Last month, the Maharashtra government completely evacuated Navegaon village, which is on the edge of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve forest. Some 200 families were voluntarily relocated to land outside the reserve area. The evacuation freed 175 hectares and the fencing has been realigned to include this land within the protected zone. This has eliminated conflicts between villagers and the local big cats, which lifted livestock. Tigers, solitary apex predators, need large hunting ranges. Forest Department officials hope that the local tiger population, which is currently at 43, could grow as the extra space will make it easier for a larger population of adult tigers to mark out personal territories. Navegaon is the latest of 38 villages, in and around protected areas in Maharashtra, where such relocations have been carried out. The state has spent Rs 280 crore in the past nine years, moving 2,000 families out of four reserves and freeing up 1,845 hectares. It intends to spend another Rs 900 crore or so, relocating another 55 villages on the edges of similar zones. In Sariska, another reserve in Rajasthan, the state government has experimented with a similar plan, shifting out the 85 residents of Umri village. It intends to scale up and relocate the populations of another 11 villages from Sariska Reserve, which occupies about 885 square km. A habitat the size of Sariska can sustain a population of 80-odd tigers, along with the appropriate proportion of prey and smaller predators. In 2002, Sariska had 16 tigers and the local population was driven to extinction by poaching. The reserve has since been restocked and has a current population of five tigers. Once the reserve is freed from human habitation and hopefully, better anti-poaching measures are implemented, it is hoped the tiger population will recover. The concept of voluntary relocation of forest populations is relatively new.
It is an interesting attempt to reverse habitat encroachment, reducing tree-cutting and animal-human conflicts, since those are major issues hindering the preservation of wild life and maintenance of the ecosystem in sanctuary areas. The results indicate that forest cover regenerates quickly and wildlife seems to recover to sustainable levels in a relatively short time. The core funding comes from the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which offers a compensation package of Rs 10 lakh per married couple, plus another Rs 10 lakh for each of their adult unmarried children. State governments do have to chip in with funding. They also have to perform the delicate task of negotiating with locals, and find suitable land where they can shift. There are just about 1,700 tigers left in India's forests and along with other animals, they are endangered by continuous human encroachment. Animal-human conflicts, habitat loss and rampant poaching are the three big problems. This model addresses the issue of habitat loss and reduces human-animal conflicts. It may even reduce poaching, since it removes villagers who can provide logistic support and local intelligence to poachers. A direct economic payoff could be increased eco-tourism, quite apart from protection of the ecosystem and environment. Given the plethora of laws protecting land rights of forest denizens, such efforts must be voluntary. Although this model needs to scale up, it has worked well enough to demonstrate viability. Unfortunately, several of India's reserve forests are overrun by left-wing extremists and separatists. However, even if this model is implemented piecemeal, it will help to provide local relief and some breathing space for India's most majestic predator.