Panaji: Civil society groups and the media in Goa have rallied behind noted wildlife activist and journalist Rajendra Kerkar who was recently branded ‘abettor’ by the Goa forest department in a tiger poaching incident in February last year.
A month after the tiger was poached, Kerkar had reported in a leading national English daily about the incident, along with a photograph of the snared-and-shot tiger in the Mhadei wildlife sanctuary of North Goa, 60 km from here.
In its investigation documents, the forest department has reasoned that Kerkar’s failure to inform the authorities about the origin of the controversial photos made him an abettor to the crime.
Arvind Bhatikar, a former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and the editor of a local cable news channel Prudent Media, said that the charge against Kerkar was “an attempt by the state government to bludgeon activists and journalists in Goa into submission”.
“The harassment of Kerkar by the forest department should serve as a lesson to all of us. An attempt will be made to bludgeon activists and journalists in Goa who oppose the government into submission,” Bhatikar told IANS Friday after attending a public meeting in Panaji held in Kerkar’s support.
Claude Alvares, a nationally renowned green campaigner, said that the state government wanted to cover up the tiger killing at the behest of the highly influential mining industry in Goa.
“The implication of a tiger reserve in Goa is difficult to accept for everyone, especially to the mining lobby,” Alvares said, adding that establishing the presence of a tiger in Goa had made a good case for a tiger reserve in the state.
This, Alvares said, would serve as a death knell for dozens of iron and manganese ore mines, which are located in the dense Sahyadri forests, that make up Goa’s hinterland.
Alvares, the co-founder of Goa Foundation, an NGO dealing in environment and civic rights issues, charged that the state forest department, especially Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) Shashi Kumar, was acting on behalf of the state’s Rs 4,000 crore mining industry.
“Dr Shashi Kumar is not interested in sustaining the forest. He is interested in sustaining mining,” Alvares said, adding that Kerkar was being specifically targeted to cow down the campaign for a tiger reserve in Goa.
Ramesh Gauns, an anti mining activist and a part of Goa mining affected people (GOAMAP), said that there were nearly 81 mining leases in Sattari, the region where the tiger was trapped and shot dead.
“One of the reasons why the forest department is not interested in pursuing the tiger poaching case is because if the Sattari area is declared a tiger reserve, mining companies will have to bid good bye to the 81 mining leases there,” Gauns said.
It is not just NGOs alone who have come out publicly in support of Kerkar. Several leading vernacular and English language newspaper have devoted above-the-fold front page spreads to the Tiger-Kerkar-abettor story this week.
In its editorial dated Feb 11, Herald, a local daily, has called it unfortunate that a whistleblower had been turned into an accused by the Goa forest department.
“The department (forest) dragged its feet over the investigation after a powerful minister backed the poachers,” the editorial says, raising questions about a hidden agenda behind the vendetta.
When contacted, CCF Shashi Kumar said he was unwilling to comment on the Kerkar issue.
“I do not want to create a controversy by speaking on this issue. I do not understand what all this being reported in the newspapers is about,” Kumar said.