Sunday, March 04, 2007

India: Is Reserve's tiger reintroduction plan viable?

Poachers wiped out the tiger from Sariska. Is the plan to reintroduce them viable?

Mihir Srivastava
Sariska Tiger Reserve

The Sariska Tiger Reserve publicity booklet — subtitled Rebuilding the Future — features photographs of the leopard, hyena, nilgai, spotted dear, wild boar and jackal. The tiger is missing — unless one counts the small black and white Raj-era photo of hunters posing with a big tiger supine at their feet. “Join the mission to bring the tiger back,” the back-flap proclaims.

“This significant omission; it pains us, and it also reinforces our resolve to bring back the tiger to Sariska,” says Rajesh Gupta, deputy director of the reserve. Just over two years ago, it came to light that there were no more tigers left in Sariska, thanks to relentless poaching aided in no small measure by lax administration and possible connivance by forest employees. If official figures are to be believed, 30 tigers were lost here in just two years. A tiger was last spotted in Sariska in November 2004.

Now park authorities have embarked upon a novel strategy to repopulate the reserve with tigers.

How did things come to such a pass in the first place? The State Empowered Committee (SEC) appointed by the Rajasthan government put the blame squarely on the complete breakdown in the park administration and monitoring mechanism. “The extinction of the tigers in Sariska is clearly a result of connivance of the local people and gross negligence of the forest staff. The connivance of the forest staff can’t be ruled out,” the report said.

Other factors hastened the beleaguered cat’s decimation. Covering an area of 881 square kilometres, the dry, deciduous Sariska forest, faces tremendous “pressure”. In other words, much like most other wildlife sanctuaries and reserves in India, the flora and fauna here are under constant threat from the human population and human depredation.

There are 28 villages inside the park with a population of 10,000 people – most of them cattle-rearers — and a correspondingly large cattle population completely dependent on the park’s resources for its survival. Add to this the Pandupol temple, situated in the heart of the park and visited by hundreds daily. Thousands of vehicles ply on state highways 29-a and 13 which run through prime habitat inside the park.

Gupta admits that Sariska lost its tigers for “extraneous” reasons — poaching being the main culprit. “But we have to move ahead. Sariska has to get back its tigers,” he insists. However it is clear from the current ground reality at Sariska that nothing has changed. As and when tigers are reintroduced here, they will face the same threats to their existence which wiped them out the first time around. The primary requirement for the reintroduction to succeed is that the park be made safe from poachers.

“None of the recommendations made by SEC have been implemented so far,” says Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. “There is a certain menu to make Sariska safe. Take action against all those forest officials who are responsible for the debacle. So that all new recruits know that you can’t get away with dereliction of duty,” says Valmik Thapar, a leading tiger expert. “Relocation of villages outside the core area of the park, especially the six critical ones, and reintroduction of the tigers must go hand in hand. If anybody makes the mistake of trying to go fast, it could be disastrous,” he warns. Tiger expert Raghu Chundavat concurs. “There is always a conflict of interest between human and tigers in the forests,” he says.

It is no surprise then that the villagers living inside Sariska have a different take on the whole issue. “This is our land. We are happy the way we are. Why do they have to disturb us, there are no more tigers here. Will they move people out of Jaipur to rehabilitate tigers?” asks Ram Gujjar of the village Haripur. Uday Bhan, a forest guard at Sariska for 20 years, is disheartened by this attitude. “The villagers are happy that tigers are dead. Their cattle can safely graze in the park and eat up all the vegetation. They think that tigers are gone and soon the wildlife department will follow,” he says.

The Rajasthan government is finally taking the project of relocating villages seriously. Work towards that end has begun, at least on paper. “To start with, we are targeting two villages: Bhagani and Kankwari. All the work for the rehabilitation of Bhagani is complete. The families have signed their consent papers. We have created adequate health and education infrastructure at the relocation site. We aim to make it a model relocated village, it will act as an incentive for others villages to move out,” explains Gupta.

Chundavat supports the relocation of tigers in Sariska. “We must understand that highway and the temple have been there for a long time. The crucial reason for the extinction of tigers here is poaching.” He offers a plan to check the menace. “To prevent poaching, we have to guard and protect tiger-kill. My experience tells me that poachers reach tiger by following its kill. In the past it has always been the case that poachers reach the kill before the forest staff. Once they do that, killing tiger is easy as it hovers around its kill for the next few days. Protecting the kill is protecting tigers. This is exactly what we did in the Panna National Park and the complexion of the tiger population changed within five years.” Gupta claims he has made headway in the creation of a credible intelligence network. “It’s nascent, but it is developing,” he says.

There is an air of optimism about the relocation plan. “Sariska forests are in good health with a comfortable prey base for tigers,” says Gupta. “Sariska should have tigers by the end of this year.”

To begin with, the forest department plans to get a pair of tiger and tigress of prime breeding age, in all probability from Ranthambore and Panna national parks. “We will have a population from varying genetic pool to avoid inbreeding. We are planning a soft release: first the tigress will be released in a closed enclosure, and then, depending on how well she adapts to her new environment, the tiger will then be released after 15 odd days,” explains Gupta.

“It is a novel experiment. Nowhere in the world has the wild tiger been relocated like this. We do not know whether it will be a success or not. But we will not know unless we try,” says Chundavat.

Thapar sums up the whole predicament of artificially relocating tigers. “There has been huge manipulation of our wilderness system. Human beings are today forced to play experimental games. This is a reaction to an action — whether it is by poachers or by the brainless governance of our times,” he says. “These manmade factors are fast changing our wilderness and the natural world. There are some manmade impacts that are positive. We have no choice but to take them.”

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