Wildlife & Biodiversity

Shoddy translocation of tiger Sundari leads to bloodshed

India's first interstate tiger translocation was done in violation of the protocol

By Ishan Kukreti, Biplab Mahapatra
Published: Monday 05 November 2018
Tiger deaths
The Odisha forest department did not follow this protocol while translocating Sundari to Satkosia Tiger Reserve. Credit: Sudipta Chakraborty The Odisha forest department did not follow this protocol while translocating Sundari to Satkosia Tiger Reserve. Credit: Sudipta Chakraborty

Just three months after she was moved to her new home, officials have decided to put Sundari behind bars. A tigress from Madhya Pradesh’s Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Sundari was shifted to Satkosia Tiger Reserve (STR) in Odisha to boost the reserve’s tiger population. Within two months of being translocated, she made her first human kill. In the month that followed she killed one more person and injured four.

On July 26, Sundari arrived at her new home under India’s  first interstate tiger translocation project. But the way the project was handled shows gross mismanagement on part of the Odisha Forest and Environment Department. “Officials did not inform us about her presence in the area,” complains Rama Pradhan of Kumuri village inside STR. “We got to know about Sundari from media reports only after she made her first kill on September 12,” he adds.

The process of tiger translocation is governed by the “Protocol for Tiger Re-introduction”, framed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a body to manage and conserve tigers, under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). NTCA adopted the protocol from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines for the same. The protocol emphasises on the acceptance of the translocation by the local community. It states that a team of experts from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), forest department of the state, a qualified veterinarian and a qualified wildlife biologist should evaluate the socio-economic impact of the translocation on the people in the area. “A thorough assessment of attitudes of local people to the proposed project is necessary to ensure long-term protection of the reintroduced population, especially if the cause of species’ decline was due to human factors (e.g. overhunting, over-collection, loss or alteration of habitat). The programme should be fully under-stood, accepted and supported by local communities,” the protocol states.

The Odisha forest department did not follow this protocol while translocating Sundari to STR. Suvendu Behera, assistant conservator of forest, STR, and one of the officials responsible for the translocation, is not even aware that the department needs to under-take a socio-economic evaluation. “We did not undertake such a study because there is no provision for it in the process. We did talk to a few people in the peripheral villages such as Tulka, Bhuska and Raiguda, and they were fine with the translocation,” he told Down To Earth (DTE). However, his senior, Sudarshan Panda, the state’s additional principal chief conservator of forests, maintains that the protocol was followed in STR. “All its aspects were carefully examined, not just by the forest department, but by NTCA, WII, MoEF&CC and the Madhya Pradesh government,” Panda told DTE. Behera, however, acknowledges that people have been protesting against the translocation after it happened.

A day after Sundari made her first kill in Hathibada village of Angul district, protesters set the Hathibada forest guest house on fire and destroyed two vehicles. The forest department estimates that the protest resulted in damage of property worth Rs 50 lakh.

Fumbled approach 

Sundari was shifted after the Odisha forest department asked NTCA for three pairs of Royal Bengal Tigers in September 2016. As per an estimate by the department, there were just two tigers in STR in 2016, down from 12 in 2007, when STR was declared a protected area. NTCA gave the approval in October 2017. 

“Translocation of tigers is justified only if, one, there is sufficient data to show that adequate prey density exists; two, tigers are either absent or well below carrying capacity densities as shown by data; three, there is no chance of wild tigers colonising the area naturally with adequate protect-ion; four, the introduced tiger is not captive bred but is caught in the wild and is capable of hunting prey; and  five, the introduced animals are radio-collared and tracked so that they can be shot or recaptured the moment there is problem,” says K Ullas Karanth, director, Centre for Wildlife Studies, a non-profit based in Bengaluru. “I am not aware of all details of this case, but it looks like only the fourth condition was met (in STR),” he adds.

STR is unique in many ways. As per a Right To Information reply received by Angul-based non-profit People for Animals in 2017, of all the 50 tiger reserves in the country, STR has the highest number of habitations—116 villages inside the protected area. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Re-cognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or FRA, says that rights of forest-dwelling communities must be settled before declaring a forest a protected area. But NTCA declared Satkosia a tiger reserve without settling any rights.

While on one hand, STR has a large human population, on the other, it has a low prey base. “The prey base in STR is much lower than other reserves and it does not even have enough levelled areas for tigers to chase preys,” says Biswajit Mohanty, former member of Odisha State Board for Wildlife. 

On October 29, the forest and environment minister of Odisha, Bijayshree Routray, declared that Sundari will be sent to the Nandankanan Zoological Park in Bhubaneswar. A team of forest department officials and WII scientists has been trying to capture her since then. “The tigress is roaming in bushy areas, making it difficult to administer the tranquilliser. Therefore, it has taken us so long,” Ramaswamy P, divisional forest officer of Satkosia wildlife division told DTE. But this does not answer why Sundari was shifted without adequate preparation. While Bandhavgarh has lost a tigress, Satkosia has not gained one.

(This story was published in Down To Earth's November 16-30 edition under the headline 'Killer move')

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