Ghazala Shahabuddin says the protected area may lack sufficient habitat for a viable population of tigers
The Sariska Tiger Reserve (STR) in northern Rajasthan's Alwar district need not remain a tiger reserve, leading researcher Ghazala Shahabuddin said. The forest, which had to be restocked with tigers after it lost them that were there in the previous decade, may not be able to support the apex predator any more, according to her.
"STR does not have any connectivity with other protected areas (PAs)," Shahabuddin said at Ashoka University, Haryana, on February 20, 2019. "Let us keep it for its other wildlife and other ecosystem values such as it being the home of Aravalli fauna and being a storehouse for water in the region,” she added.
According to Shahabuddin, affiliated to the Centre for Ecology, Development and Research, Dehradun, attempts at 'rewilding' have possibly failed in the case of Sariska. 'Rewilding' refers to restoring and consolidating large, human-free, natural landscapes by reintroducing large predators and other mammals to them to rejuvenate ecosystems. Notable examples include the introduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park and Florida Panthers into the Everglades, in the United States in 1995.
In STR, however, the PA was not properly studied before being notified. "Out of 866 square kilometres, only about 200 sq km in Core Area 1 is good habitat for tigers," Shahabuddin said. Surrounded by villages, STR is largely cut off from other forests, she added. Large portions of the core area were highly degraded as far back as 10-12 years before the tigers disappeared.
Tree species were not regenerating due to the disappearance of seed dispersers like sloth bears; over grazing by cattle caused pastures to disappear. So the herbivore population declined, which was another blow for tigers.
"Locals were alienated because they had been denied development. Villages had been displaced in the 1970s, but had come back. They had assets outside but were mostly grazing cattle in the park. They were mostly Gujjars. They were not compensated for livestock loss," Shahabuddin said.
When tigers were brought from the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve to restock STR in 2007, more mistakes were made and key issues were not addressed, she added.
The first few litters of cubs were usually sired by the same male. So, there was a chance of inbreeding. In 2011, one of the relocated tigers was poisoned by villagers, who are yet not convinced that they can benefit from tiger translocations.
"A study of five tigers showed that they were moving in the same 200 sq km area of the park that had suitable habitat. If they moved outside park boundaries, they had to be tranquilised and brought back," Shahabuddin said.
Though the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) scientist in charge of the relocation calculated that STR could support 15 tigers, Shahabuddin pegs the number at half of that.
Most importantly, Shahabuddin said, the restocking of STR was a political decision. "The forest department kept persisting in bringing back the tiger because they perhaps fear its loss of status as a tiger reserve," she said.
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