Tamil Nadu Govt Needs To Wake Up & Fix Its Forest Department

By Sandhya Ravishankar

The recent news about 10 tigers (including cubs) dead in just over a month in Tamil Nadu is a wake-up call for Chief Minister MK Stalin. And if the new pattern of fresh highs in poaching, deaths and electrocution of protected wildlife is not countered, the state’s conservation strategy will collapse irretrievably. If it hasn’t already

Look at the numbers. 14 recorded tiger deaths in this year alone. Of these, 10 deaths were recorded in just over a month.

In March-April this year, 13 elephants died within a month, a new record for the state. Most of these deaths were electrocutions.

While data of elephant deaths is available only upto March 15, 2023, the pattern is quite clear. The state is averaging about 100 elephant deaths a year for the past 4 years.

Tiger deaths too have shot up alarmingly in the recent past.

Why this and why now? No one will speak openly in the state’s Forest Department but hubris and lack of efficient management of the department appears to be the problem.

The science of conservation has taken a backseat as the leadership of the department is in a continual state of churning out publicity material and propaganda campaigns. Lack of expertise in the field is pardonable as long as the leadership makes the effort to consult with experts and implement best practices in conservation. However, that is not the norm. The routine, in the past three years, has been to fill committees with individuals who are not domain experts, encourage yes-men, make grand announcements about projects that never take off and centralise decision-making, with poor decisions to boot.

It is a wonder indeed that the Tamil Nadu Forest Department’s officers managed to track and nab the notorious Bawariya gangs – nomadic tribes from the Madhya Pradesh-Rajasthan border who first entered the forests of Tamil Nadu for poaching wildlife in 2018.

The Bawariyas became active during the lockdown period and learnt the forests of the state well. Post Covid, as conservation activity took a backseat under the new leadership, forest officers reduced their inspections in the forest. The presence of government officers inside the forests of Tamil Nadu dwindled drastically. As a result, poaching increased.

The consequences are there for all to see in 2023. Poaching of at least 1 tiger and 1 leopard by the Bawariyas. And poaching of elephants by the Varusanadu tribes of Theni. Not to forget, the convenient electrocution of many elephants by overhanging wires and illegal electric fences, which are given quiet burials because the villagers are important votebanks.

It is high time the Chief Minister turned his focus to the Forest Department of the state and conducted an independent review of the apathy and policy paralysis that has set in. Decades of hard fought conservation goals are in jeopardy thanks to the department leadership’s penchant for self aggrandisement.