Royal Catastrophe

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A mother with her cubs, Photo: Nanak Bindra

THE DAWN OF 2009 only brought despair for the tiger. One shocking revelation was the unprecedented poaching in the past three months. From November to January, skins and bones of seven tigers have been seized, plus three killed by poachers. Seventeen tigers have been found dead — most due to in-fighting, explain officers, as is their wont. But those in the know, know the truth, that most were victims of the skin and bone trade — a fact hushed up, in the depth of the forests.

The other impression one got, if one were to go by headlines, was of ‘maneaters’ going amok, especially in Uttar Pradesh, and more recently in Corbett Tiger Reserve. Last heard, there were three ‘man-eaters’ in UP, with misguided administration muddling through the situation. One of these, hounded from the outskirts of Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, where he had accidentally killed a man, was shot three days ago in Faziabad district. After three months, and four human fatalities — which is debatable, since there is clear indication that one of the deaths was not caused by the tiger — it is probably lying grievously injured somewhere, punished, though he does not wear the mantle of guilt alone. The Corbett tiger killed one woman, who illegally entered the reserve, putting her life at risk. It has been declared a maneater — the guns are out, even though the guideline says that until it is found to be a habitual man-eater, it may not be declared as such.

This disturbing news takes me back to when the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, made a statement that “the government is fully committed to tiger conservation,” after the Sariska fiasco.

But precisely four years later, after the solemn promise to save the national animal, it fares no better, only worse.

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EYE OF THE TIGER

Ten tigers have been killed by poachers in the last three months (from November 2008 to January 2009)

The tigers’ safest havens— Kaziranga, Kanha, Corbett are under siege

Nine tigers have been found dead in Kaziranga, which has one of the densest tiger populations in the world, in the past three months

Panna has only one tiger. Buxa suffers a similar fate

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In the interim, one of the biggest disasters was the passing of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Aimed at political gain, it seeks to give away wildlife habitats into private hands. Thankfully, the declaration of Critical Tiger Habitats ensured these were out of the ambit of the Act. To make the CTHs inviolate, the government substantially enhanced the relocation package given to villagers from within tiger reserves to Rs 10 lakh per family, thereby signalling that the government recognised that tigers need undisturbed spaces to survive. The budget also set aside Rs 50 crores for a Tiger Protection Force.

The good news ends here.

Uncertain future The last known female tiger at Panna was killed in 2006, Photo: Arun Singh

One consequence of the Sariska cat catastrophe was an All India Tiger Census — the upside of which was that we finally knew, officially, what we had always known unofficially — there were only 1,411 wild tigers. The downside — numbers were at the lowest ever, even before the start of Project Tiger in 1973.

SARISKA HOGGED headlines, and pricked our conscience. But there are so many Sariskas — local extinctions — unheard. The same tragedy is being played out in Panna—which has only one tiger. Buxa would be so lucky — last heard, officials mumbled something about tigers migrating to Bhutan. The list of problem reserves is long: Indravati in Chhattisgarh is out of bounds for the officers, naxals have taken over; it’s almost as bad in Palamu in Jharkhand and Nagarjunasagar in Andhra Pradesh. Sundarbans is touted as the largest tiger population of the world at 274. Simply put, that’s a lie. No more than 50 survive there — and under constant fire. The western part of Rajaji is devoid of tigers — save one female; there is disturbing news that 10 tigers have gone ‘missing’ in Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve.

A very disturbing trend today is that the tigers’ safest havens, Corbett, Kaziranga, Kanha, are under siege. Most of the tragedies above have been in these reserves. In the past year, poachers were caught confessed to killing three tigers from in, and around, Corbett. Nine tigers have died in Kaziranga in three months, a park which prided itself on its stringent protection. Never has the tiger been so vulnerable. According to sources, seasoned tiger poachers (the baheliyas) are currently out there, where the tigers are, to kill. A missive has been sent to all tiger reserves to be alert.

Not that it matters. The states don’t even bother to respond to such alerts. No strategies, no extra force, nothing. Quite the contrary, parks like Corbett have had an absentee leadership for the past month. And while some brave individual directors take up the cause, they are severely constrained in their battle. Our weaponry to fight poachers, backed with the might of trade cartels, is our rag-tag green army, with defunct weapons and dandas. Some not paid for months. Nearing retirement, and no fresh recruitments for decades.

And you say, Mr Prime Minister, that you want to save the tiger?

The tiger won’t survive if the government continues with its policy of mindless development, even in the supposedly protected areas which occupy a mere four percent of our country: A six-lane highway proposed through Pench Tiger Reserve (even as tigers are ruthlessly mowed down on roads and railway tracks), diamond mining in Panna, an irrigation project in Nagarjunasagar, an observatory in Madumalai in Tamil Nadu…

Yes, we managed the incredible feat of getting the roar back to Sariska — albeit by cats borrowed from Ranthmabore — there are similar plans for Panna. But why must we let the situation come to this, then scramble for solutions?

One of our major worries is the man-tiger conflict, which will only escalate if we continue to destroy, degrade and fragment tiger habitat, and will eventually prove to be the bete noire of both man and beast.

We need to make our forests inviolate, and preserve habitats connecting tiger habitats, a well-equipped force to protect tigers, trained managers — else all that is, is lip-service

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