When news that there were no tigers in Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan, hit national headlines, ritu gupta went fact-finding: what exactly was happening there?
What she found was: a blame-game between foresters and villagers; a science that instead of pinning tiger-numbers down creates imaginary animals; an officialdom, unconcerned and in absolute denial; of course, no tigers
In September 2004, a group of students from the Wildlife Institute of India (wii), Dehradun, went to the Sariska Tiger Reserve of Rajasthan for training. Excited about their work, they painstakingly trekked through the hilly 866 square kilometres (sq km) reserve. They couldn't spot a single tiger. Alarmed, they informed A J T Johnsingh, dean, department of animal ecology and conservation biology, wii. The wildlife network galvanised itself and soon the national media was howling out a question: where were the tigers?
The last census the Sariska field directorate conducted was in May 2004. The census revealed 16-18 tigers, plummeting from 25-28 tigers in 2003. "Tigers were last spotted by officials on November 28, 2004," said Priya Ranjan, deputy conservator of forests, Sariska. Was the vanishing act an annual affair? "No. One or two sightings are common throughout the year," Ranjan admitted. So what happened this year? The big cats couldn't have been decimated by disease, for no carcasses were found. The Union ministry of environment and forests -- which spearheads Project Tiger, spread over 27 reserves in the country, including Sariska, in 2003 -- has ordered an intensive combing exercise from February 1-15, 2005. Down To Earth, too, wanted answers.
So we visited Sariska, to meet villagers living there: what did these insiders think had happened? We visited villages Dabli, Umri and Deori; villages Kakvaadi, Peelapani, Beravaas, Kushalgarh and Kucha; villages Rajore, Nathusaar, Silli Bawari and Khaareda and townships Rajgarh, and Tehla; and Mandalwas, Akbarpur and Kalikhol (see map). In most places, villagers endorsed what everyone feared: they aren't any tigers left in Sariska. It was a bleak chorus: "Lax attitude killed the naars (tigers)." Said Kajori Mai of Mandalwas village, " Naar kha se meeloge. Naar to afsar ke peta mei hai." (How can tigers be spotted? They were killed, to satiate officers' greed).
Umri village, in core i, is densely forested, and far away from the pucca road. Most of its residents survive by selling milk in nearby areas. At first, they shied away. "The forest department is harassing us day after day. If we tell you anything, we will be troubled," said Badami, a 50-year-old. But after assurances to the contrary, people opened up. "At present, four people from the village are helping the department in its tiger hunt. But not even a single pugmark has been found," said Sultan. Shravan, a youngster, had another opinion: "God knows why the forest department is making a hullabaloo, when they know that the tiger population has been very low since the past few years. Ek naar ko panch naar bana dete hai! (they turn one tiger into 5!)". 70-year-old Parvati summarised Umri's feelings: "We haven't even heard their roar for the past six months. The forest department is responsible for the ruin."
A visit to the nearby naka (forest outpost) confirmed what villagers said. Three guards were diligently at work: one making chai, another chopping palak and the third sweeping the floor. At a time when a 'gruelling combing drive' of the forest department was on! Questioned on this, one of the guards (identity witheld) said: "We do occasional patrolling. Whenever there is firing, we go out and check. But obviously poachers never fire near a naka. Moreover, monitoring is risky -- eight years ago, a guard from this naka disappeared, suddenly. Nobody knows what happened to him." Another guard further revealed: "How can we fight hunters when they all have guns, and we just have lattis? It's better to sit in the naka." As a guard in the Kalighati naka puts it. "Today there is a hullabaloo. Last year we had told our seniors about the sudden drop in population, but nobody listened to us. There were around 10 tigers, down from 25. But nobody investigated: 10 tigers could have been saved. Poaching is bound to happen. Some nakas, situated where maximum infiltration can take place, remain closed. What can one expect?"
The least one can expect is that Sariska should be treated as a reserve. But today, anybody can enter at will. Every Tuesday and Saturday, entry is free for those visiting the Pandupole temple inside. Also, state highway number 13 (Alwar to Jaipur) runs for about 30 kilometres through the reserve, and traffic here has killed many animals. A detour had been made, but locals, aided by local politicians, have filed a lawsuit against the state government in the Thanagazi district court. "Accidents kill lots of animals. Four years ago, a tiger died at the gate of our hotel," said Mahendra Sharma of the rtdc Hotel Tiger Den, Sariska. In such conditions, is it not easy to poach? "Yes," admitted Seturam Yadav, assistant conservator of forests (acf), Sariska Tiger Reserve. "However, the reserve does not suffer because of poaching. I am sure there are tigers," he added.
Villagers don't share his confidence. "Our animals have not been eaten by tigers for the past six months. How can the tigers survive? In the wild, numbers of nilgais -- a pet prey -- has increased," said Kamli Devi of Peelapani village. If a tiger existed around Peelapani, villagers pointed out, they would know: it would have visited their check dam, the only source of water here. Pada baba of Mandalwas village was hopeful: "Maybe the tigers have migrated to nearby jungles." Pure wishful thinking, others said. "Had they migrated," said Pallaram Meena of Silli Bawari, "Other places would have shown signs of increase in tiger population. Why would they go elsewhere? There is enough water and prey in Sariska." Pallaram is right. 404 indigenous and naturalised plant species, 272 genera of 87 families, are found here. Sariska is also famous for leopard, cheetal (spotted deer), sambar and nilgai. There is no water scarcity, thanks to bubbling check dams constructed over years. The fields are green, livestock healthy. In such conditions, tigers can surely survive.
This correspondent was fortunate to land up at an informal meeting of 35 people at a house in village Ramji ka guwada. When questioned, people were sure. "No point talking about missing tigers; they have been poached." According to them, the forest department conducts a census for the heck of it. "They even assume the pugmark of a old panther -- similar to a tiger's -- as a tiger's," said Govind Ram of Googli ka guara village.
Other problems plague Sariska, people said. "A Rs 50 note can enable anyone to take a truck of wood from the forests," said Meena. Official apathy is what concerned a guard at Kundla Ckowki. "Just to please seniors," he said, "Guards create new impressions from old ones. Our research officials have very little clue about differences in pugmarks." He should know; he's been working here since 1981. Even when a naka reports poaching, nothing happens: "On our own, we can't do anything. We have to inform the directorate. By the time the requisite force is mustered up, the poachers escape," he said.
On February 15, 2005, a meeting of the Sariska Suraksha Samiti -- comprising villages from all parts of Sariska -- convened. In it, both villagers' exasperation and authorities' tedium were apparent. Said Ramjilal Choubey of Gewar village: "On January 15, 2005, I saw a car of a Bhartiya Janta Party politician entering the reserve. One person had a big gun. But they were allowed to enter. What is this? If animals are missing, isn't poaching to blame?" Quickly countered acf Yadav: "Hunters don't come by parachute. They obviously get local support. It is the moral responsibility of the villagers to inform us." Replied Choubey: "The administration is thinking of taking steps after so much damage has been done." Added Bhagwan Meena of village Anara: "First you get the tigers killed, and now you are asking us to find them. Praja kya kare jab raja hi chor ho !" Yadav couldn't refute villagers at the meeting. But later, he declared to this correspondent: "Villagers are to be blamed. Because of them, the habitat has got disturbed. They even aid poachers."
According to Yadav, the biggest constraint is staff shortage. A fund crunch in 1986 caused the Rajasthan government to ban recruitment in almost all departments. Result: a single guard patrols 7.5-10 sq km of forest. Sariska needs 5,729 forest guards, but only 3,666 have been sanctioned. Of this, only 3,216 are actually working. Further, staff quality is questionable. On October 29, 1991, the Supreme Court had passed an order stating all daily wage employees, who had completed either two or 10 years of service before 1989, were to be made (respectively) semi-permanent or permanent. "Many daily wage workers got false certificates about their age. Hence, those who are 50 years old in our records are actually 70 or even 80 years old," asserted Yadav.
The reserve lacks infrastructure. As per the Sariska directorate's status report of 2000, there was only one revolver and four guns to save Sariska! The reserve's recurring expenditure in 1999-2000 was Rs 94 lakh; non-recurring Rs 93 lakh. In the same period, about Rs 37 lakh was collected as entrance fee. So money isn't a problem.
First, the fact there is a crisis. "During our recent combing exercise, we have found evidence of tigers," said Arun Sen, the Rajasthan's chief wildlife warden. Asked about poaching, he replied: "There is a possibility, as the park is open from all sides. But we cannot do anything, on humanitarian and religious grounds." Then why waste lakhs every year? "Money is not wasted. We have constructed many waterbodies that have increased the moisture level of the area," said Sen. But when all the animals are poached, how will the moisture level help?
At Sariska, officals are kicking up a huge fuss. But, as was clear to this correspondent, it wasn't about protecting tigers.
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