“Soch samaj ke nikalna padta hai, Jangal main adam khor bagh chhod rakhen hain (We have to think before moving out, (they) have released man eating tigers in the forest),” is the common refrain of villagers around Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, where 15 people have fallen prey to the big cats in the last one year, highest for any tiger habitat in the country.
The fear of the tigers has gripped hundreds of villages around the horse-shoe shaped tiger reserve whose population has almost doubled since 2014, when the forest got the national status, creating a new human-animal conflict zone.
Locals freely ventured into the forest to procure minor produce and fodder before Pilibhit was declared a tiger reserve. The entire forest which was segmented according to its resources, used to be leased out to contract for harvesting hone, medicinal herbs and wood among others for an annual revenue of Rs 30 crore.
“Everyone was dependent on the forest. Contractors for their money, administration for the revenue and locals for their day to day needs,” said Mohammad Zagir, a local environmentalist.
“Very few people cropped paddy in their fields, they used to buy rice and wheat from the money earned from selling wild fruits or their salary from the forest contractor they used to work for,” he said.
All that changed after June 2014.
The forest guards stopped villagers from entering inside the forest. “We were going into the forest to collect grass for our cattle when the guards stopped,” said Dinesh Verma 38, a farmer of Pipariya village, who was arrested for trespassing, something uncommon for villagers.
Since then, conservator of forests VK Singh said 109 villagers have been arrested (mostly in the first year) for trespassing and it was important to “deter them from entering the forest”.
There has been no poaching between 2014 and 2017. A burgeoning big cat population – up from 28 to 54 – also meant that tigers have started moving out of the core areas.
Despite the danger of lethal attacks, many of the villagers sneak into the reserve to collect forest produce for sale. And they are now up in arms against the national animal.
“Because of the shape of the reserve, the animal passes through human habitation while moving from one part of the forest to other. This has led to several attacks,” Singh said, adding that three deaths reported early this year happened between two sections of the forest having high human habitation in between.
The reserve’s 670km boundary is interspersed with farms mostly in the regions of high tiger kill and is fragmented by three national highways, two state highways, 47 district roads and over 20 smaller roads. In many places, the buffer between farms and reserve is as thin as 10 metres and poor farmers like Nankhi Devi, who was allegedly killed by a tiger on July 1, cannot afford a fence for their minuscule land holdings.
Neither can the forest department.
“The cost (Rs 26 crore for 670km) is almost 80 times of our annual revenue. We do get some funds from the government but it is not enough. We do not have enough money for it,” divisional forest officer of the reserve Kailash Prakash said.
The locals find forest department suggestions like not entering the forest and making loud noises while working in fields weird.
“They tell us to visit our farms in groups, not go near the forest, make loud noises while working and this and that…why don’t they control their animals. If they can’t do it we will make arrangements for these tigers. We know how to protect ourselves,” said Pankaj Kumar, 22, whose father was killed by a tiger while working in his farm on June 20.
Experts say unless the green corridor connecting Pilibhit reserve with Surai national park of Uttarakhand and Kishanpur wildlife sanctuary of Uttar Pradesh is improved for easy passage of excess tigers, the conflict will continue.