Goa High Court Orders Tiger Reserve in Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary
On July 24, 2023, the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court issued significant directives to the Goa government regarding the establishment of a tiger reserve in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) and neighboring regions. The court instructed the state to complete the notification process for the tiger reserve within three months and to address the rights and claims of Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers within a year.
Goa Foundation’s PIL
The catalyst for these directives was a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by the Goa Foundation, an environmental NGO based in Goa. The PIL sought legal action to establish a tiger reserve in Goa, as recommended by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) under the Wildlife Protection Act.
Government’s Response and Deadline Extension Request
Following the High Court’s ruling, the Goa government approached the Supreme Court to request a stay on the judgement. As the initial three-month deadline for notifying the tiger reserve passed, Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant stated that the government had filed an application in the High Court seeking more time to implement the court’s order. The government intends to await the decision on this application.
Background of the Issue
The roots of this legal battle lie in the 2014 Status of Tigers in India report by the NTCA. This report highlighted the presence of tigers in the Cotigao-Mhadei forest complex of Goa, which includes the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary and other protected areas. These areas form a contiguous belt connecting forests in Karnataka and Maharashtra and cover approximately 750 square kilometers, providing a potential tiger habitat.
Progress on the Proposal for a Tiger Reserve
Over the years, the NTCA made several recommendations to the Goa government to establish a tiger reserve. Such a designation would lead to enhanced protection measures, including the formation of a ‘Special Tiger Protection Force.’ In 2011, the then Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, advocated for declaring the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary as a tiger reserve, citing evidence of a resident tiger population.
NTCA’s Official Recommendation
In March 2016, the NTCA officially recommended the notification of a tiger reserve in the Cotigao-Mhadei forest complex. The Forest Department then prepared a tentative map for the reserve, with the core zone being largely undisturbed areas. However, the proposal was stalled as the state sought to study the socio-economic impact on local communities residing in fringe areas.
Hurdles and Controversies
The proposal for the tiger reserve faced opposition and controversy over the years. Local politicians allegedly encouraged encroachments and agricultural activities within the sanctuary, causing delays. In 2022, Goa’s Forest Minister Vishwajit Rane disputed the existence of resident tigers in Goa, further complicating the matter.
Recent Triggers for Action
In January 2020, the discovery of a tigress and its cubs found dead in Mhadei WLS, allegedly poisoned by forest dwellers, spurred action. An NTCA expert team recommended upgrading the legal status of Mhadei WLS to that of a tiger reserve to ensure a strong protection regime.
Government’s Arguments and Court Response
The state government argued that the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act were not mandatory but directory, implying that further studies and rights settlement were necessary before establishing a tiger reserve. The High Court countered by referencing a 1997 Supreme Court directive to complete the rights settlement process. The government’s claim that all wildlife received equal protection in protected areas was also addressed.