Famous for its dense jungles, Chhattisgarh's Bastar region has been the home of Adivasis living in tune with nature. However, the majestic tiger is struggling to survive here today.

Of the two protected areas, tigers are now non-existent in the Kanger Valley National Park. The Indravati Tiger Reserve in Bijapur district had three tigers in 2018-19, according to the Status of Tigers in India-2018 report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

In Indravati, spread over 2799.1 sq km, the census work has always been badly hit reportedly "due to Left-wing extremism". It has been reported that in the forests of Central India, insurgency, mining and annual hunting rituals are equally responsible in reducing tiger numbers.

After 1945, mining in Bastar changed the forest ecosystem. The Bailadila mines in Dantewada started iron ore extraction for exporting it to Japan in the 1960s. The focus was only on employment generation.

"Land use change and growing external investment in culturally sensitive areas of Bastar and around has broken the contiguity of forests. It reduces wildlife populations in islands. As the pressure to commercially harvest forest resources and resources beneath the forests grows, the pressure of this expansion is reflected in the state of wildlife first, followed by shift in livelihood, displacement of local human populations and ultimately the cultural fabric," aid Raipur-based Anupam Sisodia, who studies forest dependent life forms.

Today when Chhattisgarh is struggling with poor tiger count, the inspiration can come from Bastar once more. For who can forget Chendru Mandavi, the famous tiger boy, who once became a global star?

At the age of 10, Mandavi played the lead role in the Oscar-winning film Jungle Saga made on his life by Swedish director Arne Suksdorff. His wife Astrid's book, Tiger in Sight, mentions the maneaters of this region.

The film was released in the 1960s, after which Mandavi toured Europe for years before returning to his homeland. His last days were not glorious. He died in 2013, at his village Garh Bengal in Narayanpur district, in relative obscurity. Narayanpur is part of the Bastar sub-division which comprises six other districts.

Mandavi's unusual friendship with a tiger cub attracted Suksdorff to make a film on him. Chhattisgarh can possibly draw inspiration from this story to protect the big cat, and build on tiger tourism as Central India has been well-known for jungles. But forested areas devoid of a prey base do not support tiger population.

Though Mandavi is a shining example in tiger conservation, rampant hunting, a part of the Adivasi culture is continuing. The area celebrates Parad, the annual hunting festival of Bastar.

"Hunting both for protein as well as trade is deeply rooted in local cultures and continued in some parts of Central India, like Bastar, as well as in much of what is today known as Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana," said one of leading tiger experts, Ullas Karanth based in Karnataka. The Parad season starts from March and lasts till June.

Forest landscape of Kanger Valley, Chhattisgarh

In Bastar, the process of tiger elimination started with the emptying out of the wild prey base which sustains tigers, driving the big cats to hunt cattle for sustenance. "This sparked off conflict with rural communities in the early 1960s. Eventually, tigers died mainly due to the poisoning of cattle carcasses," said wildlife historian Raza Kazmi.

According to researcher and associate professor at O.P. Jindal Global University Saagar Tewari, whose work is partially on Bastar in the late colonial and post-independence period (1920-80), most of Chhattisgarh comprised princely states where forests served as important sources for revenue since the early 20th century. Their exploitation saw a massive expansion during the two World Wars.

After Independence, poor governance and weak enforcement contributed to deforestation and loss of wildlife. As prey species were hunted down, tigers too disappeared from Bastar.

To protect wildlife, India passed the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 with an effort at conservation. Significant tiger protection efforts started after 1974, two years after the Act was passed. But the post-1974 recovery of tigers did not take deep roots in Bastar, Karanth pointed out. "Conservation measures were largely effective only in the Western Ghats, the Terai region and some parts of Central India where the tiger did come back to some extent."

India has at present nearly 3,000 tigers. Before 2000, Chhattisgarh formed a part of Madhya Pradesh which has at present the highest number of tigers in India at 526. In comparison, Chhattisgarh has 19 tigers. Outside the Bastar region, Achanakmar Tiger Reserve is the only hope for tigers along with the Guru Ghasidas National Park and the Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve in Gariaband.

Pugmark from Indravati

As Kanger Valley is empty of tigers at present, Kazmi considers the Indravati an important tiger habitat in Bastar region which shares connectivity with the tiger-bearing forests of Chandrapur and Gondia in Maharashtra. Over the last decade, the animals have been migrating from these places to Indravati.

But he explained that the lack of prey base in Indravati's forests due to hunting persists. Thus, tigers migrating to this place continue to depend on cattle for sustenance. This does not augur well for long-term viable revival of tigers in Bastar and the species may not enjoy a sustainable future here.

In 2021, tiger census work covered 400 square kilometres for the first time in Indravati. Census did not take place in 2006 and 2010 due to insurgency issues. In 2014, 12 tigers were counted and in 2018 three.

Mine area in Bailadila

"Currently, the results of the 2022 census are awaited even though the entire area in Indravati could not be covered. Last year, after a few killings occurred, trap cameras were set up which recorded 38 photos from October 2020 to February 2021. These were sent to the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun and five tigers were counted," said Abhay Kumar Shrivastava, chief conservator of forests, wildlife (Jagdalpur circle) and director of the Indravati Tiger Reserve.

Conservationist Aditya Panda is hopeful about the potential of tiger revival in central India, including Bastar, due to intact forest landscapes. He feels that if tigers are revived here, they can perhaps make it the single largest and most genetically diverse tiger population in the world. Chhattisgarh enjoys an advantage as its tiger habitats are connected to important tiger source sites in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra like Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Tadoba.

"The Chhattisgarh forest department must capitalise on this and work towards the restoration of reserves like Indravati, Achanakmar and Udanti-Sitanadi. These places need to be protected," Panda added. To tackle hunting, building trust with local communities is crucial. Voluntary relocation from forests and protected areas will help reduce human-wildlife conflict, offset insurgency and create good habitats for wildlife.

Forest landscape of Kanger Valley, Chhattisgarh