Before forest officers start explaining tiger deaths as suicides, a timely NTCA move comes as a big push for transparency
By Jay Mazoomdaar
FEW DEATHS make news anymore like tiger deaths do. Since the Sariska wipeout, the media has rarely missed an opportunity to play up the “tragedy” every time a tiger is found dead in the wild. But even William Blake did not claim tigers to be immortal. In fact, prolific breeders like all cats, tigers too die easily and in high numbers. So any forest bearing a healthy tiger population will throw up a good number of dead cats every now and then.
In reality, few dead tigers are ever spotted. Forests provide good cover, and scavengers are prompt at work, also tiger carcasses rot very quickly. But since tigers are under the constant threat of poaching and retaliatory killings, forest officials are supposed to ascertain the cause every time a tiger is found dead.
Unfortunately, keen to avoid the P-word, the officials are always quick to come up with explanations such as infighting or hunting injury to classify tiger deaths as natural. “They rarely conduct inquiries and often hush up obvious cases of poaching. Tomorrow, I won’t be surprised if someone classifies tiger mortality as suicide,” a senior official told me in jest.
So while the media loves to paint all dead tigers as poached, the tiger reserve managements try to claim every death as natural. Between the two extremes, the obvious casualty has been a protocol of medically sound post-mortem followed by an objective field inquiry. Hopefully now, all that will change.
In a directive sent to all tiger states on 21 May, the National Tiger conservation Authority (NTCA) has held that “to ensure due diligence and topmost priority, every case of tiger and leopard death would be henceforth treated as a case of poaching, unless otherwise proved beyond reasonable doubt”.
The note goes on to underline that “if a tiger death is classified as occurring due to natural causes, the same should be substantiated by adequate supporting field evidences and factual details… while reporting to this authority”.
“This assumption would lead to proper and serious investigation of every case of tiger mortality. While natural mortality owing to density related stress is not uncommon, tigers also face high risk from poaching and conflict. So we have to be cautious while classifying tiger deaths as natural and shouldn’t make such claims without categorical evidence,” says NTCA member-secretary Dr Rajesh Gopal.
The NTCA move comes after a spate of tiger deaths — 34 in five months — was reported in 2012. Out of these 34, the states have claimed 19 as natural.
“There has been a growing feeling that these deaths are not being investigated with the seriousness they deserve. It appears that many cases are straightaway declared as occurring due to natural causes or accidents without a detailed investigation to establish the same,” accepts an internal note in the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
“Even in cases where the post-mortem has been carried out as per the NTCA guidelines, the details are often not forwarded in time to this office. This affects the credibility of the entire process,” the note adds.
The directive is timely, since a red alert was declared last month following intelligence inputs about organised poachers getting active across 17 tiger states, particularly Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Assam.
The NTCA move comes after a spate of tiger deaths — 34 have been reported so far this year
IN TADOBA tiger reserve, Maharashtra, a spate of brutal killings has already challenged the authorities. The reserve director has been replaced and demands for setting up a special Investigation team are getting louder. Apparently, a Baheliya gang operating in central India has taken supari for 25 tigers.
Organised poaching apart, tigers are never too secure even in our best reserves because the forest boundaries are always open and dotted by human settlements that often suffer life and livestock losses due to the presence of big carnivores.
On 24 April, Corbett tiger reserve reported a tiger death. The big cat was found immobile, its hind legs paralysed, a few hundred yards from the Phanto Rest House. It died in a few hours.
During the post-mortem, its scapula (part of the shoulder blade) was found broken. Nothing explained why its hind legs were paralysed or the reason and consequence of the bone injury.
Local intelligence suggested possibilities of waterhole poisoning with insecticide. Yet, no ground inquiry was conducted before classifying the death as natural.
The bureaucracy, wildlife managers included, knows how to find a way around every well-meaning directive. In this ever evolving cat and mouse (read poacher and tiger) game, the NTCA move may just buy the big cat some more time. Or we can at least be optimistic.
To counter poachers on the prowl, Maharashtra has given shoot-at-sight orders in Tadoba Tiger Reserve and other wildlife areas. Wildlife enthusiasts have cheered the news. But such sweeping powers can be easily misused.
There are thousands of villagers in the Tadoba buffer. There are people residing even inside the reserve. So, who will the forest staff shoot at sight unless poachers start wearing headbands declaring themselves? Tadoba needs an efficient intelligence network and regular ground monitoring, not this dangerous distraction.
Jay mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.