The ride would make you jump from your seat to your partner’s seat and will also bring you back. If you’re tall enough then your head might collide with the bus’s roof. The chilled wind won’t take time to strike as hard as it can on your soft cheeks but the bump will make you smile. Your nostrils will widen with every gush of fresh air that they’ll suck. With the mild fragrance of wet mud, you’ll be no more in love with the skyscrapers built close to your home.
You will want to live here. Yes, here, in the abode of shades of brown and green, in the shadow of blue sky decorated with cirrus clouds. And if it rains, its pitter patter on the dry leaves will welcome you to the dense forests of Sathyamangalam.
Located in Erode district of Tamil Nadu, Sathyamangalam, is believed to be a home of 18-25 tigers, which is shared by elephants and variety of birdlife that would do any sanctuary proud. The sanctuary happens to be the biggest tiger reserve in the state and is also an important elephant reserve.
Once the hideout of the infamous sandalwood and ivory poacher, Veerappan, Sathyamangalam, has Tamil Nadu’s fourth tiger reserve. The Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve was declared a tiger reserve in the year 2013. There are reports with show the skewed sex ratio of elephants and presence of tuskless male elephants in these forests. Sathyamangalam, is a crucial wildlife corridor connecting eastern and western Ghats. Even though the forest department has stepped up operations with regard to poaching since 2004, yet it continues to face man-animal conflict as its biggest challenge.
The National Highway 209 which connects Mysore and Coimbatore is reportedly used by an average of 2800 vehicles every day. One can rush through the deep forests of Sathyamangalam, and claim of ‘accidently’ killing dozens of animals present, including elephants, gaurs, sloth bears, wildcats and reptiles. Wildlife mortality is however not the only adverse effect of a highway running through the forest, roads, act as a physical barrier restricting the movement of wildlife from one area to the other.
“When villagers lose their cattle under frequent leopard attacks, they start poisoning the animals out of agitation. This has become a very serious concern of recent”, said the District Forest Officer, Mr K Rajkumar, when questioned about the threats to wildlife because of human settlements in the forests of Sathyamangalam.
“Vultures are one of the endangered species and they face constant threats in this area”, he added. The DFO also highlighted the fact that the everyday activity of cattle grazing and lifting firewood is actually illegal. He said that they allow this to some extent considering this a major part of the livelihood of the people residing in the nearby villages of Bijalhatti, Gadyashala and Hasanur.
“I do not know of the problems that the wildlife is suffering because of our settlements. I just know that I lose my cattle frequently because of their existence. I just know that my crops get destroyed on a regular basis because of movements of wild elephants and wild pigs. And that it is my family who has to struggle for food, education and a proper shelter because of the presence of wild animals here’’, said Sridevi, representing the fate of 16 families staying in Kulitoraipatti village. Being a part of the Irrular tribe, she practices agricultural activities.
“Since there is a water source nearby, wild elephants and pigs move here every night to quench their thirst. They walk on our crops every night and thus we suffer an everyday loss. The government has put up these electric fences which has stopped elephant intrusion to some extent but has nowhere stopped the movement of wild pigs’’, said Shivraj, another tribal belonging to the Irrular tribe.
The presence of wild animals and human settlements in the same area has brought up problems for both. While there are forest officials who talk about the threats wildlife faces because of human settlements, there are villagers who speak of losing their livelihood due to the existence of the wild animals.
The villagers complained that there was a frequent cattle loss. “Either we do not get compensation for the same, or if we do it’s never quick. We immediately have to file a complaint of cattle loss. Also, there has been a recent increase in the number of elephants here”, adds Shivraj.
The villagers of Kulitoraipatti village are usually employed by the forest officials as guards to watch poaching. “We usually stop going to school after the age of 15 years and work for the forest department. We are paid around Rs 6000 per month”, said Shivraj.
The DFO said that the department prefers young people. “Out of 150 tribal people employed, 85 are youngsters. These people have extensive knowledge on terrain and animal behaviour”, said K Rajkumar.
“Last year we got Rs 43 lakh for compensation including that of crop damage and almost all our claims are settled by now. We usually pay Rs 25000 per acre for crop damage, Rs 300000 for any human death and Rs 10000 for animal death,” he said.
One thing common in all the settlements near Sathyamangalam forest reserve is that nobody except the residents of Thengumarada village is ready to move out of their places and be relocated.
“Why will we leave our place? We’ve stayed here for generations. There is no question on us leaving this place”, says Lakshmi, resident of Vijalhatti Village.
While people of Vijalhatti don’t even think of being relocated, there are 350 families at Thengumarahada village who have given their consent on being relocated. The existence of man – animal conflict was one of the main reasons for their agreement on relocation. “It was not always like this. Probably the forests were more peaceful back then’’, said K.Mani, retired panchayat assistant, Thengumarahada.
The village can be accessed by road only from Erode district, and the forest path traverses 25 km through the core habitat of the tiger reserve. “We plan to leave the place as soon as compensation is given and will settle near Bhavani’’, K Mani added. The presence of a river joining the forest and the village disrupts easy transportation.
After the establishment of the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, the villagers face problems in transport, education and several other social issues. “The compensation offered is Rs 10 lakh and rehabilitation will be done by the government”, he added.
The DFO admits the fact that because of establishment of tiger reserve there are certain facilities that cannot be provided to the villagers. He said that even if they need big schools, they can’t be built since it’s a forest area. “However, they have created funds for the tribes which are given when needed”, he says.