Survival at stake

Published : Apr 07, 2006 00:00 IST

ANNIE ZAIDI in Ranthambhore

AFTER the shocking revelation in 2005 that the tigers (Panthera tigris) had vanished from the Sariska reserve in Rajasthan, Ranthambhore, also in the same State, and one of the most popular tiger habitats in the country, is approaching a similar crisis: The National Park may have only 15 big cats left. The park authorities admitted last year that the official estimate of 47 tigers for 2004-05 was incorrect and that it had only 26 or so tigers. In May 2005, Tiger Watch, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), conducted an independent survey and found that another seven tigers were missing. This year, the group noticed that two young cubs were missing and estimated that there could be no more than 15 tigers left.

India is estimated to have between 3,000 and 3,500 tigers left in the wild. The 28 Project Tiger reserves in the country will be forced to revise their official figures for tiger populations since unofficial reports following the all-India tiger estimation, or tiger census, held between November 2005 and March 2006 are uniformly bad. In Ranthambhore, the census undertaken by the Forest Department along with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and some external (non-governmental) observers, began on February 20.

Fateh Singh Rathore, former Director of the reserve and founder of Tiger Watch, told Frontline that the figure of 26 tigers in Ranthambhore had become outdated by the time the officials acknowledged it. "We had reported 18 tigers missing since June 2004, but nobody paid any attention until Sariska reported zero tigers and the consequent media attention [that it drew]. By 2005, we had noticed another seven were missing in Ranthambhore. The park officials may not admit it, but ask them to show their data and they will not be able to prove the presence of more than 15 tigers."

While officials neither confirm nor deny the numbers, there is little doubt that poaching goes on in the reserve with impunity. Raghuvir Singh Shekhawat, Deputy Field Director of the park, admits that in December, at least three series of traps were found in the park. "We found them before any tigers died," he said, adding that leopard and crocodile skins had been recovered recently. Shekhawat hopes that the situation will get better now that the State government has announced 4,000 additional posts in the Forest Department.

In the meantime, the department is concentrating on the relocation of villages along the periphery of the core areas and the buffer zones of the park. "There are at least 96 villages around Ranthambhore. There are only two or three within the boundaries and we need to relocate them; but it will not be forced rehabilitation. All of them are willing to move out anyway," Shekhawat said. He is right to a large extent. Most of the 70-odd families of Mordungri village are willing to relocate, but on their own terms. Prabhu Lal, a village elder, said that they had met untold sufferings in Ranthambhore. "We had to relocate once before because of the Mansarovar dam and were never given compensation. We had the choice of moving or drowning. This time, we want everything in writing. Give us good land and water for irrigation and we'll move out overnight. The land they show us is so barren that it is only good to break your head against." Hemraj, a young man, pointed out that while the villagers were fined every time their cattle strayed into the reserved forest, nobody offered them any compensation when wild animals ventured into their fields and destroyed their crops. "We often stand vigil all night in the fields to chase away wild animals. We have nothing against the tiger. We understand he is the king of the forest and will eat our animals sometimes. But we should not be made to pay for what our cattle do."

Shekhawat, meanwhile, continues to focus on preventing grazing in the park and keeping out those who may use this as a reason to enter it. "We've deployed some 100 home guards and 55 Rajasthan Armed Constabulary personnel to stop illegal grazing and to patrol the park. We are trying to improve the communication systems. Each beat guard has a wireless set. We also have frequent night raids on the homes of the Mogiya [hunters] community. They have been caught poaching." Tiger Watch's Dharmendra Khandal agrees that the Mogiyas need to be watched closely. "There are five major poaching gangs with 35 members operating in this region, mostly comprising Mogiyas, who are also hired by farmers to protect crops at night. We launched an undercover operation in 2005 and tracked down the gangs and their areas of operation. Two gang leaders, Devi Singh Mogiya, and Kesra, were arrested along with some middlemen. But only four of the 35 members have been arrested so far," Kamdal said. On the falling tiger population, Shekhawat merely said: "In 2005, there were 26 tigers. The latest census data have yet to be analysed."

Wildlife activist Valmik Thapar believes that Ranthambhore hardly offers the worst-case scenario. "There are at least 10 or 12 tiger reserves that are very fragile right now. The media keep focussing on the same old places. Why don't you talk about Panna? Or Buxa in West Bengal? It was supposed to have 27 tigers but recently they could not find even a single faecal trail or pugmark. It might as well turn into another Sariska." Fateh Singh Rathore agrees. When he last visited Panna in 2005, he says he did not estimate more than five tigers there.

Recent reports from the Buxa reserve, which is contiguous with India's international boundary with Bhutan, have been grim. Media reports have quoted officials speculating on the possibility of tigers having crossed over to Bhutan, but it is almost certain that such cases would have been very few, if any. Paradoxically, as recently as 2004, the Project Tiger web site had claimed that the Buxa reserve had "benefited from clear policy directives" and that "enabling regimes have produced commendable results". The document did not specify what these benefits and the "commendable results" were.

Several wildlife scientists disagree with the need for a detailed census in the first place. While some argue that by the time the count is done the tiger population would have fallen even further, other scientists question the methods used. Ulhas Karanth, wildlife researcher, is one of them. He told Frontline: "It is absurd to try and count each tiger. There is no need for that. What you do need is a rough estimate and some idea about their location and density. This can be done through a mixture of observation, sampling and statistical methods. We have been demanding this change since 1984. If the WII is using statistical methods now, then we welcome it as a step in the right direction." The WII claims that this crucial first step has been taken.

According to Dr. Y.V. Jhala, head of the animal ecology and conservation list of the WII, statistical methods will be used to analyse the data compiled by the forest guards and the digital data collected by its own teams. "You cannot count each and every tiger. We're not even trying. The stress is on where they are and in what relative proportion to their surroundings, using several methods. There are about 50 people divided into teams for this census. We're also building a GIS [geographical information system] domain wherein the presence or absence of tigers will be superimposed on information base layers - such as their prey, the landscape, water availability and people's presence. This will help us understand why the numbers are changing." He added that the WII could only support the government technically and was not responsible for policy decisions taken subsequently. In all parts of the country, however, wildlife researchers mistrust the official machinery and believe that there is an urgent need to bring in a system of independent assessment.

R.S. Chundawat, who has spent 10 years studying tigers in Panna, is one of the many wildlife researchers who raised the alarm and got his fingers burnt, by way of reward. "We have compiled a list of 21 wildlife researchers who have been harassed by government officials for talking about poaching. I myself tried radio-collaring tigers in Kanha and Panna. When I noticed that some tigers in Panna were not moving, we suspected they were dead and complained to the authorities. They seized my vehicle and claimed I was an illegal entrant in the park. Now I have at least seven criminal cases pending against me and so do most of the other wildlife activists."

It is true that wherever alarm has been raised, it has always been an NGO or an individual. Nevertheless, activists believe that the problem is not statistics; it is poaching. The Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has been lobbying for a special Wildlife Crime Bureau for more than a decade and is hopeful that the coming weeks will finally lead to the formation of a special anti-poaching force. Belinda Wright, who heads the WPSI, believes that poaching is an organised crime and that enforcement agencies need special skills to combat it. "A lot of the trade is inter-State and international. We need the Customs to be involved. As it is, State authorities do not have much power in each other's areas. Also, enforcement agencies lack professional intelligence networks. Several magistrates in the lower courts do not even have copies of the Wildlife Protection Act. The forest guards have huge areas to cover; they are often over-aged and under-motivated. It is not their fault entirely. There is a huge lack of awareness about how crimes are carried out."

The WPSI has been conducting workshops for the police, forest guards and other enforcement agencies to bring about awareness. They also hold mock court trails to help them prosecute wildlife criminals.

In 2003, there were 27 criminal cases registered for tiger poaching. These 27 represented 35 tiger killings since most of the cases are related to the seizure of skins or body parts. The figure went up to 31 (34 killings) in 2004, and rose to 39 (representing 43 killings), in 2005. According to Customs officials, on an average there is only one seizure for every 10 crimes.

The scaled-down budget allocation of Rs.28.5 crores for Project Tiger for 2006-07, as opposed to Rs.30.2 crores last year, does not bode well for tiger conservation. Officials of Project Tiger claimed that they had no knowledge of the current developments or future plans.

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