Sunday, May 18, 2008

Animal farm a death trap - Valmiki tigers easy prey

Animal farm a death trap
- Valmiki tigers easy prey
Issue Date: Sunday , May 18 , 2008
A dead tiger at the sanctuary Telegraph picture 
Valmiki Tiger Reserve (West Champaran), May 17: Big cats are dying a slow death in the 18th national park created to protect the animal, the Valmiki Tiger Reserve.
In 1997 the reserve had 53 tigers. Now it is left with 32.
Even after lakhs of rupees being pumped into it, the park remains the same 880sqkm of unsafe haven due to poachers. A visit by The Telegraph revealed instances of neglect and apathy, man-animal conflicts and violations of Wildlife Protection Act — right under the noses of the forest officers.
Sample this: On May 10, 2008, a 9ft adult Royal Bengal Tiger died near Naurangia village, 340 km from Patna, after its right front limb was enmeshed in a steel trap, set by poachers, for seven hours.
Cow herders from Naurangia who found the wild cat struggling to free its leg said the hapless animal unleashed its pain and fury on a Sahul tree, biting deep into its bark. Forest officers arrived after a while, but without medicine, tranquillisers or any form of medical support. The animal slowly died a painful death before the officials' eyes. When an expert from Patna arrived late in the evening, he saw only the smouldering ashes of the cat at a cremation spot.
This is not an isolated case. Villagers come up with several stories of how poachers from West Champaran, Uttar Pradesh, and adjoining Nepal claim lives with out any official intervention.
Usually poachers prefer steel traps that have sharp nails. The trap is tied to a small but strong steel chain, which, in turn, is tied to an iron rod dug deep into the ground. After trapping an animal, a poacher usually poisons it — to sell its skin, teeth, nails and bones at a high price in the international market.
S.P. Yadav, a tailor at Naurangia village, said: "We hardly see any forest patrolling parties. Everything is left at the mercy of god. It is villagers who inform forest officers when things go out of hand."
Official records in the Valmiki Nagar divisional forest office show no cases of unnatural death in the past two years. But, in the absence of his seniors, a forest guard gave figures. It seems that there were 18 deaths between April 2007 and March 2008 of deer, rhinoceros and peacocks.
Chief forest conservator B.N. Jha said: "Tell us how can we guard a 880sqkm reserve with 65 permanent staffers? Rest of the staffers come on an ad hoc basis and are generally removed after some time.
"I would be happy to use the media to draw the system-in-charge's attention towards the sorry state of affairs at the park. Bihar authorities have one tranquilliser gun that has to be kept at the Sanjay Gandhi Biological Park in Patna."
A significant recovery of rhino horns was made in November 2007 by the Seema Suraksha Bal (SSB), which guards the Indo-Nepal border at Valmiki Nagar. But even SSB officers concede it is difficult to check every person crossing the soft border. "We frisk suspicious people but entries are made only of those entering in two, three or four-wheelers," said an SSB officer posted at Gandak Barrage at the border.
Forest employees, too, stress that their hands are tied. "What can we do with dandas (sticks)?" is the common refrain. The reserve has over 300 employees, including the recent deployment of 25 unarmed jawans of Special Auxiliary Police.
Protecting even the core area of 335sqkm is no mean feat. G.K. Pandey, a wildlife expert, said: "It was almost impossible to even venture into the forest till 1994. Counting of tigers by camera is a recent addition. A forester hardly knows where the tigers are minus any tracking system."
The reserve is also witnessing an increasing man-animal conflict. Though the core area has three villages, 25 villages surround the national park. There are a total of 121 villages with over 1.5 lakh population in and around the park. While villagers are not ready to leave their home, Wildlife Protection Act terms them as trespassers living in "prohibited" areas.
Sameer Kumar Sinha, a senior field officer working with Wildlife Trust of India at the reserve, said: "Villagers are a problem. They are not ready to accept the rehabilitation plan offered by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, earlier known as Project Tiger."
"Our job is to provide data on ecological distribution of wild animals. Tigers move in and around core the area and very often come into conflict with the humans. The reserve has been declared a prohibited area, but officers can't stop people from entering the forests," he added.
It's not that the reserve lacks funds to spruce up its act. It receives a cumulative central and state government annual budget of Rs 213 lakh. In 2007-08, the Union forest and environment ministry sanctioned Rs 106.663 lakh, besides Rs 81.228 lakh on a pattern of 50:50 sharing with the Bihar government, for the park.

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