Sunday, January 29, 2006

Counting the tiger in the heart of Naxalite country

Counting the tiger in the heart of Naxalite country


The Sunday Express follows the census team in the country’s largest tiger reserve to find what challenges officials face: from wearing civilian clothes to escape Naxalites to tracking the elusive pugmark




Posted online: Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 0138 hours IST


 ACHAMPET/ATMAKUR (ANDHRA PRADESH), JANUARY 28: Across the country, in 28 national parks, tigers are being counted right now, the first census after last year’s dismal news of the missing big cat. But nowhere else is the challenge so unique as in the largest tiger reserve in the country, the Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam, in Andhra Pradesh, home to, as per last year’s official data, 70 tigers. Key reason: this is the heart of Naxalite country.


The solitary stone tiger at the entrance itself is a pointer. It had welcome arches and a watchpost, both were blasted by the People’s War Group two years ago—no one has dared to rebuild.  


And because policemen are the PWG’s prime target, the CRPF and the Greyhound commando—Andhra’s anti-Naxal force—wear “improvised” civilian clothes rather than uniform as they patrol the forests. Even the forest staff are in civvies lest the Naxals confuse them for the police.


Result: more confusion.


Take January 18, the first day of the census. A group of 30 CRPF personnel intercepted forest staff from going ahead with their census operations deep in the reserve. They had valid identity cards but because they were not in uniform, the CRPF dismissed these as “fake.” In the skirmish that followed, census equipment, including tracing frames to record tiger pugmarks, were destroyed.


There were even rumours that a tiger had been killed in the cross-fire, prompting Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) K Ashok Kumar to rush for a field inspection in the evening.


“Our men are risking their lives everyday. They are even camping in the interiors. It’s tough here to maintain focus,” says K N Banerjee, field director.


“Fortunately, they didn’t open fire on our men. >From Hyderabad, we informed all Collectors and SPs concerned about the census schedule. But it seems they can’t do much,” said Additional PCCF (Principal Chief Conservator of Forests) Hitesh Malhotra, who served as field director here during 1989-92, the early days of PWG insurgency.


But then you can’t blame the CRPF.


Last evening, Naxalites attacked an Andhra Tourism restaurant in Mannanore inside the reserve. And on the same day as the CRPF skirmish, a Naxalite encounter left two policemen injured in Atmakur.


Malhotra and Banerjee insist that despite this, their message to the four DFOs is clear: counting has to be “transparent,” don’t bother to “protect census figures of the past.”


Their caution has a reason: there are more than 46,000 people staying inside the reserve. Add to this the pressure of rampant grazing, restricted access due to insurgency, and heavy traffic on the road to Srisailam temples, and you have a disturbed habitat where a fragmented tiger population cannot hope for a better future.


As for the tiger population here, last year’s figure of 70 is being countered by sceptics’ estimates of 12-18. The real number would lie somewhere in between. Walking five trails in two days, The Sunday Express found definite signs of at least three different tigers.


That the official count is exaggerated—as is the sceptics’—is evident from the counting. Markapur division alone reported half of the reserve’s 70 tigers last year. This time, with just 14 pug marks in his collection and one day of carnivore survey to go, DFO S. Saravanam wanted to count each as a different tiger.


“I came here six months back. From what I have seen, the prey base and frequency of sightings don’t support the presence of 35 tigers in my area,” he admitted. But the final day, however, his division claimed to have counted another 16 tigers.


Similar is the case with Atmakur DFO Kumar. When he took charge in May last year, he was not convinced his division had all 17 reported tigers. Today, he argued why his division was a better tiger habitat than Markapur. He claimed that the 26 pug marks collected in his division belong to 26 tigers.


These numbers will be verified in the second stage of the census when data collected by the staff here is checked by experts at Project Tiger and Wildlife Institute of India.


What’s new about this year’s census


Since the inception of Project Tiger in 1972, individual states counted their tigers annually and often threw up inflated numbers to earn brownie points. Following reports of dwindling tiger population in many areas, the Centre last year decided to join the census. Project Tiger, Wildlife Institute of India and Indian Institute of Statistics jointly worked out a detailed method which it claims will set the record straight:


• A total scanning of the landscapes will be conducted for carnivore signs like pugs, scratch or scat


• Scanning will be done through line transact method where officials follow linear tracks; they also record the signs of herbivore presence and the range of vegetation


• Sample blocks from high, medium, low and no density areas to be scanned with technologies such as digital pugmark photography and DNA analysis


• Sample size to be determined such that the population variability remains limited to 10 per cent.


The first phase started on January 16 - on January 5 for Sunderbans due to topographical compulsions. So far, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Orissa have finished collecting their primary data. Other states are scheduled to complete the first phase by February. The final national report is not expected before September this year.


For the cats,


Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue

an Educational Sanctuary home

to more than 150 big cats

12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625

813.920.4130 fax 885.4457 cell 493.4564


Meet our recent mountain lion cub rescues:


No comments: