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Trouble in Tiger Country



THE HINDU, 12 April 2009
by Pankaj Sekhsaria

Six tiger reserves, over 6,000 sq km of protected forests and the highest numbers of tigers in any State in India. Those statistics would suggest that all is well with tiger conservation in Madhya Pradesh. Nothing can be farther from the truth?

It is the heart of India and one of the prime destinations for tiger tourism in the country. With more than 6,000 sq km of forests protected as six tiger reserves and tiger numbers amongst the highest in any State, Madhya Pradesh's claim to being the tiger State of the country might well seem justified. The latest tiger census conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India projected the tiger population in the State to be between 236 and 364 and it is not surprising that huge resources are being spent in the State for conservation and protection of wildlife in general, and the tiger in particular. In 2008 alone, the Central Government allocated nearly Rs. 25 crores to Madhya Pradesh for tiger conservation and the importance shown is evident from the fact that only Rs. Two crores were allocated to Tamil Nadu for the same period for the same purpose.

But is all indeed hunky dory for the tiger in the State of Madhya Pradesh? Scratch the surface a little and there is huge evidence of mounting trouble in the heart of tiger country. One only has to look at a range of related, but diverse, recent reports and the challenges that lie ahead loom larger than ever.

PANNA GOES THE SARISKA WAY

One of the most striking developments has been the official admission that the situation in the Panna Tiger Reserve is grim, resulting in a move in early March to translocate two tigresses, one each from Bandavgarh and Kanha to Panna. This is particularly significant considering that researchers studying the tiger here had been pointing out for sometime now that the situation was precarious and that Panna might indeed be going the Sariska way. Writing in the June 2008 issue of the wildlife periodical Sanctuary Asia, researchers Dr. Raghu Chundawat and Joanna Van Gruisen also pointed out that their research had shown that approximately 80-100 per cent of Panna's breeding tigress population had disappeared fearing the creation of a "bachelor's park".

The translocation, however, has been mired in controversy. Locals, including villagers, tourist guides and taxi drivers in Kanha TR, went on strike to protest the move of the tigress to Panna. They questioned the logic of the translocation when resident tigers of Panna had been poached away with impunity and were also worried of the impact on their own business if tigers from Kanha were taken away to other parks.

In another related development, eight prominent tiger conservationists of the country, including Mr. Valmik Thapar, Mr. Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary, Mr. P.K. Sen, Former Director, Project Tiger and Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, have jointly released a statement expressing distress over the translocation carried out by the Madhya Pradesh authorities. "We are deeply concerned," the statement says, "that there has been absolutely no evidence of any tigers in 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 introduced tigresses"?

The statement goes on to point out that the translocation operation was carried out even before the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) had completed the latest census report for the park; that advice from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines (which stress the need to identify and eliminate previous causes of decline) were not adhered to; and there has been no reference to any of India's experienced and knowledgeable tiger scientists and experts. An application protesting the non-transparency of the relocation and the breaking of the NTCA guidelines is also said to be have been filed before the Jabalpur High Court.

GAUR RELOCATION

Another development that has run into trouble is the MP Forest Department's project initiated about a year ago to move about 20 gaur from the Kanha Tiger Reserve to Bandavgarh because the animals were not being sighted in Bandavgarh. The project was to be executed with the help of the Conservation Corporation of Africa which has set up the Taj Safari Company in co-operation with the Taj group and has tourism properties around tiger reserves in MP. Questions were being asked on the wisdom of spending huge resources (estimated to be Rs. 1.25 crore) on this translocation and, as if on cue, some gaur were spotted in August 2008 in forests adjoining those of Bandavgarh. While the FD confirmed these sightings, it also reiterated that it was going ahead with the translocation project.

Unfortunately for them, however, the NTCA too has come out against the project now. Secretary NTCA, Dr. Rajesh Gopal, pointed to the fact that gaur had also been sighted in the forests here during the recent tiger census and that efforts needed to be made to revive the gaur population in Bandavgarh itself and to restore the wildlife corridors with adjoining forest areas. The Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) has now asked the State government to re-examine the status of the gaur in Bandavgarh and plans for the translocation project have been put on hold for the present.

ROAD THREAT TO PENCH

Another project that the NTCA has helped put on hold in a similar manner is the widening of National Highway 7 (NH-7) in areas that adjoins the Pench Tiger Reserve. In a recent decision taken by the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee, the Chief Secretary of MP has been asked to halt tree cutting for the road widening project that is part of the government?s Golden Quadrilateral programme. The order came in response to a petition filed by the Wildlife Trust of India and following a strong recommendation by the NTCA that it must be stopped. The stay might be temporary but has been widely welcomed by the wildlife conservation community.

AND TROUBLE IN KANHA TOO..

The same can certainly not be said of other reports from Kanha Tiger Reserve, perhaps the most famous and well known of India's tiger habitats. In what seems like a bizarre set of developments over the last few months, the Forest Department and the Police have been accusing each other of neglect in matters related to those of tiger protection. This, even as six tiger deaths have been reported here since November 2008 alone (see box for details). In a letter to the NTCA in December 2008, Kanha Director R.P. Singh listed a number of concerns related to the working of the police: interference in the booking of forest rest houses inside the tiger reserve; not providing information about investigations into tiger poaching incidents; and even that the police seemed more interested in getting rewards for skins seized from poachers. He also expressed apprehension that the informers used by the police to fight naxalites in the region might actually be directly involved in cases of poaching.

The Police on the other hand have said that it is the forest officials who are not following correct procedures in dealing with cases of tiger deaths. It was, in fact, a letter sent in November to the National Wildlife Crime Control Bureau by the Superintendent of Police (SP), Mandla, that is said to have started this chain of responses and reactions.

Murky waters

When contacted, a senior wildlife official of the State sought to downplay the matter but it is clear that the waters are rather murky. There are fundamental issues of transparency, responsibility and accountability that are involved here and important questions that arise immediately. Can conservation succeed if the key agencies responsible for it operate in such a manner? How realistic would it be in a situation like this for the local communities and others to trust enforcement agencies, leave alone co-operate with them? There are many in the field, for instance, who would vouch for the fact that the involvement of enforcement agencies, be it the Police or even the FD in malafide and corrupt practices is much more common than we are willing to accept. The Kanha case is significant because differences between the agencies have actually forced the matter onto a larger platform.

When top agencies themselves seem to be floundering so badly in such high profile areas such as Bandavgarh, Kanha and Panna, what, one might ask, will be the situation in the lesser known forests and protected areas of the State? One can't say for sure, but then, only the bravest is likely to hazard a guess of any kind.

Recent deaths - Confirmed tiger deaths inside Kanha TR:
Information compiled by the Wildlife Protection Society of India

Adult male tiger electrocuted near Sautia village, Kanha TR - November 1, 2008
Two young tiger cubs found dead near Indri Camp, Kanha TR - January 3, 2009
Adult male tiger found dead near Salghat, Kanha TR - January 18, 2009
Adult male tiger found dead near Aurai Camp, Kanha TR - January 31, 2009
Adult male tiger found dead near Dhamman Village, Kanha TR - March 4, 2009

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