New Delhi: On Tuesday, a news report published in The Times of India claimed that "wildlife authorities" suspect that residents of villages bordering Uttar Pradesh's Pilibhit Tiger Reserve are sending their elders as prey to tigers in order to claim compensation.
According to the report, a "bizarre trend is said to be afoot" where locals living around the reserve are sending elder members of their families in the forest to get mauled and killed by the wild cat in order to draw a thick amount from the government. Once dead, the report said, the villagers venture inside the forest and remove the corpse to an area which falls outside the reserve, thereby making him eligible for government compensation.
As per government norms, if a person is killed outside a reserve, he/she is entitled to a Rs 5 lakh compensation.
This sensational news was picked up by a lot of media outlets:
The news report was based on an "examination" of recent tiger attacks in the area by environmentalist, Kalim Athar, who volunteers with Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), a central government agency.
While the report said "a string of recent fatal tiger attacks" have taken place in the region, it didn't specify the number of cases on which the analysis was done. Also, the report didn't explain how many families of the victims had applied for the compensation. No data was provided about the ages of the victims who have fallen prey to the animals.
ScoopWhoop News talked to the volunteer who is making the claims
Athar told ScoopWhoop News that he, along with two other colleagues, conducted the analysis on "two recent deaths in the area and recorded video bytes of villagers saying that the victims were deliberately left in the forest to be killed and then relocated to a non-reserve area for compensation."
Case 1: Athar mentioned the recent case of a 60-year-old woman Nanki Devi of Maithi Saidullaganj village who was killed by a tiger in the Mala range of the tiger reserve on July 1.
According to a PTI report, Devi had gone to her fields where the incident happened. Quoting police, the report said the locals heard a loud cry but before they could rush to her rescue, the tiger dragged her into the forest. Later a half-bitten body of the woman was recovered.
Athar provides a different version of the incident.
"Entry of locals inside the reserve was banned from 15 June but still Devi went inside the reserve along with three other women. When she was attacked, the other three escaped. After the attack, some 20 men went inside the forest and relocated her body to a farm, following which they raised hue and cry that she was attacked while working in her farm. Devi has two sons but why did they send her to the jungle? Why didn't they go to the reserve?" Athar told ScoopWhoop News.
Case 2: He also mentioned the case of 40-year-old Mihi Lal who was killed in the forest while cutting woods but his body was allegedly relocated to a farm for compensation.
"If somebody is attacked or killed in the forest, it's the responsibility of reserve officials to remove his body from there, not locals. Many villagers have told us on camera what really happened but if we disclose that there'll be chaos in the village," Athar, a resident of UP himself, said. Athar has submitted the footage to District Forest Officer and brought the matter to the notice of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
Case for compensation dismissed by forest officials
According to Athar, 16 people have been killed by tigers in the reserve since last decade and two others have been mauled to death by bears during that period. However, he said, there's no data on how many families have claimed for compensation and Devi's case "maybe the first case of such nature."
Athar also said the issue is likely to get politicized with former MLA Hemraj Verma of the Barkhera constituency threatening to go on strike in support of the victims' demand for compensation. This comes after conservator of forests V K Singh has already dismissed the compensation's claim of Devi's family.
Officials in the district administration however trashed the TOI report and its claims.
"This [tiger reserve] is not some kind of a Tower of Silence where you'll just leave dead bodies for eagles. I have never heard something more absurd than this because there are around 300 villages all around the tiger reserve. All the people who have died were not essentially senior citizens," District Magistrate Pilibhit, Sheetal Verma told ScoopWhoop News.
She also said it's "absurd" that villagers will first let the victim die in the forest and then take the danger of relocating his/her body.
"Nobody can put in such effort believe me because there are so many others in the village. It's a terrible imagination on the part of reporter who has written it," she added.
The district magistrate also said the government has repeatedly issued warnings to the locals to not encroach upon forest land to avoid man-animal conflict.
"If at all the tiger reserve is fenced it will need 700 kilometers of fencing. So we appeal people to avoid encroaching upon forest land," she added.