Orissa’s denial exposed, tiger numbers down by half
Debabrata Mohanty Posted online: Monday , Jul 20, 2009 at 0302 hrs
Bhubaneswar : Despite an expenditure of a little over Rs 10 crore in the last five years by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), over 40 per cent of the tigers in Simlipal Tiger Reserve seems to have vanished.
The Orissa government, which spent last year denying the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) census figure of 21 big cats in the wildlife sanctuary, did its own census in January this year. The result: only 61 big cats (16 males, 31 females, 14 cubs) were found in the sanctuary, which spans 2,301 sq km. The 2004 census had put the figure at 101. All this has happened after the NTCA spent Rs 10.41 crore on Simlipal between 2004 and 2009. While the NTCA money was spent on the tiger reserve, the state government paid salaries to the staff of the reserve, including forest guards, rangers and field director.
In January this year, 81 counting teams comprising officials of four forest divisions, staff of Simlipal sanctuary and teachers/students of North Orissa University fanned out in the tiger reserve for an elaborate census as part of the state government's move to negate the WII census. Orissa Chief Wildlife Warden B K Patnaik, who sent the report to the state Forest and Environment Department a fortnight ago, said the numbers were quite low, but not “below normal”.
Patnaik himself seemed bewildered by the new census, saying it would be difficult to reconcile census figures of WII and tiger reserve’s own. “It is now up to the Forest and Environment Department to accept one of the figures,” he said.
Department secretary U N Behera refused to speak to The Indian Express over the huge drop in the numbers. But senior research officer in the state Wildlife Department L A K Singh, who all along defended the figure of 101 tigers, did a volte-face on Thursday saying no one should be surprised to see the tiger numbers go down. “Let's not get sentimental about it. Tigers will not vanish from Simlipal soon. But they will surely vanish,” said Singh. However, none of the wildlife officials were ready to discuss how the money was spent.
Incidentally, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in one of its assessments of tiger reserves had ranked Simlipal at No 7, which means it was “well-managed”.
Wildlife activist Biswajit Mohanty said the state Forest Department has a lot to answer how the money meant for tigers failed to save them. “Simlipal Tiger Reserve seems to have turned into a black hole. Both money and tigers vanished and no one is accountable,” he alleged.
Tiger activist Belinda Wright of Wildlife Protection Society of India demanded that the forest officials responsible for the drop in number should be held accountable. “The NTCA gives the money to the state, but it has little control in reality as to how the money is spent. It’s high time that the state and the Centre stopped squabbling over the figures. The time is to save the last remaining tigers as fast as possible,” she said.
In 2004 pugmark census, there were 94 tigers in the core area and seven in the buffer area of the reserve. Between 1989 and 2004, the tiger numbers in the reserve remained between 93 and 101, which wildlife activists alleged was “clever juggling”. “Simlipal will be second Sariska, where tiger counts were grossly exaggerated officially before the truth was out,” said Mohanty.