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The Forest Department in planning to introduce horses to patrol the Sahyadri tiger reserve.

To overcome the problem of logistics while protecting the difficult terrain, the state forest department is looking at deploying horses in the Sahyadri tiger reserve. The aim is to ensure that forest guards can patrol locations that are difficult to access with vehicles.

For the first time, animals will be deployed in a tiger reserve in an experiment that harks back to the use of animals such as horses, mules and elephants by forest staff during the pre-Independence era.

A senior forest department official told dna that they were planning to introduce horses to patrol the reserve that is spread over an area of 1,165.56sqkm area, including a 600.12 sq km core and a 565.45 sq km buffer in Satara, Sangli, Kolhapur and parts of the Ratnagiri district. “We have to give regular rations to our forest staff every week. If these animals are around, the material can be easily transported,” he said, adding that keeping these interior areas unmanned could lead to illegal activities such as poaching.

“We have thought of this idea for the first time,” the official added, stating that in June, the department had deployed three mules on a pilot basis, but two of them had died. These mules were pressed into service in two beats in the Helwak range located in the interior of the Satara district.

He said they would first recruit a veterinarian, construct stables and also train staff to use the horses, after which the animals will be procured. “This is already in our annual planning scheme,” he added.

“These horses will help our people move around in inaccessible areas where no vehicles can reach. Patrolling these areas on foot is tough,” admitted a forest official, adding that they would have to gauge if animals could adapt to extreme weather conditions like rains and cold.

A senior forest official said they were looking at procuring local breeds of horses, like the ones used by nomadic sheep herding communities, such as dhangars, that are sturdy, survive on frugal forage and require less medication.

“Our priority is to motivate the protection staff to stay in the jungles. Protection huts are already coming up and around 15 have televisions, LPG connections and volleyball kits. We have made a night halt protocol, stating that every officer should make 10-15 night halts in various places with forest guards,” said the official. The reserve is also getting rifles and ammunition to arm the staffers and ensure better protection and deterrence.

In addition, the state is working on declaring a patch of evergreen forests at Tillari inKonkan – on the cusp of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka – as a wildlife sanctuary, to develop it as a tiger habitat and source tiger population for the Sahyadri project. The development of Radhanagari and Tillari will help the larger programme to repopulate the reserve, which has just around seven tigers.

To develop a fresh habitat for tigers in Maharashtra, the department has proposed that the Radhanagari wildlife sanctuary be linked to the Sahyadri tiger reserve as its “satellite core”. While enhancing the protection status of the area located in the Kolhapur district, this will also develop the habitat for tigers and help repopulate the Sahyadri project with more of these big cats by strengthening the corridor linking it with the source population in southern states, such as Karnataka and Goa. The number of tigers in the Sahyadri tiger reserve is low, as the big cats do not breed there due to problems such as the poor prey base in the Koyna sanctuary and weak links in the corridor. The authorities are planning to tentatively translocate six animals to the reserve, including four females and two males, from Chandrapur in Vidarbha. Maharashtra has six tiger reserves. The tiger census, results for which were released in 2014, has stated that India has 2,226 tigers, up from 1,706 in 2010. Maharashtra has around 190 such big cats, more than the figure of 169 in 2010.

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