Missing tigers

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

Safe for how long? A tigress at the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. - ASHISH KOTHARI

Safe for how long? A tigress at the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. - ASHISH KOTHARI

* January 2005: There are no tigers in the Sariska National Park, Rajasthan, says a report.

* February: Reports of 18 tigers missing from Ranthambhore, Rajasthan. The State government admits there are very few tigers in Sariska. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) blames Sariska officials.

* March: The Prime Minister asks Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje to order a probe. A Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry is ordered. Experts come up with solutions like breeding tigers in zoos. A special task force declares a red alert. An empowered committee will supervise the tiger census. Tigers reported missing from the Panna Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh.

* April: The Rajasthan High Court issues a notice on the tiger disappearances. Officials are suspended in Sariska; gang of poachers arrested in Jabalpur. The Rajasthan government launches an anti-poaching drive. Tiger skin found in the Jim Corbett Park. The Prime Minister sets up the Tiger Task Force.

FOR over six months, no tiger has been spotted in the Sariska wildlife sanctuary. The numbers in the sanctuaries of Ranthambore in Rajasthan and Panna in Madhya Pradesh have also come down. This, after the tiger has been recognised as an endangered and protected species and though the animal is known to bounce back in adverse situations.

Nearly four months after the first reports, on April 14 the Centre entrusted the business of finding a viable solution to the problem to a five-member task force to be headed by Sunita Narain, Director of the Centre for Science and Environment. Other members of the Tiger Task Force are: H.S. Panwar, former head of Project Tiger and former head of the Wildlife Institute of India; Professor Madhav Gadgil, environmental historian and member of the National Board for Wildlife; Sarnar Singh, former Secretary, Government of India, and member of the National Board for Wildlife.

Some people have expressed reservations about the appointment of Sunita Narain as the chairperson because she is not a tiger expert. But there are some who are happy with the appointment because whatever tiger experts, official or otherwise, have done in the past has not been quite successful.

The task force, which is scheduled to have its first meeting in the last week of April or the first week of May, must submit a report in three months. The terms of reference of the task force include suggesting measures to incentivise local forest staff posted in sanctuaries/national parks and ensure an effective HR plan for tiger conservation/wildlife managers. The task force does not have a politician or a serving bureaucrat on board, and this has raised expectations that it will recommend involving local communities in tiger conservation. If it does do so, it will move away from the tradition of insulating sanctuaries from biotic disturbances (human beings).

This is not the first time that alarm bells have rung and steps have been taken. As early as 1973, Project Tiger was implemented after concern was expressed about the dwindling number of tigers. Three decades later, the number of sanctuaries has gone up from nine to 28, spread across in 17 States. But the number of tigers has come down from perhaps over 30,000 a century ago to less than 3,000 at the present time. Sariska now has none of the 25 magnificent big cats it took care of some years ago.

According to Rajesh Gopal, Director of Project Tiger for the past three years, the media have been generalising on the basis of the reports on Sariska. He said that the Sariska sanctuary faced several problems. He explained: We cannot say that there are no tigers at all in Sariska. There are many chronic ailments in a place like Sariska. Sariska is like the only green patch in a vast desert. There is heavy mining activity in the area and there is also a Hanuman temple which attracts huge crowds. There is a State highway, which causes a lot of disturbance to the animals. All this has been pointed out to the State government. The highway has not been diverted yet. With disturbances like that in the habitat, the animals are bound to stray away.

Environmentalists agree that pocket sanctuaries are damaging for the animal. Mike Pandey, environmental film-maker, said: It is important to have corridors of jungles where there is movement of tigers. Jungles should be thriving. To have tigers you need a jungle, small animals and a complete ecosystem where people live in a harmonious relationship with wildlife.

It might be true that conditions in Sariska are more harmful for animals than those in other sanctuaries. But that does not explain why the problem has not been addressed in so many years. Valmik Thapar, one of the members of the Tiger Task Force, lists some of the current problems and blames the implementing authorities for the present crisis. The average age of a forest guard is 53 years while poachers are in their 20s and carry arms. There has been no recruitment in the last 20 years. None of the recommendations has been put in practice. It is not possible for an aged forest guard to chase a young poacher. We are in the middle of the worst crisis, he said.

Some environmentalists concentrate on how to stop poachers while there are others who are equally concerned about the unregulated tourism which disturbs tigers.

Sunita Narain points out in her editorial in Down to Earth: To take just one example: hotels have sprung up near many tiger reserves, some even promoted by conservationists; some are very expensive and almost all make profits sent out of the local economy. The neighbouring villager may get some side-benefits through ancillary tourism activity. But the people who live in the vicinity of the tiger get virtually nothing. Over time, this use of the sanctuary for tourism x unregulated and unmanaged x will contribute to its destruction as well.

Peoples participation and sensible and regulated tourism are some of the suggestions that are being made. There are also calls for greater political will and there is the old insistence on serious efforts to stop poaching by increased employment of forest guards and through stricter punitive measures. It is up to the task force to suggest a new wildlife management paradigm that shares the concerns of conservation with the public.

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