KOLKATA: Controversy seems to have become synonymous with North Bengal’s Buxa Tiger Reserve (BTR). Close on the heels of a row over whether there are any tigers left in the park, camera traps laid deep in the forest have captured movement of poachers with firearms inside the core areas.
Activists are not ruling out the presence of militants from northeast in the park, especially after chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s statements last December terming refugees from Assam as guests of Bengal. What’s more, they fear that presence of poachers might derail the Centre’s ambitious plan to develop Buxa’s tiger habitat before relocating big cats here on the lines of Rajasthan’s Sariska and Madhya Pradesh’s Panna.
While human disturbance is nothing new in the North Bengal reserves the first time there is photographic evidence of it.
One of the photographs, though hazy, captures an outsider clad in pair of jeans and carrying a rifle (circled in picture) in a densely forested area. Sources say the photo was snapped in a forest in the Jayanti range.
Several other photographs show villagers, mostly tribals, prowling the forest with bows, arrows and daggers. Two of the photographs capture villagers cutting trees inside the forest and removing the logs.
“If Buxa, being a tiger reserve, is not safe, then what about the other sanctuaries in North Bengal?” asked Amal Dutta of Alipurduars Nature Club. The fear is not unfounded. A rhino was poached in Gorumara in October 2014 — a first in 22 years. The situation is grim in Buxa and Jaldapara, too. At least six elephants have been poached in North Bengal, including four in Buxa, in three years. Six rhinos have been killed in Jaldapara in eight months.
Activists blame the department’s staff shortage — there are 1,600 forest guards instead of 2,444. Buxa officials refuse to give out details but admit there is a crisis. “The situation is all the more difficult because some guards have retired and some are on the verge of it. A recruitment drive will start soon,” said field director of BTR Sandeep Sundriyal.
Buxa has only 50-60 forest guards instead of the sanctioned 160, say officials. “Each beat office is supposed to have four guards and eight in each range office. Besides, forests guards are needed for patrolling and rescue,” said a source.
Chief wildlife warden Azam Zaidi has admitted that a photograph of an armed poacher moving inside Buxa was found “some time back”. “But, no such photograph was clicked recently. Plans are on to recruit more staff to strengthen security,” he added.
The recent recovery of a clouded leopard skin in Jalpaiguri’s Belakoba only points to the fact that poaching is on the rise in North Bengal. “The clouded leopard is found only in Buxa and Neora Valley. The incident indicates that none of these forests is safe. Apart from consuming deer meat, the tribals here sometimes kill leopards and eat their flesh too,” said Dutta.
“It cannot be disputed that poachers are striking in what we believe are the best protected areas. There have also been recent cases of poaching and poisoning of wildlife, including rhino and elephant, in North Bengal. There is an urgent need to step up protection and strengthen the frontline forest force, as well as tackle wildlife crime,” said conservationist and former member of National Board for Wildlife Prerna Bindra.
Principal secretary, forest, Chandan Sinha said he was not aware on any such photograph. “Recently, the Assam government has enforced stringent rules to check poaching. Following this, we believe poachers from northeast are sneaking into North Bengal to target wildlife here,” he said.
Buxa came under the scanner recently when the Centre claimed that there are no signs of tiger habitation in Buxa. The report claimed that in the entire northern West Bengal there are three tigers, but the Wildlife Institute India, that conducted a scat analysis to come to the conclusion, refused to authenticate the scat samples sent to them. In a meeting last month, attended by the member secretary of National Tiger Conservation Authority, B S Bonal, it was decided that tigers will be relocated in Buxa following Sariska and Panna model. Before that, a host of measures like habitat and prey base improvement and recruitment of forest guards will be undertaken.