservation. Pictured above is a group of guides playing cards during their down time.
One of the initiatives is a bamboo workshop founded by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). The idea was to create jobs, reduce incidents of human–wildlife conflict, and reduce dependence on forest resources. The workshop employs people from the local community who have been trained to produce household and decorative items from bamboo that can be sold in local tourist resorts. 
Before the bamboo workshop was set up, villagers would illegally procure bamboo from the forest. Not only did this contribute to deforestation, but it also put them at risk of conflict with wildlife. Now, all bamboo used in the workshop is sourced legally and sustainably.
"We realized we could develop a workable model around bamboo to encourage locals to support conservation. Through this initiative, we are helping to develop an understanding of bamboo as a subject and convincing rural and tribal communities to adopt bamboo for better livelihood opportunities."
— Sanjay Karkare, Assistant Director, BNHS
In India, there are currently 50 tiger reserves covering 2.08 percent of the land area. These reserves are managed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). Based on a recommendation by the NTCA, a Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF) was set up in 2011 with the sole focus of mitigating conflict, curbing down poaching, and reducing trafficking.
Range Forest Officer Manisha Jadhav has a descriptive way of putting her job. "The foot of the foresters are like fertilizers for the jungle. Our presence helps the tiger population to flourish, thus developing the entire ecosystem,” she explains. She goes on to emphasize the need to hire locals in the force, saying they "understand the jungle like the back of their hands." Due to increasing cases of wildlife encroaching into surrounding villages, the force is also trained to capture, tranquilize, and relocate the problem wildlife back to protected areas. Sometimes, managing an agitated crowd bent on killing a problem animal is as important a skill as undertaking anti-poaching measures in the park.

A rescued Langur at Nagpur’s wildlife rescue transit center.

Without groups like the STPF, these conflicts often result in severe injury or death for the animals. To treat the injured animals promptly, the Forest Department set up a transit rescue center in Nagpur city which facilitates the rehabilitation process of wild animals into the wild.
The first of its kind in India, the center was the brainchild of honorary wildlife warden, Mr. Kundan Hate, and rescues injured animals and birds and provides timely treatment to them.The center is equipped with x-ray machines, operation theatres, cages, and open spaces for treated animals. Mr. Hate explains, "The center has an advantage as animals will be released immediately as they are declared fit by the doctors. Often the release of animals, especially scheduled animals, gets delayed due to red tape protocols." He adds that if animals are kept in captivity for a long time post-treatment, they face issues adjusting to life back in the wild.
According to an STPF jawan, their strength is in numbers. "We patrol the forests in big groups,” she says. “We can take on a large group that is doing illegal activity inside forests and ensure the safety of wildlife animals from poachers."
For these guards, life at its worst means dodging a forest fire only to fall into the mouth of a tiger. And if a wild animal doesn't maul you first, there is always the threat of disease looming in the jungles.

A portrait of a beat guard during his daily patrol.

Forest guards in India are poorly paid, under-trained, and do extremely dangerous jobs in some of the most hostile environments. They are responsible for protecting large swathes of forest land, with each guard covering anywhere between 500 to 1,000 hectares. It’s a challenging task. "Even if he walks a month, he cannot cover such a beat," District Forest Officer Nanasaheb Ladkat says of the guards. Forest guards spend weeks, sometimes months away from their families in shelters that often lack basic amenities like power and drinking water.
In the face of menacing threats, the training and equipment given to the frontline staff seem woefully inadequate. Over the years, poaching has become a heavily militarized activity, and conservation techniques have evolved. But very little has been done to help forest guards keep pace with changing realities.
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