Creating history in a hurry
Flying in tigers to Sariska was not half as difficult as securing their future will be
It was Sariska's best chance at redemption. It is more than three years since the Central Bureau of Investigation confirmed my expos in The Indian Express that the reserve had lost all its tigers to poaching. Between then and now, the authorities had all the time and opportunity to put the reserve in order before repopulating it with tigers from Ranthambhore.
But conditions in Sariska--and the attitude of the forest top brass--that had led to the local extinction of the striped cats four years ago, remain pretty much the same. The ground staff is as slack and inadequate, the traffic on forest road as busy, and the attempt to relocate villages as arrogant and ad hoc.
The only welcome change is the presence of the new conservator of forest (cf) and the new divisional forest officer (dfo)--two fine young officers who mean business. But they, and the new tigers of Sariska, will need all the luck with their bosses in Jaipur and New Delhi in a hurry to make history.
On June 28, officials at Ranthambhore and Sariska woke up early to rain that had kept up through the night and showed no sign of relenting anytime soon. Then around seven in the morning, the skies cleared over Ranthambhore. A desperate R N Mehrotra, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Rajasthan, immediately pressed a team of scientists from Dehradun's Wildlife Institute of India into action.
By eight in the morning, a 220-kg, four-year-old Ranthambhore male was captured, sedated and kept ready for the airlift. But the monsoon shower was still holding strong in Sariska. The officials and the media waited. As did the tiger, numb under drugs.
Shortly before noon, the designated iaf chopper took off from Ranthambhore with the tiger on board. But the drama was not over yet. The chopper was made to hang in the sky for a while as forest staff tried desperately to move a vehicle grounded in the middle of a slushy forest opening, serving as the helipad inside Sariska. Finally, when the chopper landed, its base went down several inches in the mud.
By the time the chopper stabilized, the tiger was fully awake in an iron cage lined with plywood. His eyes shone when an official flashed a torch through an opening. Then he growled in acknowledgement. In another 25 minutes, the robust, if not slightly overweight, male entered his new home--a one-hectare chain-link enclosure at Nayapani in Sariska.
Another big cat--a tigress named Rani--joined the first male within a week. Three more big cats--two of them tigresses--are expected in Sariska in two phases over the next two years.
It is too early to predict if the striped cats will be able to reclaim this tiger forest. The suspense won't be over even when, and if, all five animals are released out of the enclosures. Sariska will have to wait for the second generation--a good litter--and then keep fingers crossed till the cubs grow up.
Similar experiments with panthers worked successfully at Florida in the early 1990s. However, as a rule, animals shifted from their territory show homing tendencies--there are numerous examples of how translocated leopards, bears, elephants, even crocodiles, travelled hundreds of kilometres to come back to their original base.
Experience with Amur tigers in Siberia showed how translocated tigers tended to move towards human habitations and trigger conflict.The present exercise has gone in for the soft release option-shifting the animals first to an enclosure -to counter this factor.
But keeping a big cat far too long inside an enclosure to numb its homing tendencies involves other risks. The first male translocated to Sariska was put on a goat diet-the forest staff cannot legally capture wild prey to feed the tiger-and too many easy kills inside the rather small enclosure might affect its prey preference permanently.
|The IAF helicopter (first page) that brought the new male inhabitant of Sariska circled on air for a while. Soon after landing, foresters got busy receiving the big cat and transferring it to the truck that reached it to its new habitat (below)
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