Tipeshwar is a small wildlife sanctuary just across the Telangana border along NH-7, about 20 km north of Adilabad towards Nagpur. It has had a great success in providing a sanctuary to about a dozen of India’s beleaguered tigers. It is a typical Deccan deciduous teak forest with a good population of deer, antelopes, bear, hyena, langur and animals typical of such forests. The Maharashtra forest department has done a great job of conservation and protecting this forest. Today it is popular with day visitors from Nagpur and increasingly from Hyderabad, who revel in seeing tigers. I have a friend in Adilabad who visits Tipeshwar a few times every week.
The king of Tipeshwar is a young full grown male tiger called Star Male because of the characteristic star on his forehead, which seems to give him a perpetual scowl. Others call it a smile. Tipeshwar is a small tiger reserve, and measures just about 148 sq km. Imagine a small patch that will be no bigger than the cantonment area of Secunderabad or the newer part of Gurgaon. A good part of the forest is planted teak, which can be noticed by the neat straight lines, somewhat like the hair on Virender Sehwag’s head. The Maharashtra forest department began nursing this forest in the late 1990s and the forest you see today is the fruit of those efforts. Soon the forest started receiving migrating tigers from Tadoba, about 60 km away. Its population numbers a dozen now. One big male and three females with eight cubs — four each of male and female — in various stages of growth. This is where the problem begins.
Tigers are extremely territorial, so they will fight other animals and even other tigers that invade their space. This problem has become more of an issue due to the reduction of their natural environment. A male may have a territory of up to 60-100 sq km, while females up to 20 sq km, but these numbers vary according to the habitat and the sub-species. As a result of territory reduction, their areas overlap, as they have to venture into new zones to find food. Tipeshwar is full. There is no buffer forest. So young adults are forced to migrate.
If they migrate westwards, they enter open fields where there is no prey base and are forced to live on domestic livestock, beginning a cycle of man-animal conflicts. They then evolve into man-eaters. The Yavatmal pair of man-eaters are Tipeshwar tigers forced out of their natural habitat. When these tigers turn man-eaters, the forest department turns to so-called “professional shikaris” — like that purported Nawab from Hyderabad, who arrive with four-wheel drive vehicles, powerful spotlights and high-powered rifles. It’s no contest — and ends mostly with a cowardly night shoot. Like a police encounter. Why do you need a so-called shikari in the first place? One hears of high fees changing hands more than once. I am told the Yavatmal man-eater’s bounty is in the upper seven-figure range.
If the tigers migrate eastwards or northwards, they will be pushed by habitations towards Tadoba, which is not an easy passage as it would mean crossing two multi-lane national highways with heavy traffic, day and night. To go southeastwards is more inviting. After crossing the easily fordable Penganga, they enter the Adilabad forests in Telangana and the Kawal Tiger Reserve. Telangana is a very unfriendly place for tigers. The Adilabad jungles used to teem with tigers. Last year Kawal reported two tigers after many years, but they were poached. No sooner migrants are reported they are poached. Tigers are a nuisance to the nexus between politicians, timber smugglers and forest officials. They attract attention from nettlesome NGOs, wildlife lovers, resort hoteliers and naturalists. Tigers need privacy, deep forests and a thriving prey base of deer and antelopes, and wild boar. Once a tiger enters a forest and gets noticed by the outside world, poaching gets affected. Adilabad is the home district of the Telangana forests minister — who is reputed to have an abiding interest in timber.
Farmers electrify their fences to kill wild animals before they attack their crops. Often tigers are caught in these and die. Such deaths are quickly hushed up as they invite the attention of the police and the forest department, both of which are harmful for health and wealth.
Even Naxalites don’t like tigers. Recently, Naxalites were caught on camera breaking a tiger-trap camera. What happened was that out of the two cameras alongside the trail, one was with a flash. When the Naxalite dalam passed, the flash was triggered and the Naxalites realised that they were on film. They then smashed the camera and took out the memory drive. This action was caught by the other camera, which silently went about its business. Naxalites hate tigers as they drive away timber poachers, and timber poachers are a vital source of cash to finance the liberation war.
Two tigers have now been noticed with wire snares still wrapped around them. There is one reported near Chennur in Telangana with a steel wire wrapped around its belly, and the young male with a steel wire around its neck has recently re-entered Tipeshwar. It will soon catch the attention of the Star Male. Before that happens, the forest department has a job to do. It has to tranquilise the big cat and free it from the steel noose, to give it a fighting chance of survival.
Of late, even Tadoba tigers are spilling over in Telangana, where they have to run the gauntlet like the Tipeshwar tigers. To survive, the Telangana tigers need friends in high places. In Telangana, this means the chief minister and his two children. Sadly, in Adilabad, they say the government is not interested in what’s in the forest, so much as what is below the forest, and what comes out of it.