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Tigers to Sariska



5 July 2008

A second tiger, a female, was tranquilised and successfully airlifted from Ranthambhore to Sariska yesterday. Both tigers appear to be doing well.

I spent a week in Ranthambhore with the tiger relocation team from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the Rajasthan Forest Department and now that two tigers have been safely relocated to Sariska it seems appropriate to discuss the background to this path-breaking effort.

The operation has been in the planning stage for over a year. It was carried out by scientists from WII, in close collaboration with the Rajasthan Forest Department, and under the overall guidance of the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the State Government's Steering Committee, of which I have been a member since 2005. To minimize the stress to the tigers, they were airlifted by helicopter to Sariska with the support of the Indian Air Force, Ministry of Defence.

Four tigers were collared earlier in Ranthambhore, and during the week of 21 to 27 June the team collared three more tigers, including the male tiger that was airlifted to Sariska on 28 June. The two tigers that were finally selected for Sariska - using the knowledge of forest officers in Ranthambhore - are ideal candidates. They are young adults that were yet to carve out stable home territories. The male came from the north-east periphery of Ranthambhore, while the female had set up temporary home in the centre of the Park, next to her mother who has a new family of large female cubs. With the increasing number of tigers in Ranthambhore, it appears that tigers such as these are having difficulty in establishing exclusive home ranges.

Because of the high temperatures during the summer months, the operation was stalled until the monsoon. This brought an additional problem of thick undergrowth, and although we came across a number of tigers during the combing operation it took considerable time and effort to track down the individual tigers that had been identified as the prime candidates for relocation. Once this was done, the scientists waited inside the Park for the appropriate moment to tranquilise and collar the tigers. I must say that the team work was very impressive and the operation went with focused, clockwork precision.

The two Sariska tigers have been fitted with satellite collars and once they are let out from their temporary enclosures their movement will be monitored intensively, by plotting satellite signals and following radio signals on the ground, under the guidance of WII.

Until recently I was skeptical that Sariska was ready or safe enough for the reintroduction of tigers. But then I began to realise that time was running out for Sariska and that although there is still much to be done, a sincere effort had been made by the Government of India and the Government of Rajasthan to prepare the Park for the reintroduction of tigers. The arrival of the tigers will now provide the impetus to do much more. One village has been moved out of Sariska, and the voluntary rehabilitation of three more villages is underway. New staff has been brought in and the entire protection system in Sariska has been revamped. And for the time being at least, it will not be worthwhile for poachers to target Sariska. Additional problems include the two roads through the Park (State Highway 13 that links Alwar with Thana Ghazi, and SH 29A from Sariska to Tehla. Of these SH 13 has the heaviest traffic including trucks and buses) and the huge movement of pilgrims to the temple at Pandupole, in the heart of the Park. In 2005, Pandupole received over 230,000 pilgrims. In fact there is a meeting today with the District Administration and the State Transport Authorities to discuss these issues.

Ranthambhore of course faces similar problems with up to 2 million pilgrims (20 lakhs) a year to the Ganesh Temple that is situated in the fort, also in the heart of the National Park. And yet tigers thrive there.

Any operation such as this has its risks. But as long as the risks are minimized - with careful planning and by using the best expertise available - I'm sure most people will agree that it is a risk worth taking. Sariska was the western most distribution of the tiger in India. It is prime habitat with excellent prey density. And we must remember that tigers did not go extinct from Sariska naturally; they were killed by poachers. We owe it to the tiger and to Sariska to give back what was taken away, and to ensure that the tigers are given every opportunity to make a comeback.

Translocating tigers is not an easy exercise. It is risky and expensive. But it is something that should be considered for areas were tiger numbers have decreased and the reasons for this can be addressed. In the future, translocation can also be used to increase genetic diversity in isolated, inbred populations. In fact, any future input to Sariska could and should include a tiger or two from an area other than Ranthambhore.

Although this is the first time that tigers have been translocated scientifically in India and using a helicopter, there are other examples. In 2004, four Amur tigers were relocated 150-300 km from their capture sites in the Russian Far East, and in 1930 three tigers (a tiger and two tigresses) were successfully captured in central India and transported and released in the forests of the erstwhile state of Dungapur in Rajasthan. These tigers settled and bred well in the wild, and even while they were still hunted, a population of 20 to 25 tigers was maintained. The Dungapur tigers finally disappeared in the 1950's due to lack of protection. Over the years, a number of man-eaters, particularly in the Sunderbans, and wounded tigers have also been successfully relocated.

Is the translocation of tigers from Ranthambhore to Sariska in the best interests of the future of wild tigers in India ? I believe it is, and I salute all those who played a part in this bold endeavour. The real test will come now, as we wait to see whether the tigers will settle in their new home.

Belinda Wright









 

 

 

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