Forest officials kept eyes tightly shut

When it was found there were no tigers in the Panna Tiger Reserve, P K Sen was called to join the government special investigation team. Former head of Project Tiger, he told Sumana Narayanan the department's focus was tourism. Excerpts

By Sumana Narayanan
Published: Saturday 15 August 2009

Down to Earth  
“We found several pugmarks had the toes rounded off. We realized the park staff were creating pugmarks with casts ”

On the special investigation team

The ministry of environment asked us to look into the problem. Besides me, there was Qamar Qureshi of the Wildlife Institute of India (wii), Chaturbhuja Beher a, deputy director of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, and S P Yadav of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (ntca). Our mandate was to ascertain the reason for tigers disappearing and to see if the park staff were involved. The report is with the ministry now; the ntca will publish it soon.

On the report

We looked at information from various sources--the forest department, ntca, non-profits, the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court and researchers from wii. Our finding is that tigers were lost to poaching. There was no evidence of other causes such as disease outbreak or ecological disasters.

On the management of the park

This was my second report on Panna. I had earlier (in 2008) visited the tiger reserve with Ravi Singh of wwf. Many anti-poaching initiatives had been taken over the past decade by several field directors. There was increased patrolling on foot and on vehicle. There were rehabilitation efforts targeted at the Pardhi and Baheliya communities that are known to live off poaching. But the crucial problem with these initiatives was that no monitoring and evaluation were done. So the efficacy of the measures was not known. What then is the point of these measures?

On his earlier report

The newspapers have commented that I lauded the department back then and now I'm criticizing it. That's not true. The last time we said field directors there have taken many measures and that is a good thing, but their evaluation and monitoring should be done. In fact we stated specifically that in the summer (of 2008) a team of scientists should be asked to evaluate the park.

On tampering with the signs

We had also found several pugmarks which should have indicated a sizeable population. We were suspicious though because many of these pugmarks had rounded off toes--indicating human tampering. Also there were quite a few pugmarks in scrub areas. Tigers generally avoid scrub forests. We realized that the park staff were creating pugmarks with casts.

On the park management's attitude

Studies had found a decline in tiger numbers and a skewed sex ratio between 2001 and 2006. It changed from one male for every three females to one female for every three males. So the females were disappearing. This is something that was seen in Sariska as well. The population density had dipped from 6-7 tigers per 100 sq km to just 3-3.5 tigers per 100 sq km.

The forest department preferred to ignore the signs. The number of tiger sightings and pugmarks were declining, but the state did nothing. The state received and ignored many warning letters. ntca, wii, researchers like Raghu Chundawat and the cec had repeatedly told the forest department that there was a problem. These were based on either research or field visits.

The cec had visited the park at the behest of the Supreme Court in 2004 and 2005. They found that trees had been cut needlessly in many areas, especially in Doodhwa gorge and by the roads. The gorge is where tigresses with cubs were frequently sighted because it is an excellent habitat for them. It offers shelter, food and water in abundance. The park officials were clearing the trees for the tourists, for easy sighting of tigers. The focus was not wildlife protection but tourism.

The department's reaction to all these reports and comments was to suspend Chundawat's research permit and vehemently deny the problem. They started monitoring the population only in December 2008, when only one tiger was left. (This is not including the two that were translocated; one from Kanha and the other from Bandhavgarh.)

On who is to blame

In our report we have said that the people at the top are to blame. This has infuriated them. Why? Because the normal reaction is to blame the field staff, transfer or suspend a few of them and everyone is happy. But what can the field staff do? Why were the pccf (principal chief conservator of forests), additional pccf (wildlife) and cww (chief wildlife warden) not doing anything? They were doing something alright; they were busy writing letters to all those who had said there is a problem. They were busy denying the problem without verifying the field situation even though they had visited the park several times. Their visits were about drinking and eating desi chicken.

On what is needed

The field staff don't have proper training in anti-poaching measures. The forest guards have no facilities, no access to medical help. If they aren't given any incentives, why would they work? Also the park staff are not capable of carrying out censuses properly. This has to change. For how long can you expecting wii to do the work?

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