Beastly tale

Tigers disappearing in Sariska are a sign of an even more terrible malaise

Published: Friday 15 April 2005

Beastly tale

-- With its vanishing trick in Sariska wildlife sanctuary, the tiger is back in the news. This royal beast has received attention as no other animal. But in the cacophony, we have lost sight of many basic facts. For example, is the present method to count tigers an appropriate one? We use the pug-mark method to count tigers. But the the originator of the method -- the late S R Choudhary -- never ever claimed that counting pug-marks would give an absolute tally of tigers in an area. The method was meant to assess abundance by comparing successive counts. But overtime, it deteriorated into a number game.

There is another method that can give more accurate counts: forest guards should monitor the presence of the tiger in their beats through meticulous recording of evidence: kills, pug-marks, droppings, calls and sightings. The exercise should be conducted throughout the year and there should be periodic checks by higher wildlife officials. This will give the forest department a fair idea of the territory occupied by the tiger. It will be able to ascertain if the area is increasing or decreasing -- more area occupied by a territorial animal such as the tiger is a sign of increasing numbers.

This is not the first time that tigers have vanished from a tiger project area: it happened in one part of our largest project: Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam, Andhra Pradesh (ap) in the 1990s. The local villagers then were upset at the loss of their cattle and poisoned around 20 tigers. Before this incident, there were reports of frequent sightings indicating an increase in tiger numbers. The animals strayed into villages close to the sanctuary in search of food: they had to face the wrath of local people. The silver lining to this incident was that over a period of time, the area was repopulated by tigers from adjacent forests.

What does this episode show? It demonstrates that though the tiger is an endangered animal across the country, there are pockets where numbers of the animal can exceed the carrying capacity of the habitat. In such cases, tiger populations should be judiciously reduced -- perhaps even by hunting -- in order to prevent conflict with local villagers. This system is in vogue in some areas in Africa.

People's anger Sariska also had a fairly long tradition of maintaining more tigers than the reserve can actually sustain. The disappearance of tigers from the sanctuary could be attributed to the local people's anger towards straying animals -- though poaching cannot be ruled out.

There are other reasons that explain why tigers have vanished from Sariska. When the reserve was under the suzerainty of feudal princes, wells were dug at strategic locations and forest guards were directed to fill up open cisterns every evening to attract herbivores -- and with them, the tiger. But the practice was discontinued in independent India; as a result tigers very often raided villages in search of prey.

Having said all this, let us not forget that local people and animals have lived in mutual respect -- if not harmony -- for centuries in our forests. The new fangled theory of inviolable core areas has upset this relationship. The theory is also against good wildlife management: if forests are not worked, they become dense and herbivores move to the fringes. Carnivores follow suit. In fact, the last tiger census figures of apindicate tiger pug-marks in open forests, adjacent to villages where cattle and herbivores are found in summer. Working of forests to keep wildlife inside -- and away from villages -- should be part of good management.

Implementing such a programme requires committed forest officers who will work for years in the same area. Wildlife management is not everybody's cup of tea. Unless this lacuna is corrected the Sariska syndrome will repeat in other wildlife reserves.

R K Rao is a retired officer of the Indian Forest Service

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