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May 11, 2012

Tourism At Odisha Sanctuary Falls Prey To Maoists

11 May 2012

Sunabeda (Odisha): It is home to over 30 tigers and many more leopards. But Odisha’s Sunabeda wildlife sanctuary is still failing to attract wildlife enthusiasts and tourists due to the fear of Maoists, say forest officials.

The killing of a police officer Tuesday by Maoist guerrillas near the sanctuary in Nuapada district, about 550 km from state capital Bhubaneswar, has made the situation worse, with forest staff now reluctant to patrol inside.

“For the past year, almost no tourist has visited the sanctuary,” divisional forest officer (wildlife) Biswa Ranjan Rout told IANS.

It’s a far cry from the time when around 15,000 tourists would come visiting every year.

“Officials are also living in fear. They are reluctant to enter the sanctuary as they fear a Maoist attack,” he said.

Sunabeda is home to 32 tigers and 36 leopards, according to the 2004 tiger census.

Declared a sanctuary in 1983, Sunabeda has other prominent wildlife species such as hyena, barking deer, chital, gaur, sambar, sloth bear, hill myna, pea fowl and partridge.

Rout said 26 forest guards, 10 foresters, three range officers and one divisional forest officer were among 40 officials deployed in the region to carry out conservation measures, apart from around 30 other contract employees.

“Officials are afraid because their security is not guaranteed,” he said, adding they could not conduct the 2010 tiger census for fear of Maoist attacks.

According to a forest officer posted in the region, a few years ago around 10,000 to 15,000 tourists, including foreigners, used to visit the sanctuary every year.

“Let alone tourists, even locals who used to go inside the sanctuary for excursions avoid entering it these days,” he said.

The presence of Maoists in the sanctuary, spread over an area of around 600 sq km, first came to light in 2008 when the rebels started holding motivational meetings in villages of the region.

The guerrillas in subsequent years started targeting local leaders, wildlife and forest officials, the authorities say. They have also destroyed government infrastructures, including a forest beat house, residences, offices and guesthouses of the forest department.

The first major violence by the guerrillas was reported when in May last year they ambushed a police party and killed nine policemen, including an additional superintendent of police, inside the sanctuary.

The policemen who got killed were from neighbouring Chhattisgarh.

However, the killing that took place Tuesday was the first incident in which a police officer from Odisha was killed, deputy inspector general of police Soumendra Priyadarshi told IANS.

Assistant sub-inspector Kruparam Majhi, 43, was abducted by over 10 armed guerrillas when he was escorting a water tanker to a paramilitary force camp, about 15 km away, along with a constable on a motorcycle.

While the constable managed to escape, Majhi’s bullet-riddled body was later found by police.

The Sunabeda sanctuary, which is also a proposed tiger reserve, is located close to the Chhattisgarh border. Earlier guerrillas used to infiltrate it from Chhattisgarh, but now they have managed to create a base in Sunabeda, police said.

To counter Maoist activities, the state government recently set up a paramilitary force base inside the sanctuary.

“The rebels are targeting police because they are worried about the operation launched against them recently,” Priyadarshi said.

He said forces often face difficulties in operations as one needs to trek seven to eight kilometres to reach the interior areas of the sanctuary.