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Post Sariska – Are Wild Tigers Secure Today?

Post Sariska – Are Wild Tigers Secure Today?

Born in 2006 to the legendary Machli, T 19, also known as the ‘Jhalra Female’, was one of the shyest of all the tigresses in Ranthambhore. Now she rules entire territories where she is bringing new tigers into the world... a worthy successor indeed to her mother. Photo: Oliver Gayle/Sudarshan Sharma.

Post the Sariska and Panna debacles, several apparently positive steps have been initiated to save the tiger, but something is missing. India’s planners are not committed to protecting wild India. Creating new reserves, or even pumping huge sums of money into protecting tiger habitats will do the cat little good if tiger habitats continue to be mauled under direct orders from the Prime Minister of India’s office. Forest after forest is under assault by mines, dams, roads and encroachments that are tacitly supported by vote-seeking Indian politicians. One consequence is rising human-wildlife conflict. Another is accelerating climate change whose impact becomes more severe and more evident with every passing day. No lessons were learned from Sariska, say Lakshmy Raman and Bittu Sahgal.

“Before 1995, when wolves were reintroduced in the Yellowstone National Park, elk had overrun the park. Once wolves began preying on the elk again, the vegetation that had suffered due to overgrazing improved. The elk stayed away from valleys and gorges that the wolves frequented and here trees grew taller and bare slopes were once again covered with aspen and cottonwood. Birds moved in, beavers increased and their dams provided homes to muskrats, otters, ducks and a whole range of fish, reptiles and amphibians. The strengthened riverbanks were fortified from erosion and rivers became less meandering and attracted more wildlife. Wolves changed the river!” The preceding is part of the narration from a remarkable four-minute video titled ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’ – based on a TED talk by the famous British writer, George Monbiot.

Monbiot could well have been talking about the Indian tiger, whose impact on the Indian subcontinent is just as dramatic. The tiger, like the wolf, is a keystone species. Such carnivores prevent overgrazing, enabling thick vegetation to hold the rain that feeds our lakes, streams and rivers, securing our food and water security and the future of the Indian subcontinent.

At one time, when Indians respected and valued forests, our natural infrastructures provided for virtually all people. Having dramatically degraded these life-support systems, we must now spend scarce money to counter floods, droughts, landslides and disease. But even such high costs will pale in significance compared to the massive financial losses India will suffer as a result of climate change.


Raza Kazmi, a young, firebrand, wildlife conservationist from Jharkhand, wrote to Sanctuary to say: “Jharkhand was once a tiger haven like no other as is evident from the British records recounting how Chota-Nagpore was a ‘wild, rugged and savage land infested with tigers’. The forests of Palamau, Hazaribagh, Chatra, Ranchi and Singhbhum (particularly Saranda) were the tiger strongholds of the state. But by the late 1970s, tiger numbers dropped drastically. Singhbhum lost its tigers by the early 1980s, the tigers of Ranchi district and stragglers elsewhere followed suit, then Chatra’s tigers went extinct and finally the last resident tiger of Hazaribagh vanished in 1994. Palamau’s tiger population also went into a downward spiral after an initial rise just after the inauguration of Project Tiger in 1973. Today, fewer than a dozen survive in the 1,130 sq. km. tiger reserve, possibly the last resident tiger population of Jharkhand. Ironically, contiguous tiger habitat across Jharkhand could potentially support around 200 tigers. But that is a forlorn dream for a variety of reasons including Naxal insurgency and lawlessness. A strong appetite for bush-meat among the local tribals has led to a complete decimation of prey base to the point that there are probably fewer than 100 sambar deer left in Jharkhand! Add to this the slew of mining projects, both operational and proposed, particularly in Hazaribagh, Saranda and Palamau, and the nails in Jharkhand’s wildlife coffin become obvious.”

And yet, Kazmi suggests that the sheer contiguity of habitat prompts him to pray for a miracle: “Bandhavgarh is connected to western Palamau via the huge Sanjay-Guru Ghasidas-Tamor Pingla landscape that encompasses four large Protected Areas. To the north, Palamau is connected to Hazaribagh and Gaya via Chatraand, south-western Palamau is still connected to the Kanha-Achanakmar landscape through the Hasdeo Arand forestsof central Chhattisgarh. To the southeast of Palamau lies the Saranda landscape, which links up with the Similipal Tiger Reserve.”

In fact what hurts most is that a tiger habitat revival in Jharkhand is tantalisingly close, yet seemingly out of our grasp purely because myopic economists and planners cannot see our nation’s self-interest in regenerating natural ecosystems. By starving the forest department of funds, they guarantee staff vacancies which suits the Naxal militants just fine.

That nature manages to hold on despite our myopia is evident from the fact that a tiger (probably from Similipal) turned up in Saranda in 2011 after a gap of almost three decades and another (probably from Palamau) sought temporary refuge in the Hazaribagh WLS in 2006, the first tiger sighting there in 12 years.


With habitats reduced to half their extent in the past four decades, poaching is now undoubtedly one of the most serious threats to tigers in India, with local extinctions the order of the day. On January 20, 2014, forest officials arrested poachers in the Akbarpur range of the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan’s Alwar district. This is where all the tigers vanished (Sanctuary Vol. XXV No. 3, June 2005) and yet poaching again reared its ugly head. Two male tigers and three tigresses were originally relocated to the reserve, followed by another three recently. This is despite the fact that Sariska’s surrounds suffer greater human disturbances and encroachments than ever before. Wither the lofty expressions of will and wringing of hands about past local extinction? The tiger cubs born here post relocation have a shaky future at best.

At a recent conference on the illegal wildlife trade in London, Prince Charles echoed what we all know (apart from field protection) to be the other key solution… to attack the demand for tiger and wildlife parts and derivatives. Ironically, India, one of the world’s most targeted nations, failed to send a representative to the meeting, except through tele-conferencing with the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) and Traffic India. India’s politicians have a lot to answer for. This conference sought to strengthen enforcement mechanisms in dealing with cross-border wildlife trade, particularly within the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network, which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Some of us are beginning to wonder whether India’s Home Ministry is equal to the task of protecting our internal security because without a shadow of a doubt, the wildlife trade finances terrorism, insurrection and the underworld through the umbilically linked trades of narcotics, arms and human trafficking. Nothing exemplified this more dramatically (and tragically) than the news that the group responsible for the terrorist attack in a Kenya mall in 2012, Al Shabaab, turned out to be active in ivory trafficking. Experts suggest that the increasing scrutiny and pressure by the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union on the offshore bank accounts of terrorist organisations and religious charities is forcing them to turn with even more determination toward raising funds through the illegal wildlife trade.

Former Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh in Sariska where he reviewed plans to translocate tigers from Ranthambhore to repopulate the park after it suffered local tiger extinction. Today the peripheries of both Sariska and Ranthambhore are under attack from politically-supported mining lobbies. Photo: Sunayan Sharma.


By K. Ullas Karanth, Director for Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society, www.wcsindia.org

The total wipeout of tigers from Sariska in 2004, in the face of stout denials by officials – even after the event – is a tragic milestone in India’s tiger conservation history. Like similar official denials of the emerging tiger trade a decade earlier, the Sariska debacle showed that the much trumpeted India’s ‘tiger conservation success’ story had some gaping holes. Although the Sariska collapse did lead to the setting up of a Prime Ministerial ‘Tiger Task Force’, the outcome was predictably mediocre, given the flawed approach of the Task Force. The establishment of a large and lethargic ‘National Tiger Conservation Authority’ with a huge budget was the net result.

A detailed analysis of the ten years that followed Sariska must wait for another suitable occasion. In this brief note, I can only flag few key issues that need such deeper analysis:

At Sariska, despite millions of rupees being spent, a hurried, ill-conceived attempt to ‘fast track’ tiger recovery by trans-locating tigers from other reserves, remains hopelessly stalled. The tough challenge of voluntarily, fairly and generously relocating several villages inside, which should have preceded the tiger translocations continues to be ignored.

At a broader scale, the Task Force’s sound recommendation of earmarking a large corpus fund to be used to free up several thousand square kilometres of critical tiger habitat through generous and fair village resettlements, remains patchy due to official lethargy at multiple levels.

However, with massive increase in tiger reserve budgets, earlier staffing deficiencies have been overcome in a few reserves at least, and protection has improved. Consequently, rebounding tiger populations in key reserves in the Terai, Central India and Western Ghats have generated new conflicts with people, which demand urgent mitigation. However, in most parts of the country, including vast forests in the tribal belts of Central, Eastern and Northeastern India, tigers have been totally wiped out or occur in unviable numbers.

On the other hand, increased tiger reserve budgets have also driven massive and needless manipulation of habitats in the name of “improving them” – altering their essential natural characters.

A new conservation fashion of ‘playing god to tigers’ – as noted conservationist Valmik Thapar aptly labeled it – has gained followers among officials, conservation NGOs and large donors. ‘Eco-development’, a leaky bucket brought into the country by the ill-fated World Bank-GEF project a decade ago, is also driving a mission-drift away from core challenges and priorities of improved protection and voluntary village relocation.

In all this, what has worked and what has not worked? We do not know for sure despite massive increase in funding for monitoring of tigers and ‘management effectiveness’. However, without commensurate investment of intellectual capital into these assessments, the results are muddy.

The failed ‘pugmark census’ has been replaced by a weak and statistically creaky ‘national tiger estimation’ on which over 300 million rupees have been spent since 2006. The effort has little to show in terms of real science or reliable results. Camera traps and radio-collars, tools that are useful only if the right questions are asked and serious thought is invested before they are deployed, have instead become glitzy new toys for tiger conservationists.

I hope that, after the impending storm of the general elections blows over, the country will think once again about these and other pressing conservation issues. If we do not learn from both successes and failures of the last decade the fate of the tiger will continue to be uncertain in India.

However, on the brighter side, given the continually dismal scenario for tiger populations Asia-wide, tigers are certainly more secure in India, which is something to be pleased about. I still believe, given the amount of remaining forest cover and the abundant financial resources now on hand, if India can get its act together, it can still have 10,000 or more tigers.


So here we are now. Since the tigers of Sariska and Panna were wiped out, a whole slew of new tiger reserves have been declared, and tigers are now on the front pages of several newspapers and on prime time television. But has this made a whit of difference to tigers on the ground? According to Aditya Singh, Sanctuary’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year, 2012: “One good thing that came out of Sariska is that the method of census changed – no more counting plaster casts of pugmarks. Camera traps now reveal accurate not inflated figures. But the key problem that tigers face – loss of habitat and corridors – has simply not been addressed. If anything, habitat loss has now accelerated. Tentative corridors between different tiger habitats do exist, but they are getting increasingly trashed by official economic policy directives originating from the Prime Minister’s Office. At this rate such corridors will soon disappear altogether. Even if the poachers fail to wipe out tigers in India, the job will be done by habitat loss.”

For every step forward, we slide several steps back. Each new tiger reserve is ringed by new industry, roads, railways and mines. A frightening 600,000 hectares of forest land has been diverted in the last decade, just under half for mining. This is the equivalent of extirpating three entire, large, tiger reserves. A Greenpeace study revealed that almost all new coal mining and most of the power plant projects are in Central India – our largest contiguous tiger habitats (Sanctuary Vol. XXXII No. 4, August 2012).

Since the Sariska debacle we have had three Ministers of Forests and Environment – the charismatic Jairam Ramesh who briefly held out some hope, the noncomittal Jayanthi Natarajan and now the out and out industry protagonist – Veerappa Moily whose mandate from Dr. Manmohan Singh appears to have been to speedily clear large commercial projects. Consequently, regulations are being diluted and protective laws bypassed, allegedly on written instructions from Pulok Chatterjee, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, and other officials. Prime Minister Singh’s Office has actually suggested that projects valued at Rs. 500 crores and under, including buildings, real estate projects and Special Economic Zones be entirely removed from the purview of environmental clearance and that those up to Rs. 1,000 crores be cleared at the state level without reference to the Central Government. This is akin to suicide because short-term gains literally finance political campaigns and not one political party is going to take a ‘long-term’ view of India’s future when immediate cash is their need of the day. The PMO has gone further. It has also asked that the public’s holy grail – public hearings – for mines seeking to expand capacities by as much as 25 per cent, be done away with altogether. In seeking cheap popularity, the UPA government actually got the PMO to confirm that there was no need to even verify the legitimacy of peoples’ rights over forests if such lands were required by industry. Scams and falling moral standards are clearly the order of the day and the greatest hit is being taken by India’s deteriorating environment and its threatened ecological foundation.


Sansar Chand, arguably the most lethal poacher of tigers India has ever seen, died on March 18, 2014, in Alwar’s SMS hospital as a result of complications from lung cancer and other sundry ailments. He was 60-years-old and was credited with wiping out all of Sariska’s tigers. He had been transferred to the Alwar hospital from the Tihar jail hospital to enable him to attend a court hearing. Chand is believed to have been responsible for killing some 250 tigers, 2,000 leopards and thousands of otters and other wild animals. Unfortunately, his death will not stem the growing illegal wildlife trade that continues to push our wildlife to the brink. Sanctuary reader, Santosh Krishnan, says, “Our neighbour Nepal has recorded one whole year (2013) with zero cases of poaching. If Nepal can do it, why can’t we? But the Indian government needs to be interested and sadly, our political leaders are showing lesser and lesser interest in anything concerned with the environment.”


The bottom line is that wild lands in India are fast being islanded. Virtually every biodiversity area is being closed in on by an ever-tightening ring of human habitation, agriculture, and industry. Several wildlife lodges, whose future depends more on the health of biodiversity than the creature comforts they offer, have joined the frenzy and are now contributing to the destruction of forests for profit.

Sarita Subramanian, a Sanctuary reader writes: “Greed rules. In the Hemis National Park, we noticed that the corral in our home stay swelled up with goats within a day. On questioning the owner I was informed that goat farmers from outside the national park regularly sent their goats to the few villagers inside the national park.” The grass really was greener inside! When the snow leopard kills these goats, NGOs working there compensate the owners for their loss. “But how,” she asks, “will the blue sheep get by if their scarce grazing is consumed by goats?”

Not surprisingly, with virtually everyone, rich and poor, out to grab what they can from wild India, conflict is on the rise. Site-specific, core-planning strategies to deal with conflict are conspicuous by their absence. Preventive and mitigative measures are confined to erudite opinions of experts on paper, livestock-kill compensation as a post-conflict resolution taking precedence over all other options, while human populations continue to expand.


In 2012, the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) released their results after a year-long, two million dollars tiger-sampling exercise that involved some 4,70,000 foot patrols and 880 camera traps. They came up with a figure of 1,706 wild tigers.

Undoubtedly technology has helped us to better monitor wildlife. GPS collars help us to keep a close watch over wildlife and to understand tiger behaviour. K. Sankar, Senior Scientist with the WII is upbeat: “The success story of tiger re-introduction in Sariska was a joint effort by the Wildlife Institute of India, NTCA and Rajasthan State Forest Department. The western-most limit of tiger distribution in India and the Aravalli gene pool of tigers has been restored thanks to a scientific `Protocol and Species Recovery Plan’. The Panna Tiger Reserve followed the same strategy and achieved dramatic re-introduction success after all its tigers were wiped out (Sanctuary Vol. XXV No. 2, April 2005). The breeding success achieved by tigers in Sariska further amplified the fact that the area has potential for long-term survival of tigers in the semi-arid landscape. With active management strategies, we can better manage tiger populations across different human-dominated landscapes in India.”


Prerna Bindra, writer, founder trustee, ‘Bagh’, and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife feels that while it is important that we increase areas under Project Tiger – to give it that extra edge for protection, we must simultaneously increase focus on the existing reserves, a few of which are sadly failing in their objective. Examples include Udanti-Sitanadi in Chhattisgarh and Satkosia in Orissa. She says, “The funding, technical and other support that Project Tiger brings cannot alone save tigers or habitats, unless the states are on board and prioritise conservation. Unless public opinion, especially at the local level ‘rallies in favour of the tiger’, there is only so much that laws or the Central Government can do.”

India does not lack ideas for wildlife conservation. People like Kishor Rithe of the Satpuda Foundation are proving that work on the ground can help deliver revenues from wildlife tourism to communities living in the buffer areas of tiger reserves such as Melghat. Sanjay Gubbi of the Nature Conservation Foundation and Panthera concurs: “Over the last two years we have worked with the government in bringing several reserved forests as part of the Protected Area network. Some of these forests are extremely important in connecting source populations. The government has also established the new Malaimahadeshwara Hills Wildlife Sanctuary (906 sq. km.), which we proposed and worked with the government to get notified. This has ensured that a large, contiguous landscape of Protected Areas, to the extent of around 7,000 sq. km., is in place. Our citizen conservation network has helped reduce fragmentation effects such as highways, ill-planned resorts in corridors, run-of-the-river projects, to name a few, in many tiger and elephant habitats in Karnataka. Some 350 tigers are found withinand outside Karnataka’s PAs, possibly the largest contiguous tiger populations in the world. The tiger is not a lost cause.” Optimism is always delightful. But Sanctuary takes the position that for it to be well placed, we will need to police our politicians, planners and economists.

Large and dominant, seven-year-old ST6, who was relocated from Ranthambhore to re-establish the tiger population of Sariska, inspects his territory. Photo: Bharat Goel.


October 1996: Sanctuary publishes an expose that a concerted attack on its tigers is being wilfully ignored by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

June 1999: Sanctuary highlights the fact that wildlife poachers are financing terrorism and insurrection.

December 2004: After hearing rumours that tigers have disappeared from the Sariska Tiger Reserve, Sanctuary Asia visits Sariska and interacts with guides and forest guards who ask for anonymity. They confirm our worst fears.

March 2005: Steering Committee member Valmik Thapar brings this fear to the notice of Project Tiger and the MoEF. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) investigates and submits an interim report confirming that there are no tigers left in Sariska. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) further ratifies that the last tigers were killed in the summer-monsoon of 2004.

April 2005: The MoEF sets up a Tiger Task Force as recommended by Valmik Thapar to review the management of tiger reserves. The highly politicised composition causes the Task Force to stumble, leading to a leadership hiatus in Project Tiger and a wide drift from the primary task of protection that had originally earned Project Tiger global plaudits.

July 2005: The Task Force submits its report. Valmik Thapar, one of India’s most experienced tiger experts, disassociates himself from the report (see dissent note on www.sanctuaryasia.com).

December 2005: The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is finally set up, but the Task Force’s recommendation of setting up a Wildlife Crime Bureau gathers dust. Meanwhile, illegal international wildlife trade syndicates step up their India operations.

2005: Dr. Raghu Chundawat, a large carnivore biologist working in the Panna Tiger Reserve, submits a report that 80 to100 per cent of breeding females from the park are missing. He insists a second ‘Sariska’ has taken place.

January 2006: The Madhya Pradesh Forest Department goes into “cover up” mode to deny that Panna’s tigers are missing. Some junior staff and guides say that officials instructed them to put up dummy pugmarks just prior to the visit of experts. Officials vociferously deny such an attempt and insist that Panna has not lost its tigers (Sanctuary Vol. XXV No. 2, April 2005).

June 2006: The Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act, 2006, is passed by Parliament, enabling the setting up of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. An ambitious project to map all the forest reserves in India remains incomplete despite Rs. 13 million being allocated for the purpose in March 2004. Conservationists accuse the government of dragging its feet to avoid facing the reality of forest loss.

2006: The very controversial Forest Rights Act is passed. For the first time in India’s history, individual rights for forest dwellers and tribals takes precedence over community rights.

June 2007: The WII’s report, Status of the Tigers, Co-predators, and Prey in India is finally published by the NTCA. This suggests that no more than 1,411 adult tigers are alive in India (excluding the Sundarbans).

May 2007: Cabinet approves proposal for the constitution of the Tiger and Other Endangered Species Crime Control Bureau.

2008: The National Crime Control Bureau is operationalised. But it is poorly staffed and politically unsupported.

2010: ST-1, tiger relocated to Sariska found dead, later revealed to be poisoning.

2011: The second quadrennial all-India tiger estimation suggests that tiger numbers “went up” from 1,411 to 1,706, a fact that was proudly highlighted by the beleagured Prime Minister’s Office.  What the PMO omits to inform the public is that the enhanced figures do not represent an increase in the previously covered territory, but included 13 new areas, thus accounting for an enhanced total of 288 tigers.

April 2012: The Supreme Court directs all state governments to notify the core and buffer zones of tiger reserves within a period of three months. Failure to do so results in fines for several states.

2013: According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, 42 tigers killed in India due to poaching.2014: News of tiger-people conflict on the rise. The Prime Minister’s Office throws governance to the winds and directly dilutes the power of the MoEF by directing that mining projects be granted clearance in the heart of tiger forests, dams in Arunachal Pradesh, roads through wildlife corridors in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Authors: Lakshmy Raman and Bittu Sahgal, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 2, April 2014.


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