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Tracing the footprint of the Goan tiger

Belly snared in a steel-wire trap, the tiger roared through the night at the Mhadei wildlife sanctuary, 70 kms northeast of Panjim in the lap of the Western ghats. As the beast twisted and turned in a bid to free itself, the thin, tough steel cable cut through its skin first, then flesh and finally chafed at the tiger’s vital organs, turning its roars into deafening, desperate screams.

That’s when the poachers crept closer. The hunters led by Nagesh Majik were hoping to trap wild-boar or deer that night. They hadn’t expected a tiger.

Panicked by the thunderous roars, the poachers shot the striped tiger dead with two heavy calibre bullets, one of which tore through the animal’s flanks to pierce the already dying heart.

With the official tiger population in India hanging at a precarious 1400 odd, this 2009 tiger-kill in Goa should have triggered an avalanche of action from the Goa government.

It didn’t.

The all-enveloping, Omerta-like silence of officialdom vis a vis the tiger presence in Goa has only reinforced the conviction of environmentalists and wildlife lovers that the only alpha-carnivore the government is willing to heed in Goa’s jungles is not the tiger in its glory, but a giant called mining, which is threatening the predator’s existence.

Rajendra Kerkar is a respected environmentalist who lives in a valley called Keri, which nests at the foothills of the Western ghats mountain range, one of the world’s most ecologically diverse hotspots.

It was Kerkar’s photo story published in a local newspaper which first exposed the tiger poaching. But the administration’s silence following the expose did not rattle him. He’s used to it. Formally acknowledging the presence of the tiger in Goa, he says, has grave “economic ramifications.”

Acknowledging that Goa’s hinterland is tiger territory could lead to the establishment of a Tiger Reserve, which means that “at least 30-40 mines will be directly affected,” Kerkar told Streets.

Kerkar’s ‘reward’ for the sensational expose was being named as an abettor to the killing by the forest department, the same entity which denied the tiger presence in Goa for a month after the poaching. Majik and several others were arrested and subsequently released, while the trial continues. Pro-mining politicians in his area, too, leaned on the villagers to ostracise Kerkar and his family for weeks, some even threatening him with death.

“There is no tiger presence in Goa. If there are any tigers, they are only migratory. Goa’s forests have no resident tigers,” Dr Sashikumar, Goa’s chief wildlife warden, said at the time.

Nearly 30 out of Goa’s 90-odd operational open cast iron ore mines ring three of Goa’s four wildlife sanctuaries, namely Mhadei, Netravali and Bhagwan Mahaveer. Setting up a Tiger Reserve, a central government-operated programme demanding stringent and well-monitored implementation of wildlife norms, could force mining companies to shut shop (once the current mining crisis passes, of course).

According to Kerkar, the Rs. 7,000 crore mining industry would be reduced by a third if the tiger officially roamed the state’s land.

This is why the Goa government, Kerkar says, behaves like an ostrich every time someone says “tiger,” even as stories, songs, statues, and temples dedicated to the carnivore abound in Goa’s socio-historical sphere dating back centuries.

Not to mention the actual sightings.

A former hunter who used to work as a guide on very discreet and also very illegal hunting trips along the Goa-Karnataka border recalls one of the most cherished moments of his life, when his eyes crossed with those of a tiger.

“We were tracking down a nilgai (an Indian antelope) in the Chorla mountains. Just as we turned round a bend, I saw an unusual colour pattern in the bushes ahead. The colour did not match the surroundings. I took just one more step ahead and I saw her. Only her head and neck were sticking out of the bush. She turned and looked at me for a few seconds. Suddenly, a bird shrieked somewhere and she grunted, broke eye contact and retreated,” said the hunting guide, who did not wish to be identified.

Devidas Gaonkar, who works with the NGO Video Volunteer to document unusual events in Goa, had this to say: “I saw a tiger three years back … in Cotigao sanctuary. And I was very scared. He did no harm to me, he went on his way and I went on my way.”

Dhaku Pawne, a leader of the Dhangars, a cattle-rearing tribe in the Western ghat jungles, said migration of tribesmen out of the forest has reduced the amount of cattle tigers feed on, and thus the tiger population itself. “In spite of that,” he said, “we still sight tigers.”

And this from Pandurang Phaldesai, a folk art scholar and former member secretary of the Kala Academy cultural centre: “I heard and saw a tiger at the age of 15 at my ancestral village in Canacona. I saw him from quite a distance. And on 3 or 4 other occasions I heard his roar. There were also instances when the tiger attacked cows and stray dogs in village.”

Phaldesai explains how Jagor, a storytelling and singing tradition in Goa dating back 5,000 years, pins down the presence of the tiger in Goa.

Jagor by the Perni community depicts an artist with a wooden tiger mask performing the folk dance at the temple premises,” he says.  A jagor, performed by Goa’s indigenous Gowdas tribe, has a male artist dancing aggressively around the stage, dressed as a striped tiger.

Kerkar, who is lobbying to upgrade the Mhadei wildlife sanctuary into India’s 40th Tiger Reserve, says the tiger is woven into the fabric of Goa’s folk traditions. The geeti, a song about the importance of motherhood, sung during Diwali in Sattari’s Surla area, is mesmerising.

“Through the folk songs they narrate a story of a calf, a cow and a tiger. This story achieves climax when the cow gets killed by a tiger and the calf becomes motherless,” Kerkar explains.

Something close to the scene described in the geeti actually occurred a few years back, when Nirmal Kulkarni, a wildlife expert and a director of a high-end jungle resort, documented a tiger kill in the Chorla ghats. A domesticated she-buffalo had been felled and mauled by a tiger.

Nirmal says the tiger’s assault was so ferocious that the pregnant buffalo ejected her calf still in the amniotic sac. The embryo was later found on the dusty ground near its mother’s torn carcass.

“The locals have sighted the majestic feline and also reported cattle and Gaur (Indian bison) kills in the past one year in areas ranging from Netravali, Salgini and Verle to name a few,” he says. The Gaur is a sleek muscle and bone machine weighing over a ton.  Only one carnivore can claim it for a kill: The tiger.

If you are reading this article in the north Goa beach belt, consider the meaning of the popular tourist hangout Vagator, which comes from the Konkani words ‘vagha sthal,’or “place of the tiger.” It’s one of a number of Goan villages carrying the Konkani word ‘vagh,’ or tiger. Others are Vagkhol, Vagona and Vaghush.

Devidas Gaonkar lives in Canacona and is a chronicler of folk tradition and loves wildlife.  His village, Cotigao, is littered with shrines and temples built over the ages to appease the mighty tiger.

“Tribals in Cotigao depend on agriculture and the tiger played a vital role in protecting the agricultural fields from herbivorous animals,” he says, adding that the villagers still offer agricultural products to a deity called ‘Vaghro Dev.’

The tiger’s one chance to assert its supremacy in Goa was when the maverick Jairam Ramesh was appointed union minister for environment and forests in New Delhi. A savvy, gung ho green-leaning bureaucrat-turned politician, Ramesh in June 2011 wrote to the Goa government, asking it to declare the Mhadei wildlife sanctuary as a Tiger Reserve “for long term protection of biodiversity-rich areas.”

“There is evidence to show that tigers in Goa are not merely transient animals but are a resident population as well,” Ramesh wrote, describing Mhadei as “a contiguous tiger landscape.”

The state government has yet to respond, with the chief minister saying the government “will decide on the matter at the appropriate time.”

Experts say conserving tiger habitats carry ancillary benefits as well, such as preserving water catchment areas.  “The Mhadei is Goa’s lifeline and saving its forests for the tiger means addressing issues of Goa’s long term water security. The tiger is a symbol of the forest and its apex predator,” Kulkarni said.

That Goa is a land of tigers seems indisputable. But like so many other creatures whose habitats have been rendered uninhabitable, their future here looks grim – reduced to faint memorials in names like Vagator rather than roaming free.