Sampad Mahapatra, Swati Thyagarajan
Sunday, September 24, 2006 (Simlipal):
The national tiger census is on in the country.
Armed with a new methodology, the final count of tiger numbers will be revealed only by 2007 end, once all the surveys are complete.
The team is at present in Simlipal in Orissa, and from all available reports, there are concerns that Simlipal could be India's next Sariska where not a single tiger is left.
One hundred tigers has been the official claim of tiger numbers in Simlipal for over 10 years.
It is the fourth largest Project Tiger reserve in the country, spread over 2,750 sq km in the Mayurbhanj district of Orissa.
But earlier this year, a national team in the park for a tiger census found pug marks and scat evidence of less than 12 tigers and failed to physically spot any - a fact that a desperate forest department refutes.
The team is now back in the park for the second round of counting. However, the constant rain has made it difficult for them to proceed and the count has been postponed to November.
In this second round, the team is going to use camera traps to get a better idea of tiger movement in the park.
It is a large park with very tough terrain and lush vegetation, making it unusually difficult to spot the large feline.
No tiger spotted
If government claims are to be believed, then there are a hundred tigers in the park, 80 of which are present in the 845 sq km core area.
However, it seems highly improbable that not even a single tiger has been spotted by a whole team scouring the park along with forest guards, specifically to spot and count tigers.
Of the 80 tigers in the core area, even if just 20 are adult males with their own territory, then that is one male to every 40 sq km with females more or less within those 40 km patches in smaller ranges.
Twelve rivers and streams flow into the park and there are two magnificent waterfalls. The presence of tigers in the park has ensured the area's protection and water security for Mayurbhanj and three other districts.
Thousands of tribals live here, some of the villages even within the core area.
In total, there are 4.5 lakh people in and around Simlipal who depend on the forests and their cattle graze there.
One of the biggest problems with reporting tiger numbers in parks across the country is the fact that all census numbers seem fudged.
Sariska in early 2005 claimed that they had over 25 tigers, but the actual number turned out to be zero.
Later, it was found that the actual tiger count in Ranthambore was 50 per cent less than declared official numbers and this could now be true for Simlipal as well.
Officials, who serve in tiger reserves, are too nervous to talk about dwindling tiger numbers for fear of losing their jobs.
Also tiger numbers are inflated as more tigers mean more money for the park.
Conservationists fear that apart from false figures, poaching has also played a big role in Simlipal.
However, it is not just Simlipal, which is in big trouble. Project Tiger reserves like Palamau, Buxa, Valmiki, Indravati and Namdhapha are also reeling under the poaching threat.
Added to this, Naxalite activity in some of these parks is so rampant that forest guards fear to venture in.
But it's still not too late to save the tiger. What we need is more dedication, greater political will and Project Tiger must become more open and transparent in its functioning.