Science The Scapegoat: The Curious Case Of The Extinction Of Tigers In Panna
December 2009: Way back in 2002, Uttara Mendiratta remembers being enthralled by the sight of two tiger cubs playing in the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. A few years after that encounter, as a senior researcher with the Wildlife Protection Society of India, she was investigating tiger poaching on the basis of several reports that Panna was experiencing a high level of organised poaching.
Examining the seized skins of poached tigers, she would often wonder whether the cubs she had seen had fallen to the poacher’s gun. Then Panna followed Sariska, lost all its tigers, and won the dubious distinction of officially being acknowledged as the second tiger reserve to have suffered the local extinction of tigers. The difference this time was that scientists had anticipated the situation and had warned the authorities about the danger eight years before the event! Unbelievably a wildlife intelligence report subsequently claimed that science, not poachers or the illegal wildlife trade, was responsible.
A recent report submitted by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) blamed the Panna tiger extinctions on radio-collaring, a scientific technique in which tigers are tranquillised and fitted with a collar that transmits a radio signal. Used to monitor and protect wildlife across the world, the signals are picked up by a receiver, allowing researchers to track the location and movements of the collared animal. Radio-collaring was being used until 2002 to study tiger movements and behaviour in Panna. The intelligence report suggested that radio collars hampered the natural movements of tigers and caused neck infections, which ultimately weakened and killed the collared animals.
The report went on to state that “80 per cent of the tigers killed in Panna have met their deadly fate at the hands of poachers after they were radio-collared” suggesting that somehow poachers got hold of receivers and used the official frequency to track and kill the collared tigers.
Why is this report, which should have been a dispassionate assessment of what actually caused the tiger extinction so disturbing? Because, it was not just factually incorrect, but also diverted attention away from the real reason the tigers died.
Radio-collars have been used to study a whole range of animals across continents for decades now, from grizzly bears and moose in North America, jaguars in South America, badgers and mink in Europe, elephants, cheetahs and lions in Africa to tigers, leopards and snow leopards across Asia. Radio-collars are for instance being used to study rhinos in Nepal, leopard cats in Thailand and sun bears in Malaysia. Nowhere was there even a hint that such scientific studies may have caused local extinction. In fact, lions in Gir were collared and followed for years, without any problem at all. And tigers were collared in Nagarahole in the late 1980s, and yet it has one of the healthiest tiger populations of all of the Indian tiger reserves.
WHITHER SARISKA’S TIGERS?
Questions the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau should have, but did not ask or answer include: What killed tigers in Sariska? Why does Namdapha have so few tigers, if any? Ditto for Buxa. These are tiger reserves where tigers have disappeared, or are disappearing, without scientific research of any kind, leave alone radio-collaring. Who or what is to blame here? Finding quick-fix non-solutions to whitewash deep and complex problems is counter-productive to conservation. Such claims effectively dilute the conservation process by diverting attention from the reality that is taking a toll on wildlife in India. In the process, the authorities responsible for protecting the tiger manage to absolve themselves from accountability.
Nevertheless, we must take the claim that poachers are using radio signals to track and kill tigers very seriously. If this is true, it indicates that poaching networks have become much more sophisticated. This is possible, but given the evidence from India it is still very unlikely. Tiger poaching is undoubtedly highly organised, but as of now it seems to involve kingpins and middlemen in cities who use the highly-specialised tracking and trapping skills of local people, not radio signals. At one time, effective patrolling by forest guards and officers armed them with the same skills, which helped them track tigers across paths and routes the animals tend to use over and over again. Today, sadly, poachers seem to possess more refined tracking skills and they are certainly more motivated to spend sleepless days and nights in the jungle to lay traps along remote animal trails. With patience and skill at work, they hardly require electronic tracking equipment that would make them more conspicuous in the jungle.
But returning to Panna, when research on tigers began here in 1998, there were over 30 tigers. Only seven of these were collared. The last tiger was collared in 2002, seven years ago. It takes a large leap of imagination to claim that collaring led to the extinction of the entire population in Panna, including the 80 per cent of tigers that had never been collared.
In truth, the scientific technique that officialdom wishes to blame for the tiger deaths is the precise one that enabled researchers to warn officials that tigers were going missing in Panna years ago!
In 2005, Dr. Raghu Chundawat, a large carnivore biologist who worked in Panna submitted a detailed report to the forest department. In this report, based on data collected from the field, he estimated that 80 to 100 per cent of breeding females had disappeared from Panna, and cautioned that the park was in danger of going the Sariska way. He was ignored, his claims were treated as baseless, and among other things, an emotional rant.
USING SCIENCE TO PROTECT
In 2009, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was appointed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to go into the real reasons for the Panna tiger collapse. It reached the same conclusion as above. What made matters worse was the fact that the poachers targeted vulnerable females with cubs and this is what caused the skewed sex-ratios in the tiger population. The effect was that many males in the population were unable to find mates in Panna. One would have thought that this stark fact is something that the WCCB would have been most concerned about and that they would have ensured that intelligence and on-ground protection in tiger reserves was strengthened.
No serious wildlife field protection agency in the world would do away with radio-collaring. Here in India we can hardly afford to even contemplate the idea. Without this tool, wildlife managers would be hard pressed to know what habitats an animal uses, how it defends territory, how far and wide it ranges, and even its prey preferences (since monitoring is enhanced manifold). In the Sundarbans, for instance, potential conflict situations are avoided thanks to radio collaring (Sanctuary Vol. XXIX, No. 5, October 2009).
Obviously the issue is larger than just ‘Panna’ or just ‘radio-collaring’. In India today, conservation follows two parallel tracks that almost never converge. On the one hand we have conservation biologists who dig out information that can be applied to managing parks and sanctuaries better, and on the other we have state forest departments that rarely if ever use such information. Yet, both have identical objectives – wildlife conservation. We are at a critical juncture in the future of Panthera tigris. What we do or do not do in the next few years will directly impact on the future of the species as science unravels the ecological imperatives of species on the brink. Without solid science, freed from politics, the divide between conservationists and officials can never be bridged. Without the leadership to allow the right thing to be done, witch-hunts and groundless finger-pointing will result in yet another trap from which not just the tiger, but many other species, may find no escape.
STATE OF THE TIGER IN THE TIGER STATE
Madhya Pradesh is the last state to have signed the tripartite agreement between the National Tiger Conservation Authority, State Governments and the Directors of Project Tiger Reserves. The agreement seeks to protect tigers by ensuring accountability and timely use of funds. Whatever be the differences between state and central governments, this was an unfortunate delay because with six tiger reserves, Madhya Pradesh is critical to the recovery of Panthera tigris. Other differences include the pending notification of buffer areas for different reserves, which is required under Section 38V of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The core critical tiger habitat of the Sanjay Dubri Tiger Reserve has not been notified by Madhya Pradesh. What is more, the state government has created just one over-arching state-level Tiger Conservation Foundation (TCF), instead of a separate one for each reserve, which defeats the purpose of giving financial freedom to Field Directors. Another irritant seems to be that the Ministry of Environment and Forests at the Centre had recommended that the Panna tiger extinction matter be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, which the state government is loathe to do.
By Umesh Srinivasan and Nandini Velho
First published in Sanctuary Asia Vol XXIX No. 6, December 2009