Bhubaneswar: As the Odisha government is all set to start its big cat count in the first week of February, the authorities are likely to skip the Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary that has of late turned into a hot-bed for the Maoist.
The tiger census in the sanctuary, in Nuapada district, has not been conducted since 2004 after it became a part of the Red Corridor. The sanctuary, accorded in-principle status as tiger reserve by the centre in 2014, is spread over 600 sq km but has still failed to attract wildlife enthusiasts and tourists due to the fear of ultras, who have killed several people, including forest guards and police officers in and around the reserve.
The government is however hopeful of conducting a census this time, with the presence of central security forces to combat the Maoist menace.
"We are hopeful of conducting the tiger census this time. There is presence of central forces besides police forces. If any untoward incidents occur, we may skip the counting. But as of now, we are certain to go for the counting," Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) S.S. Srivastav told IANS.
Prior to the 2004 census, Sunabeda was home to 32 tigers and 36 leopards, according to the 2004 tiger census. Their current numbers are not known since there was no count in 2010. In 2014 too, no census was conducted even though the Wildlife Institute of India had done so in the Similipal and Satkosia tiger reserves.
Initially declared a sanctuary in 1983, Sunabeda is also home to hyenas, barking deer, chital, gaur, sambar, sloth bear, hill myna, pea fowl, partridge and a number of reptilian species.
Officials admit the funds allotted for the preservation of the big cats is not being utilised properly due to the fear of the ultras.
Forest department sources said 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. In subsequent years, they started targeting local leaders, wildlife and forest officials.
The guerrillas have also destroyed government infrastructure. 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.
At present, the CRPF troopers and Cobra (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) personnel have been deployed at Barkot, Jamgaon, Sunabeda and Soseng villages in the region.
Sources in the forest department also said the number of visitors has drastically reduced owing to the Maoist menace. The department recorded 22,000 footfalls between 2001 and 2005. The figure dipped to 2009 between 2006 and 2009. In 2010 and 2011, only 815 tourists visited the place. No tourist has visited the area since 2012.
The All India Tiger Estimation Report-2014 put the number of tigers in the state at just 28, which the Odisha forest department refused to buy and decided to conduct its own counting, hoping to find 60 animals in the state.
"We do not accept the report which put the number of tigers at 28. The report was only based on the data from the Similipal National Park. It did not take into account the tigers in other forests like Atgarh and Kuldhia. The number of big cats in the state would be around 60," said Srivastava.
(Chinmaya Dehury can be contacted at chinmaya.d@ians. (IANS)