On 7 February, a five-year-old tiger was killed when it came in contact with an electrified fence at a farm near Bandipur tiger reserve in southern Karnataka.
The animal’s carcass was later fished out of a pond, where the farm owner, Rachappa S, had dumped it to hide his crime: Illegally electrifying his fence and endangering wildlife.
Rachappa was subsequently arrested along with five others, but the incident underscores a problem that is increasingly plaguing wildlife protection efforts.
Karnataka’s forest officials say elephants, tigers and other wildlife routinely get electrocuted by live wires on special fences erected by farmers to keep wild animals off their lands.
Gaining from dead animals
“They do this to protect their farms. But if an animal gets killed, they remove its hide, claws, teeth and any other body part that can be sold and then bury the remains,” said an official, who did not want to be identified.
As forest officials try to track electric fencing in wildlife-rich areas — that is, all national parks and sanctuaries — the state’s Power Department has been asked to report any unnatural rise in electricity consumption in this belt.
Alongside, the Forest Department carries out regular awareness programmes in these areas to educate villagers against putting live fences, and instead use solar powered fences that give a weak electric shock to wild animals and does not kill them.
The department bears half the cost of the fencing, said Kumar Pushkar, additional principal chief conservator of forests and an expert associated with the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
That apart, Pushkar said, trenches are dug and barricades and tentacle fencing, also a kind of solar fencing, installed along the forest boundary to prevent elephants from straying out.
But electric fencing is just one of the problems that the state’s wildlife has to contend with, say forest officials. In the past four years, nearly 2,000 offences were registered in the state under the Wild Life (Protection) Act. (See Chart)
These cases related to trespassing into national parks and sanctuaries, illegal collection of forest products, deliberately starting forest fires, encroachments, and, of course, poaching.
Forest officials described the number of poaching cases as “high”.
In December last year, the Forest Department reported poaching of pangolin and blackbucks in the dry parts of the state, and officials say investigations have been initiated.
The department’s also activated its Special Tiger Protection Force, while its regular field personnel have begun combing the boundary of the Bandipur and Nagarhole Tiger Reserves after the tiger was snared on 7 February in Bandipur and a few incidents of leopard and deer poaching were reported.
Volunteers from the NGO Wildlife Trust of India are also helping the department with locating animal snares along the forest boundaries.
Collusion of forest officials
But animal rights activists argue that incidents of offence against wildlife frequently go unreported because many officers want to avoid any inquiry.
Plus, they say, forest officials are often in the know when poaching takes place.
“Without their knowledge, it is impossible to kill a large animal like an elephant and remove its tusk,” said Gautam, a wildlife activist.
In fact, Gautam told South First that “senior officers” have occasionally instructed their subordinates to drop a poaching case.
To make his point, he referred to the discovery of two dead tigers in the Moleyur range of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve some time ago; according to him, the deaths were “mysterious”, and the case “reported very late”.
“The government should look into corruption in the Forest Department,” Gautam said.
Poachers a challenge
According to the president of the NGO United Conservation Movement (UCM) and former member of the State Wildlife Board, Joseph Hoover, breaking the multiple channels of poaching is not impossible but is definitely challenging.
The reasons: The department is understaffed and there are salary issues.
“Since the Forest Department’s field workers are poorly paid and treated shabbily by the government, poaching and other criminal incidents are rampant,” Hoover told South First.
“Many employees who worked in anti-poaching camps were retrenched from their duties due to a lack of funding. The central government also cut funding for tiger reserves because of the pandemic,” he said, spelling out the financial issues dogging the department.
To check poaching, the Forest Department has “anti-poaching watchers, also referred to as the frontline staff; the Bandipur Tiger Reserve has 13 forest ranges, each of which has only five such people.
Not only is the number of anti-poaching watchers inadequate, none of the 65 people recruited for the purpose has been not paid for the last three months.
Lack of funds
The workforce, according to officials, is paid through Project Tiger, a programme that is centrally supported.
When setting priorities between management levels — those who sit at the Forest Department headquarters at Aranya Bhavan — and paying field employees became challenging, the issues worsened.
“It is better to solve the salary issue and also increase the frontline workers,” Hoover said.
Pushkar, however, claimed that most of the cases relating to pending salaries to the “outsourced”, on-contract watchers have now been taken care of with funds provided by the state government.
“Since the central funds have not been received fully, there is a problem in the tiger reserves,” Pushkar conceded.
“But somehow, the situation is under control as the salaries are being paid from the amount available under Tiger Conservation Foundation,” Pushkar said.
Tiger Conservation Foundation is set up in each state in accordance with the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 to facilitate tiger conservation by involving local communities through eco-development process. The funds are managed by the state government.