Compromised!

Tiger reserve security in Karnataka

 
By Nitin Sethi, E Vijayalakshmi
Published: Sunday 15 June 2003

the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) has taken Karnataka to task over the implementation of an administrative reorganisation plan by the state forest department (fd) in May. In a sternly worded letter to the chief secretary of Karnataka, the moef reprimanded the state fd for placing two protected areas -- Bandipur National Park and Nagarhole National Park, which come under the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (btr) -- in territorial divisions. The ministry expressed strong reservations about the abolition of the post of btr's field director as well. While the fd claims that the move is part of long-term administrative reforms, the moef contends that the reshuffle has taken place at the cost of the tiger reserve.

"If the Union government stops the flow of funds, it will result in grave monetary constraints in managing national parks," points out R M Ray, principal chief conservator of forests, wildlife. Project Tiger (pt) has also threatened to cut off financial assistance to Karnataka if it does not return to the status quo. In the ninth five-year plan, pt allocated more than Rs 6 crore for the management of the tiger reserve areas. Whereas btr -- which stretches across 880 square kilometres (sq km) -- got Rs 1.7 crore, the 630-sq km Nagarhole National Park was sanctioned Rs 9 lakh. "We were kept in the dark about this move. The state's decision will create problems in the protection of the reserve," says Rajesh Gopal, director, pt.

Earlier, the territorial and wildlife wings functioned parallel to each other with the north and south circles. Each of the latter was under a conservator. An official of the same rank was the field director of btr. All three reported to the chief wildlife warden. The btr field director had a deputy conservator of forests working under him. While the wildlife wing covers protected areas such as sanctuaries and national parks, reserved forests fall within the territorial wing.

In 2002, the Karnataka government abolished the north and south circles and merged them with territorial divisions. The position of btr's field director was consolidated further, as Nagarhole too was clubbed with the tiger reserve. But with the recent move, the post of the field director has been abolished. Instead, the district forest officers of the two national parks will now report to a conservator of the territorial wing of the Chamarajnagar circle.

Karnataka has justified its recent move on the pretext that it was becoming untenable to keep a conservator exclusively for the tiger reserve in the wake of pt's decision to stop funding all non-plan expenditure of the state, which includes salaries.

But the state's decision has been termed arbitrary. "If this post is abolished, the focus will not remain on tiger conservation any longer," feels R S Suresh, the outgoing forest director, pt, Bandipur. According to another official, the flora too, could be affected: "The move might reduce control on illegal felling, an activity for which the territorial division is notorious. " Praveen Bhargav, managing trustee of Wildlife First, a Bangalore-based non-governmental organisation, opines: "I feel that there should be an exclusive wildlife administration. If the government has financial constraints, it can at least have one wildlife conservator each for south and north Karnataka, with the additional responsibility of pt in the two regions."

However, other experts feel that there won't be any direct implication on the national park. M D Madhusudan Dutt, director of National Conservation Foundation, says, "The traditional system is being overhauled for the past few years now; this should perhaps be looked at as a part of that exercise." But Gopal asserts: "Under pt, the hierarchical structure is clearly laid out and practised all over the country uniformly. The pt steering committee too has a definite role to play in the choice of the conservator for the post of field director." Bhargav is worried that the move could have a negative impact, as there is hardly any similarity between managing territorial and wildlife areas.

With the moef adopting a tough stance on the issue, there is no likelihood of the stand-off ending soon.

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