Bhubaneswar, Nov 29:
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is likely to skip the Sunabeda wildlife sanctuary, which has turned to be a hot-bed of Maoists activities, during the counting of big cats in the state scheduled for January next year.
“The NTCA, which will conduct tiger census in the state likely to start in January, will not count the big cats in Sunabeda sanctuary as it has become a happy haunting ground for Maoists. Several forest officials have been killed in the area in the last few years,” said a senior official of forest department.
Sunabeda wildlife sanctuary, a proposed Tiger Reserve spread over 600 square kilometres on the Odisha-Chhattisgarh border in Nuapada district, has failed to attract wildlife enthusiasts and tourists due to the fear of ultras, who have unleashed a reign of terror in the region killing about 20 persons, including forest and police officials, so far.
The Sunabeda sanctuary had 32 tigers and 36 leopards, as per the 2004 tiger census while no tiger census was conducted in 2010 due to the fear of Maoists. The census, conducted by Wildlife Institute of India (WWI), had restricted itself to the Similipal Tiger Reserve and the Satkosia Tiger Reserve that year. According to the report of the institute, there were 32 tigers in the two sanctuaries. However, the wildlife department of the State had refuted the findings of the report were arrived at through a flawed counting method. It had also contended that tigers were present in the state outside the Sunabeda, Satkosia and Simlipal sanctuaries as well.
Declared as a Sanctuary in 1983, Sunabeda is also home to Hyena, Barking Deer, Chital, Gaur, Sambar, Sloth Bear, Hill Myna, Pea Fowl, Partridge and a number of reptilian species.
While around 26 forest guards, 10 foresters, three range officers and one divisional forest officer were deployed in the region to carry out conservation measures, the Maoists menace in the region has forced the department to curb its vigil. Even the arms given to the security personnel have been deposited in the district armoury.
“To preserve the sanctuary, especially the big cats, the security personnel were equipped with arms. But the weapons have been deposited to the district armoury due to the Maoists menace,” said JD Sharma, Principal Conservator of Forest (Wildlife).
The Centre is yet to notify the sanctuary as Tiger Reserve. “To notify the area, a team from the Centre is willing to visit the sanctuary. But the Maoist problem in the area has forced it to stay away from the visit. Once, the situation is normalised, steps will be taken to notify the area,” said Sharma.
While local people live in constant scare, the allotted funds for the preservation of the big cats is not being utilised properly due to the fear of the ultras.
The government has only spent Rs 19 lakh for the preservation of Sunabeda Sanctuary, while around Rs 4 crore has been spent for the Similipal Tiger Reserve and Rs 171 crore for the Satkosia Tiger Reserve.
The presence of Maoists in the sanctuary first came to light in 2008 when the rebels started holding motivational meetings in villages of the region. The guerrillas in subsequent years started targeting local leaders, wildlife and forest officials, said an official of the wildlife department. Besides targeting the people, the guerrillas have also destroyed government infrastructure, including a forest beat house, residences, offices and guest houses of the forest department.
According to sources, 20 persons, including one in October, have been killed by the Maoists in the sanctuary.
Sources revealed that the first major violence by the guerrillas was reported in May, 2012 when they ambushed a police party and killed nine policemen, including an additional superintendent of police, inside the sanctuary.
It is to be noted that Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had submitted a Rs 238 crore plan for development of the hilly Sunabeda area, which is under the consideration of Union Rural Development Ministry. Jairam Ramesh, in a letter to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, had suggested launching security operations against the Maoists in Sunabeda sanctuary before implementing developmental programs in the area.