Officials say poisoning, activists say poaching
The death of 10 tigers in three months in Kaziranga National Park in Assam has alarmed environmentalists. The tigers were found dead between November 12, 2008, and February 14, 2009. Park authorities suspect some of the tigers might have been poisoned by villagers. Environmentalists suspect poaching could also be the reason.
"Of the 10 tigers, three died of old age, two of infighting and one was killed by buffaloes. Bodies of the remaining four were found in a putrified state," said Arif Ahmed, the forest veterinary officer at Kaziranga National Park.
But the post-mortem report of the tiger which died on February 14, 2009, led to suspicion. The report showed the tiger died of organophosphorus, a pesticide, said S Baishya, in charge of the toxicology department, at the state forensic laboratory in Assam. Park officials suspect villagers in the eastern range of the park might have sprayed the pesticide on a carcass of cattle. There were signs of poaching too. The bones and skin of the tiger were found buried near its body which were later confiscated by the forest department, said Ahmed.
Baishya said a detailed study is required before drawing a conclusion. Forest officials claim samples of the tiger carcasses have been sent to the forensic laboratory for further investigation but officials at the toxicology department of the lab said they had not received any samples yet.
Dharanidhar Boro, a senior range officer at the park, said, "This is the result of anger among villagers. Tigers had killed 108 cows in 2008 and the compensation they received was a paltry amount." There are over 200 villages around the park, and most of them have cattle. "The compensation received for a cow is Rs 2,500, while the market price is more than Rs 8,000," said Bipon Gogoi, of Kohora village which lies outside the southern boundary of the park.
Shimanta Goswami, an activist with a non-profit conservation organization Green Guard, however, pointed out poaching is going on in Laokhowa sanctuary, just 28 km from Kaziranga. "There have been seven to eight instances of tiger poaching, most of them being cases of poisoning. In February 2007, a tiger body was found in Laokhowa with all its parts missing except for the intestine," said Goswami. In Laokhowa there has never been an official tiger census. It is possible poachers have now turned their attention to Kaziranga, added Goswami.
Tiger body parts have a good market and fetch a good price. While a tiger skin can fetch Rs 40,000 to Rs 1 lakh, tiger bones and teeth can be sold for Rs 20,000 to Rs 40,000 per kg in the northeast of India.
One-and-a-half years ago Kaziranga National Park was declared a tiger reserve because it has a good prey base for tigers and its grassland provides a good cover to the big cat. But park director Surendra Nath Buragohain said the tiger-human conflict is on the rise.
Ideally, a male tiger needs around 20 sq km of territory and a female around 5 sq km, according to Firoz Ahmad, who is heading the tiger project at Aaranyak, a non-profit working on wildlife in Assam. "But as per the latest survey, there are 20 tigers per 100 sq km in Kaziranga (translating to one tiger in 5 sq km). This has intensified the competition for food and space," said Buragohain.
The ecological profile of the park is also changing. It receives less rainfall and small water bodies are drying up. "Approximately 30 sq km of the park have been eroded by floods in past 12 to 15 years. Little can be done as floods are necessary for the survival of Kaziranga and usual anti-erosion measures are of no use," said Anwaruddin Choudhury, who has been working on environmental conservation for over 20 years.
According to officials, natural factors combined with the increase in tiger population are the reason behind the tiger-human conflict. "Being a territorial animal, every adult male tiger maintains its own territory and this results in a fight if any other male tiger trespasses its territory; this forces the weaker and older ones to look for easier targets like cattle in the fringe villages," said forest veterinary officer Ahmed. In some places human settlements and the park boundary are adjacent.
The park is also short of staff, said Buragohain.
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