Tungareshwar forest on city’s edge has only 5 leopards

Rizwan Mithawala, Times News Network Apr 25 2017

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Devotional chants blaring from loudspeakers reverberate acr-oss the Tungareshwarlandscape as one treks down its hills in the evening. Godmen here have encroached upon forest land. They have built temples and ashrams and wide roads leading to them so their devotees can drive up their SUVs with ease. But the resident deity of Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, the leopard-god Waghoba is in trouble.

The Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary spans 95.24 square kilometers across the Vasai and Bhivandi Talukas and is part of a landscape contiguous to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) which has an area of 104 sq. km. Although it has an area almost equivalent to SGNP, a recent study has revealed that it has a startlingly poor population of leopards compared to SGNP.

The study conducted between Feb-July 2016 by Nikit Surve of the Wildlife Conservation Society – India reveals that Tungareshwar has only five leopards compared to an estimated 35 in SGNP. The major reason for the poor population of the apex predator is scarcity of prey. No spotted deer or sambar deer both of which are leopard prey were recorded during the six months of the study. Spotted deer have earlier been released in the sanctuary but have apparently been hunted down by humans, according to Surve.

Poaching seems to be rampant as the researchers found several hunting hideouts in the sanctuary. Most of the flat areas have been converted into agricultural fields depriving the herbivores of their grass diet. Rampant and deliberate forest fires, felling of trees and soil mining are leading to a systematic degradation of the sanctuary. The existence of illicit alcohol breweries only sums up the state of neglect.

The Tungareshwar wildlife sanctuary was intended to expand the SGNP northwards by making it contiguous to the Nagla Block of the SGNP. “But sanctuary was always given step motherly treatment in terms of manpower and resources by the forest department,” says Debi Goenka of the Conservation Action Trust, who has been fighting a legal battle to stop illegal constructions in the sanctuary. “There was political interference at the highest levels that stopped the forest department from demolishing the illegal ashrams in the sanctuary. There were cover ups of the illegal activities carried out by the ashrams including the construction of illegal roads, excavation of soil for road construction, and the construction of new buildings inside the ashrams,” he says.
The encroachers have mobs at their disposal that accost activists and forest department staff, says wildlife activist Krishna Tiwari. “The forest department needs better government and police support to tackle the problems here,” he says.

“We will take on these problems with a concrete action plan,” says Anwar Ahmed, Chief Conservator of Forests and Director, SGNP.

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