THE LAST TIGER
Systemic failure has led to a crisis situation in Panna, shrinking the tiger population beyond recovery. Prerna Singh Bindra reports
A tigress with two cubs — about eight-months- old has been sighted," the director of Panna Tiger Reserve, LK Choudhary, tells me on the last day of 2008. His statement has the impact of a bombshell — there has been no tigress in Panna for over two years — none. And just one tiger — though expectedly, the officials claim otherwise. The last known tigress was killed — poisoned (see picture) in May 2006, just one in a series of poaching the park has been plagued with for the past six years.
I feel elated — maybe there was some hope for the tigers of Panna, maybe Panna will live to see the Generation Next of tigers, maybe Panna isn't another Sariska, after all.
But the euphoria lasts only a moment. Faith is hard to come by — especially in Panna where officials have been fabricating tigers, inflating numbers ever since their population started to fall. I wish the news were true, but consider this: for two years, there has been no signs of a tigress in Panna — no pugmarks — no mating calls, no sighting, so much so that even the State Government — which has been crying itself hoarse about the fecundity of tigers, and tigresses, in Panna requested the centre for permission to 'import' two tigress from other reserves in Madhya Pradesh.
I visited the spot in the Rajabariya range, at the edge of the reserve — where the tigress and cubs were 'sighted', met the forest guards, three of them, who vouched they had seen tigress and cubs. Great, but where are the pugmarks of the happy family? Strange, in a park where pugmarks are so rare that metal baskets are kept upside down, to shield and maintain them for weeks thereafter. How come her existence wasn't detected, in a park desperate to 'prove' its tigers? A tiger family can't materialise out of thin air. If she was in the reserve all this time, what would it say about the patrolling and monitoring in the park that her presence has gone unnoticed, especially if she is with cubs. A tigress with cubs needs to hunt frequently, with hungry mouths to feed, and would move within a relatively small territory — and it would require quite an effort, for such a tigress to go unnoticed. This one, then, is either a phantom tigress, or yet another one born out of the desperate imagination of the management.
Such a shame for a park, that not too long ago, boasted a density of nearly seven tigers per 100 square km. Today, the same tiger reserve has been reduced to one tiger, no tigress and zero cub survival rate.
How did this situation come to be? Here is a brief backgrounder to help understand
In 1996, the density of tigers was 2-3 per 100 sq km. Subsequently, strict protection under a judicious and able management saw a remarkable recovery and by the end of 2001, the density of tigers in Panna had increased to nearly seven for every 100 sq km.
Then, in December 2002, a tigress was found dead on the fringes of Panna TR, killed in a snare set by poachers. In one deadly stroke, the park lost three tigers, for her eight-month- old cubs could not survive without their mother. No.120's — identfied by the frequency number transmitted by her radio collar — death marked the beginning of the catastrophe that hit Panna thereafter. No. 111, another tigress had not been seen for long, presumed poached. The mangled body of Hairy Foot, a male in his prime, was recovered from a well in June 2003. No. 113, another young tigress had disappeared. No. 123 — I was the last person to have seen her alive — had vanished too.
In February 2005, conservation biologist, Dr Raghu Chundawat, who studied the tigers of Panna for nearly a decade, gave a detailed report that nine tigers and 21 cubs had vanished without a trace. In the same month, the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee, visited the reserve in response to a writ petition. It pointed out that, "tiger population in 2005 appears to have crashed in the park probably due to poaching. It is necessary to put things right here before it is too late. Otherwise the tiger will never recover here." This happened in the shadow of Sariska, where tigers had ceased to exist, and the alarming report should have served as a warning.
In a way it did, but more to protect officers, than tigers.
The first step was to have a census in March 2005 — a farcical exercise which rather than paint a true picture, presented a grand total of 35 tigers — 20 females, ten males, and one cub. The numbers were clearly concocted: for example, an area of 100 sq km showed 24 tigers! In case you were unaware, sirs, tigers are not party animals huddling together in one spot, but territorial carnivores. Conservationists cried foul, and consequently, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) conducted a census, and estimated, 8-15 tigers, in about 40 per cent of the park — which was their study area — and had the highest density of tigers. The WII study also showed that 40 per cent of Panna had no tigers, yet the State Government extrapolated the study area population to the entire reserve, and tom-tommed that Panna's tiger population was a healthy 18-34. Ignoring the fact that a poacher, Mohammed Raees caught in Chattarpur in July 2005, confessed to having traded in eight tigers skins, tiger bones and 30 leopard skins, mainly from Panna, and other reserves in the State. Ignoring that two of the tigers that were captured by the WII camera had already been killed by end of the census.
Even if one were to go by official figures, Panna had lost about 20 tigers since its last census. The density of seven tigers was now down to 3.7. Worse, cub mortality was 100 per cent, none of the cubs were surviving. Did such a sterile park have a future at all?
The root cause of Panna's downfall was sheer system failure — which refused to respond, or even acknowledge, the crisis. Lacklustre mismanagement, poor protection, misplaced priorities with emphasis on tourism rather than protection — and worst of all — a failure to recognise the critical situation of the reserve. Rather than tackle the crisis, the management concentrated on controlling the criticism and cracking down on the whistleblower — Dr Chundawat's research permission was withdrawn, his entry into the park prohibited, his vehicle seized. Letters from the forest secretary of MP were even shot off to the CEC stating "to compare Panna with Sariska is unwarranted and unduly alarmist."
Predictably, the situation only got worse.
So I am here now, in Panna at the cusp of 2009 — and I carry no cheery news — not even of the new miracle tigress — no one believes in her outside of the management, a telling statement of the mistrust the forest department has generated. And even if she exists, and I fervently hope she does — it doesn't really take away much from the Panna tragedy.
The park is shrouded in despondency. Guides vouch for one tiger, sighting, and signs have come down drastically. The guards prefer not to speak, silenced by their uniform, one even asserts that Panna has never been hit by poachers! I met Kamlesh (name changed, to protect identity. There is the threat of backlash, if they speak. His official quote is 10-12 tigers — as ordained by the forest department), one of the oldest guides of the reserve. He talks of times when sightings were frequent, pugmarks stamped the paths, and tiger calls rumbled over the hills, and down the valleys. Now, he says, the park is silent, deprived of its top predator, save the only, lonely tiger. He worries too, for their business — he is from Madla village — where most households have livelihoods attached to the park — be it as guides, running gypsies, selling farm produce to resorts, or working in them.
I meet the WII scientists as well, here again for another camera — trap survey to ascertain tiger numbers — they do not want to go on record, it has barely been a month, but yes, they admit, the future does not bode well for the tigers of Panna. Those that exist, or don't.
So how many tigers in Panna, I ask the director, who shies away from an answer — though he quoted 1-15 in a meeting held earlier in December. Admittedly the situation is alarming, he says. "But we have more than one. . Perhaps six, maybe more." The impression I get is of a management desperate to prove a healthy tiger population in Panna. And though I am shown pugmarks of 'different' tigers, I am not too sure — why has only one been sighted for over an year? In Panna, the writing is on the wall, and has been for a long time.
That is Panna's shame, that in spite of repeated warnings — from researchers, media, and even the SC, we lost, forever, the tigers of Panna. They could have been saved had timely action been taken, but they weren't. And none has been held accountable for the loss.
There is now a scheme — the Sariska formula, ie, fly in tigers, tigresses rather, to 'revive' Panna. Which is all very well — but is the reserve ready to receive a tigress? Admittedly, there has been an improvement in protection — there are more chowkis in the park (even if some are built in what were once meadows, and good wildlife areas), one can see forest guards patrolling on foot, and importantly nine villages have been recently shifted out of the reserve.
But poaching still continues unabated, a langur had been sighted with a noose around its neck around Christmas, and in October a chinkara —
However, my main issue here is that the management never really accepted the crisis. The chief wildlife warden announced in a meeting in October this year that there were enough tigers in Panna. The field director blames the loss of tigers to the dacoits who had invaded the park between mid-2006 to early 2008. "They were targeting forest officers, our chowkis were burnt," says Choudhary. Agreed, but the tiger had long been gone, mainly by 2005, much before the dacoits entered the scene. The dacoits just served to deteriorate matters even further. Foresters feared their security, and fled the reserve, and with almost nil vigilance, poachers had a field day, finishing off the last odd tigers, and targeting prey animals.
It doesn't really matter, whether there is one tiger in Panna, or two, or maybe even three — the point is the numbers fell to beyond recovery. The tragedy of Panna is a lesson to be learnt — to understand why it happened, so that such a catastrophe is not repeated again. We did not learn from Sariska, so Panna happened ... Sadly, we don't seem to have learnt from Panna too, and I wonder how many other reserves are witnessing the shame of the national animal disappearing off its map. Appeared in The Pioneer, dated January 11, 2009
Appeared in The Pioneer, dated January 11, 2009
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BY Arunava Das