Death of a translocated tiger highlights the task force was not heeded
THE DEATH of a tiger last month, two and a half years after it was brought to Sariska, proves the National Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan is not safe for the big cat. The death also brought to light little action has been taken on the recommendations of the Tiger Task Force, set up in 2005 to look at tiger conservation in the country. That was the year when Sariska lost all its tigers.
Between 2008 and 2010, five tigers were translocated from Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore National Park to Sariska. ST-1, one of the two males, went missing on November 11 this year; ST-4, the other male, was already missing since October 30. (It was found later.) “More than half the staff was busy tracking ST-4,” said K K Garg, ex-chief conservator of forests, Sariska. He was transferred a week after the tiger’s death. On November 14 when alarm signals went off from ST-1’s radio collar, officials reached the decomposed body near Kalakhet village on the reserve’s fringe.
“Park officials conducted the post mortem, but it was inconclusive,” said H M Bhatia, chief wildlife warden of Rajasthan. The samples have been sent to a forensic lab in Jaipur to ascertain the cause of death, he added. The forensic report was awaited till the time of going to press. A departmental inquiry is also on, headed by B L Meena, chief conservator of forests, Jodhpur.
Three days before the tiger was found dead signals from its radio collar had stopped. “It is common in Sariska to not receive signals for a day or two,” said Garg. As a result of the reserve’s undulating terrain, deep gorges and tall grass, forest officials said they receive signals only up to 500 metres.
“It is difficult to say what led to the death. The body was found 72 hours later, most vital organs were decomposed,” said Garg. “It is most likely the tiger was poisoned. The foul-smelling carcass was lying near Kalakhet village yet none of the residents reported the matter,” Garg added. “For most villagers livestock is their biggest treasure. Tigers are a threat to the livestock,” said Belinda Wright, founder of Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Kalakhet residents deny any role in the tiger’s death. “Why would we poison tigers?” asked Bhagwan Sahi, 65. “If we wanted, we could have poisoned the tigers when they were brought here two years ago.” Tigers are auspicious, he said, explaining that people consider it a blessing if a tiger walks past their livestock; it protects them from diseases.
In 2005, the task force had suggested several measures. One of them was to check the mines operating illegally within park limits. According to Mahendra Singh Kachhawa, additional counsel wildlife and forests, government of India, there are 32 mines operating illegally near the reserve. Sariska has always lured the mining mafia for its reserves of high quality grey Kota stone and marble. The Tiger Task Force’s 2005 report noted that mining began in the 1960s.
Rajendra Singh, of Tarun Bharat Sangh, NGO working on conservation of natural resources, filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court in 1991; the court directed the state government to stop issuing licences. In 2008 the Supreme Court ruled: mining can take place one km from the park. The illegal operators get a mining lease for an area that is legally permitted, but they extract material from inside the park with the help of some villagers and lower level forest staff, explained Kachhawa.
Sarpanch Rampyari of village Toda- Jaisinghpura was issued a mining lease outside the restricted area. Residents said the mine is not operating at the allotted site; it is on a grazing land close to the reserve. The residents filed a petition with the Alwar district’s collector, Ashutosh Pednekar, in early November complaining that blasting at the illegal mining site sends stones flying into their houses sometimes maiming livestock.
The collector said he was not aware the application was pending with him and added he would look into the matter. When the mine is so close to the reserve, it means the stones are being extracted from the protected area, said Singh. “Mine operators don’t want tigers in Sariska because that would mean more vigilance,” he added explaining how illegal mines threaten the big cat’s safety.
The task force had also recommended that the park should improve its internal management. Nothing was done about this. A total of 50 posts were lying vacant; the last recruitment took place 25 years ago; the average age of the staff is 55 years. The Central government has now advertised for these posts following the death of ST-1. “We have a staff of just 150 to manage the 881 sq km,” said Garg.
Another recommendation the task force had stressed on was the relocation of villages. Haripura, Kankwari, Umri and Kiraska were asked to be relocated on a priority basis. There are 28 villages inside the reserve. Only one village, Badhani, has been relocated completely since the process began in the 1980s.
Badhani residents were moved near Behror; each family was given 1.5 hectare for cultivation, about 500 sq metre for housing and Rs 2.5 lakh. “Relocation is a slow process because it takes time to persuade people; many do not want to relocate,” said Bhatia. Residents said the meagre compensation of Rs 10 lakh per family offered now is the reason they do not want to move out. “My livestock are worth more than Rs 10 lakh. We have been living here for generations. It provides grazing ground to animals and fuelwood. Why would I give up all this for just Rs 10 lakh?” said Bambhloo Gurjar of Kankwari village.
Sarpanch Phoolchand Meena is not against relocation if the conditions are favourable. “People will move only when they are given proper land for agriculture, land for housing and enough money to meet any sudden crisis, he said. It took a tiger death for the Union environment ministry to announce the release of Rs 30 crore for speedy relocation of villages; it was going on at a snail’s pace till now.
The Tiger Task Force had cautioned that all parties concerned should be consulted before reintroducing tigers. Kachhawa believes a compensation amount should have been decided upon in the event of a village resident losing livestock to tigers. In the absence of any assurance, they may consider taking measures to eliminate the risk from tigers. The forest department must, therefore, involve villagers in decisionmaking, Kachhawa explained. “Before re-introducing the tiger, neither the forest department nor any expert institution conducted any study to find out if the park is fit for tigers,” he added.
There is also the problem of pilgrim traffic as Pandupole temple is located inside the park. The task force had suggested a plan to manage the traffic and share the benefits of tourism with affected villagers and the park. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh in a recent visit after the tiger death declared that battery- run buses would soon be introduced on the road to the temple. The matter was raised by conservationists earlier but no action was taken.
“The park receives about 400,000 visitors annually and collects about Rs 33 lakh from tourism, which straightaway goes to the state revenue board,” said Garg. The Tiger Conservation Fund was created in January this year that would use 50 per cent of the collection for the development of the park, but the fund is yet to come alive.
“Nothing that the Tiger Task Force recommended has been implemented in Sariska. The conditions are the same that wiped out Sariska’s tiger population,” said Madhav Gadgil, environmental historian and member of national wildlife board; he was also in the task force. “It is clear, we have not learnt any lesson from the tragedy,” he added. The threat persists.