India's tiger country: Where anger comes in on giant cat feet
Villagers unhappy over lost livestock are accused of helping poachers wipe out the tiger population at the Sariska reserve. Now the park has new managers and a handful of new tigers.
By Mark Magnier
September 8, 2009
Reporting from Sariska Tiger Reserve, India
Mention tigers to the residents of Indok Village and you elicit an immediate growl. The community of 300 families on the periphery of the Sariska Tiger Reserve says it has lost 20 cows and water buffalo in the last several months and 1,000 in a generation.
For those living at subsistence level and measuring their wealth in hooves, that's seen as a pretty good reason to hate tigers -- and their protectors.
"When the tigers attack our livestock, we're never compensated," said Buddhalal Meena, a farmer in his 40s dressed in a dirty undershirt, jabbing the air with a scythe to make a point. "But if our livestock enter the forest, even though we've lived here for centuries, they levy fines. We never do anything wrong, but we're the ones who suffer."
The government-run Sariska has a huge stake in reducing the ire of the tigers' human neighbors. In 2005, the reserve discovered that it had no tigers left after poachers made off with the last one. Although villagers say they stopped losing cattle, the ensuing firestorm over the tigerless tiger reserve brought media ridicule, parliamentary inquiries and threats of funding cuts to Sariska.
Though bureaucrats blamed the poachers for the animals' demise, India's equivalent of the FBI and a blue-ribbon panel said the overarching problem was poor administration, incompetence and corruption that gave the thieves free rein.
"Nothing's wrong with the place; it's always been an excellent tiger habitat," said Sunayan Sharma, the reserve's new deputy conservator of forests, who was called in to revamp the operation. "The main reason's been a failure of management."
In particular, patrols and local intelligence networks weren't maintained, critics and insiders say, and officials were allowed to think more about their careers than their charges.
Now Sariska, a former royal hunting preserve in the Aravalli mountains, marked by sharp cliffs and narrow valleys, could make history of a different sort. Three tigers were recently released in the 334-square-mile habitat by India's environment and forest ministry and two more are due within weeks -- one of the few times Bengal tigers have been reintroduced to a shuttered habitat.
With India home to an estimated 1,300 wild tigers, about half the world's total, the stakes are huge.
One thing working in wildlife experts' favor: Tigers breed readily if given the chance. They also have relatively large litters, and officials hope the reserve's population could reach 30 within three years.
The Sariska scandal created the political will to overhaul park management, with bureaucrats replaced by experts. The nation's tiger budget has been increased fourfold, a prospective mining project in the park was nixed and patrols were expanded.
A program to relocate 11 villages in the heart of the reserve was also revamped. Residents had been offered $2,000 to move, which in 35 years persuaded just one family to leave. Now each adult male is offered $22,000, considered a tidy sum, or 2 1/2 acres and $7,500 to build a new house elsewhere.
Ten percent of the 800 eligible families have moved, and nearly as many have signed preliminary contracts. Officials hope the area will be free of human residents by 2012.
Whether this will be enough to slow or reverse the tigers' long decline remains to be seen.
A century ago, India had about 100,000 tigers, and maharajas and British sahibs would dispatch dozens of them in a single hunt. The maharaja of Surguja recorded 1,100 lifetime kills, many from atop an elephant.
Wildlife experts say they're making progress against poachers. Notorious kingpin Sansar Chand, 51, who, with family members, is blamed for wiping out Sariska's last 22 tigers, is serving a five-year prison sentence.
Chand and his gang reportedly befriended villagers at Sariska's periphery -- Meena and others in his village of Indok deny they ever made deals with him -- who then informed the poachers when a tiger attacked their livestock, providing valuable information on the animal's whereabouts.
The Chand gang reportedly worked with smugglers in Nepal and Tibet, who used mules and yaks to ferry the contraband across the mountains into China.
Chand, who often posed as a mattress salesman, sometimes transporting the pelts and bones in the bedding, was first arrested in 1974 at age 16 with tiger and leopard skins and hundreds of body parts. After serving time, he eluded police for much of the next three decades.
His brother Narayan, who reportedly took over the family business about 2006,was arrested last month.
"These are very good developments," said P.R. Sinha, director of the government's Wildlife Institute of India. "Still, when new kingpins emerge, we need to tackle them as well."
Another challenge is to reduce demand. The body parts of a tiger, poached with a few dollars' worth of poison or a $10 steel trap, can be worth as much as $50,000 by the time they're turned into a genital-based soup believed to have aphrodisiac powers and into medicinal powders in China, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.
"India can make all sorts of protective efforts in the jungle," said Belinda Wright, head of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "But if the relentless demand continues from China, it's a losing battle."
The two countries agreed last month to hold a meeting in November on tiger and Tibetan antelope protection. An added argument: 2010 is the Year of the Tiger under the Chinese zodiac.
In India, the tiger is considered a national treasure. Durga, the powerful Hindu goddess, rides a tiger, while Shiva, the god of destruction and regeneration, sits on a tiger skin.
But not everyone is enamored of its stripes.
"People facing the music every day are not tiger lovers," said the reserve's Sharma, as peacocks and langoors paraded outside his office. "They always say they are not against the tiger, but the moment you believe them, you are finished."
Villagers in Indok said they wished the tiger well, but not at their own expense. No one from the reserve has ever come and listened to their concerns, they said. Moreover, villagers are never hired for park jobs and farmers whose livestock enters the forest are forced to pay fines of $12 to $50, a substantial amount to them. The villagers said park workers created fake citations and pocketed the money.
Sharma said tensions and unfounded allegations were inevitable when tigers and humans lived in close proximity. But the villagers don't buy it.
"We keep fences around our animals -- why can't they keep fences around theirs?" said Inder Kumer Meena, 24, a farmer. "All I can say is the government cares more about animals than it does about us."