BIGSTORY | Monday, March 16, 2009 | Email | Print | | Back
In sixes & sevens
June 22, 2011 12:00:00 AM
Ananda Banerjee | New Delhi
Natural history conservation is in shambles today. Where one hoped last year’s first ever wild tiger translocation to Sariska will open new avenues and rejuvenate both governments and officials for the better, sadly, for the time being, it has only become a new trend to cover up poor management skills and insignificant governance.
Hardly a day passes without reportage of tragic incidents where either a tiger or a leopard is removed from the wild by either poaching, loss of territory leading to man-animal conflict, beaten to death or infamously tagged man-eater and allegedly infighting or even falling into wells. Add to this elephants, bears, lions, otters and a host of other species of flora and fauna. The loss is constant with each single specimen pushing the dreaded word — “extinction”.
Statistics show that between January 1 and February 25 this year, at least 36 leopards were either poisoned, ensnared in traps, killed in accidents or became victims of man-animal conflict. Add to this, the 33 leopard skins and 9 kg bones seized in the same period by officials. That’s straight 69 leopards gone in just two months from the official statistics. There were about 11,000 leopards in India in January 2008. Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) statistics show that 3,000 plus leopards were killed in between 1994-2008. In comparison, an estimated 1,411 tigers were alive during the same period. But the rate of leopard killing is far higher than the tiger.
The rot in the system is more evident going by the fact that the India’s two best managed parks, Kanha and Kaziranga, lost 10 tigers each in the last 100 days. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Relocation Saga
In Sariska, the relocation of villages from the core critical tiger habitat, as recommended by the Prime Minister’s Tiger Task Force still plagues the state government and forest officials. The reintroduction of the tiger in Sariska necessitates the relocation of villages. Of the four strategically located forest villages — Kankwari, Kraska, Umri and Bagani — that should have been shifted before tigers could be released here, only Bagani, the smallest of the lot in terms of population and, therefore, impact on wildlife, has been relocated so far. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) though has released Rs 19 crore for 61 families at Umri and 103 families in Kankwari. (Rs 10 lakh compensation per family).
On the other hand, busy pilgrim traffic for the Hanuman Temple deep inside the Reserve still flows unregulated on the forest roads. Free entry into the Reserve and unrestricted vehicular movement make Sariska a thoroughfare every Tuesday and Saturday. The decision to divert heavy traffic from the State Highway that cuts through the Reserve to an alternative route is stuck in the face of stiff resistance from local pressure groups.
Around June-July last year, when the Rajasthan forest officials arm-twisted their way to get tigers from Ranthambhore by ignoring all recommendations of the NTCA and the Tiger Task Force, they had argued that once the tigers were in, all other things would fall into place.
Further this year, the state officials disregarded the NTCA guidelines of only translocating transient tigers (tigers which do not have, at present, any fixed territory or are looking for one) while bringing in the third tiger from Ranthambhore. Experts say that removing a tiger from its territory creates an ecological imbalance as a vacuum is created in the range. But for the officials, trapping a territorial tiger is an easy task rather than a transient tiger.
Inspired by the colleagues from Rajasthan, the Madhya Pradesh officials translocated one breeding tigress from the core area of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve (on March 3, 2009) and another from Kanha Tiger Reserve (on March 9, 2009) to Panna Tiger Reserve in a clear break from the guidelines and in an apparent hurry to finish the exercise or re-populating Panna. The NTCA had, however, specified that only a young tigresses from outside the core area could be moved. Even when the much-hyped satellite collar scheme has become non-functional.
Distressed by the state of affairs, well known conservation scientists and activists such as Brijendra Singh, Valmik Thapar, Dr Ullas Karanth, Dr RS Chundawat, Belinda Wright, PK Sen, Bittu Sahgal and Fateh Singh Rathore have rushed a statement to the Prime Minister, the chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the member secretary of the NTCA, the secretary of the Minister of Environment and Forests, the principal chief conservators of forests and chief wildlife wardens of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and the field directors of five tiger reserves —Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Panna, Ranthambhore and Sariska. “We are deeply concerned that there has been absolutely no evidence of any tiger at Panna Tiger Reserve for over a month. The last lone male tiger was sighted in December 2008. If the safety of this single male tiger cannot be secured then what is the future for any tigresses introduced? Panna has become the second Sariska, a premier tiger reserve with no tigers. We are deeply distressed by this and shocked that the Madhya Pradesh government continues to deny this fact despite all the evidence to the contrary. In fact, the state authorities have been persisting with these denials for the past five years while the tigers of Panna steadily disappeared. As long as this denial process persists and is left unaddressed, no long-term solution for the disappearance of tiger population will be possible.
Scientific studies prove that Panna’s tiger population at one time was a healthy 35 to 40. All of these tigers have now vanished. Twice as many tigers have been lost in Panna than were killed in Sariska. The Government instituted a CBI enquiry in Sariska to establish the cause. We believe that a similar high-level enquiry must be carried out in Panna.
Referring to Sariska, the Prime Minister’s Tiger Task Force recommended that accountability should be fixed to act as a deterrent to prevent the “unacceptable shame” from reoccurring. However, accountability was never effectively addressed which, no doubt, hastened the Panna tragedy.
In fact one of the signatories, Dr Chundawat, was the whistle blower in Panna, where he was studying and recording tiger behaviour. The information was not welcomed by the authorities who humiliated him and got him thrown out of the Park.
Recommendations put forward by the eminent panel of expert are:
We believe that a high level enquiry is essential and should be instigated immediately into the disappearance of tigers in Panna, and that all translocation efforts should be halted until this is done. In particular, the enquiry should address the issues of ineffective protection, departmental cover-ups and accountability, and action should be taken against any responsible officers including those who continued to deny the loss of tigers in Panna.
A detailed translocation protocol should be developed by NTCA, WII and independent tiger experts, which will cover all the critical issues of relocating a tiger. This should include the essential requirement that established and adult tigers should not be removed from the core of a protected area.
An emergency tiger protection plan should be drawn up for each state in collaboration with NTCA and tiger experts to prevent further depletion. This should include a list of imperatives in terms of protection and habitat management, and a choice of senior staff with a proven track record for tiger reserves, approved by NTCA.
State-level tiger steering committees and tiger reserve buffer zones must be immediately established in all the tiger bearing states, as per the 2006 Amendment to The Wildlife (Protection) Act. Some states have already done this but not the state of Madhya Pradesh.
During the forthcoming elections, no vehicles or staff should be diverted from the task of protecting wildlife habitats as per the guidelines issued by the Election Commission of India in 1998.
In a similar relocation project, the Madhya Pradesh officials have recently gone ahead to relocate Gaurs or Indian bison from Kanha to Bandhavgarh though one small herd was sighted recently in the vicinity of the Bandhavgarh National Park. Apparently, the officials are in an MoU with a luxury safari tourism outfit based out of Africa for this project and have visited Africa earlier, allegedly to gain knowledge and familiarise themselves. Experts though are again sceptical and have deemed the project as too risky.
Centre Vs State: The management perspective
In an era of coalition politics, political will has completely disappeared, especially in the context to natural history conservation. Instead of collaboration, there is utter disregard to follow orders and guidelines. Bloated egos, short term benefits and self pride are the order of the day. Project Tiger, now rechristened National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), in most cases faces the brunt in the event of tragedy. But most people fail to understand that the governance, management of tigers and its habitat (and this applies as well to the rest of all species under the Wildlife Act) is with the individual state government. First and foremost, this is a state subject. The NTCA, under the Ministry of Environment and Forest, is just a Centrally-sponsored scheme. It plans, sets guidelines and provides funds. Other than that, it has no executive powers or physical control. It has also no power to withdraw unused money from the state. In most cases, the funds lie useless in the state exchequer and not reaching the field where it is utmost needed or it reaches when the damage has already been done.
For a long-termed sustained conservation strategy, the Project Tiger and now the NTCA has repeatedly stressed on creating and maintaining active buffer zones surrounding the core areas and re-establishing corridors so there is a free flow of gene pool avoiding in-breeding amongst species. Except for a few handful of cases, none is bothered to understand the nature of the problem. For example, Rajasthan officials claimed that the Ranthambhore National Park does not have the capacity to hold more tigers and every day more and more tigers are straying from the park for want of space. Needless to say Ranthambhore hardly has any buffer area. Tigers are straying that loosely means going where one is not supposed to. Now how do we know where a tiger is supposed to go or not? Are we psychic and can read a tiger’s mind and tell where it is going? Do we expect tigers to know their demarcated “Protected Areas” we have marked for them? Or just because we have drawn a boundary for a core area, tigers are supposed to oblige by staying put? It is hilarious how our officials and experts decide on behalf of these tigers. A tiger is either pushed by stronger rivals or to find territory or simply to look for food. These movements are natural and not in any way “straying”.
There is more fiasco as for over four months ago, a tigress now popularly known as “Barabanki-Faizabad” tigress walked over 550 km through Pilibhit-Kheri-Shahjahanpur-Sitapur-Barabanki-Faizabad. Hoodwinked experts and officials all along the way debated, had countless meetings, tracked it as a young male again straying out and ultimately shot it down only to find it as a tigress. There was no dedication of tranquilising it and restoring it to its rightful habitat. Instead lack of will, expertise and equipment in Uttar Pradesh forest department saw the four month ordeal end in a tragedy.
The urgency in which officials go forward to brand animals as “man-eaters” is again of great concern. Most man-animal conflicts involving either a tiger or a leopard result in the animal becoming the protagonist and conveniently labelled. This is happening left right and centre across the country. In each case, the animal is lost to the wild. There is no victory for conservation by sending it to a zoo.
Though the NTCA has salvaged the Wildlife Crime Bureau to tackle poaching, which ranks third after arms and drugs in the global market, three major wildlife species are traded illegally in India: Tiger, leopard and otter. China and Southeast Asian countries are their biggest market. The body parts of tigers are used in indigenous medicines and are the most prized. Leopard bones are considered good substitutes as well as skulls and claws of the protected animal are also in demand. The prosecution laws related to wildlife crime are still very weak. Sansar Chand, the man responsible for wiping out half of the country’s tiger population, is still cooling his heels behind the bars, far from being convicted as his enormous network is soundly running through the length and breadth of the country. We can only guess the volume of illegal trade once in a while when there is a large catch by the officials.
A Specialised Ministry
As recommended by all concerned experts and activists, a separate ministry for natural history conservation should be cut out from the present ministry of environment and forest. This is much needed just to focus more on conserving our natural history heritage and prevent further loss. We are still discovering new species of birds, mammals and amphibians but with such density of human presence across the subcontinent it is a mammoth task for conservation in general. If we fail to re-establish wildlife corridors and prevent habitat loss then there is not much hope. Places like Ranthambhore, Sariska and Bandhavgarh will otherwise become islands or great zoos of the future.
Staring in the face of extinction: The case of Asiatic Lions
It is a well known fact for many years now that Gir has been the only abode for the critically endangered Asiatic lions. The last 300-odd survivors are scampering for space and in-breeding is rampant. They are even walking out of the sanctuary limits and are known to be found strolling on the beaches next to the Arabian Sea if not killing themselves by falling into wells of adjoining villages.
The Government, with tax payers’ money, had developed a second home for these endangered species to ensure that if one group falls to disease, the other has a healthy prospect. But Gujarat has conveniently branded it as the Gir lions and has put its foot down of even parting with them. Gujarat wants the world to know that the last of Asiatic lions can and should only be in Gir. Given the false pride, the state of affairs and the outbreak of fire a few weeks back, one wonders how the lions can survive an epidemic or a natural calamity.
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