Rajasthan's Sariska may become tiger-less again, fear experts, as male relocated to reserve dies; forest department sends SOS to NTCA

The translocation process of tigers in Sariska Tiger Reserve, initiated 11 years ago after it lost all tigers to poaching, is now a certain failure. The Rajasthan Forest Department has requested the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in New Delhi to review the entire translocation done so far and suggest a viable option.

"We have written to the NTCA because in comparison to the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, the tigers’ relocation in Sariska did not work out effectively," said Arindam Tomar, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan.

 Rajasthans Sariska may become tiger-less again, fear experts, as male relocated to reserve dies; forest department sends SOS to NTCA

The male to female ratio of tigers in Sariska Tiger Reserve has fallen to an abysmal 1:8. Ajay Suri

Panna, after losing its last tiger around the same time as Sariska, is now home to 50-plus tigers, a whopping testimony to the success of the relocation programme. Sariska, on the other hand, is tottering with just 15 tigers. Worse, with one of the male tigers, ST-16, which was brought to the reserve from Ranthambore in April 2019 dying last week, the crucial male to female tiger ratio in Sariska has fallen to an abysmal 1:8.

With just one male tiger for every eight females — an extremely dangerous sign, and often the clearest pointer to certain extinction of the big cats from an affected region — Sariska could soon become tiger-less once again, fear several wildlife experts. It’s also clear that by sending out the SOS to the NTCA 24-hours ago, the Rajasthan Forest Department has implicitly accepted the certain doom awaiting Sariska.

The story of the (marked for) failure and success of the two reserves could not have been starker in comparison. Tigers disappeared from Sariska and Panna soon after the turn of the century. Around 11 years ago, Sariska received its first batch of two tigresses from Ranthambore. More followed later. Panna got into the act an year later with three tigers being relocated there from Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench.

It was hoped that effective management by the forest departments of the states would ensure not just the survival of the big cats but a healthy increase in their population as well.

But a map is not the territory, despite the good intentions it’s drawn with. And while Sariska floundered from day one, Panna zoomed past the starting block with flying colours. Today, Panna boasts of not just a healthy tiger population, but also an ideal 1:3 ratio of one male tiger for every three females.

So what went wrong in Sariska?

A big factor which tilted the scales against Sariska, despite the honest intentions with which the tiger relocation programme started here, is the presence of 29 villages inside the reserve. Call it political prudence on the part of succesive state governments in Rajasthan, which gave more weightage to human votes than to the tigers, no earnest attempt was made to clear the forest for the big cat, its rightful owner.

Tomar readily accepts the shortcoming. "We have removed three villages from the reserve, and will be removing six others. We have started the process," he said.

That Sariska is on the verge of losing its tigers once again may not be the saddest chapter in its sordid saga. The crowning irony lies 170 kilometres away, at the hugely popular Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Over the years and defying several odds, Ranthambore has emerged as one of the best places in India to spot tigers, the place where tourists, wildlife photographers, film makers and coffee-table book writers troop down regularly from all corners of the globe. Not to mention the powerful presence of at least half a dozen resort owners who have deep political connections on both sides of the fence.

And yet, none of them thought it fit to throw a second look at Sariska, or make a contribution towards the survival of its tigers.

An allegation, one often comes across during forest campfires in Rajasthan, is that powerful business lobbies don't want Sariska to stand up to Ranthambore.

There could be more than a grain of truth here. Tiger tourism is a booming industry in Ranthambore with hundreds of hotels and resorts operating in Sawai Madhopur, the entry point to Ranthambore. In contrast, the number of resorts and hotels around Sariska can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

However, the resounding success of Madhya Pradesh’s Panna Tiger Reserve in the tiger translocation programme throws question marks into that theory. By all logical accounts and after Panna saw the decimation of all its tigers, Panna should have gone the way of Sariska. That it did not, goes to the credit of one dedicated forest officer Rangaiah Sreenivasa Murthy. He was the field director of Panna in 2009, a crucial period when the translocation of tigers started there. Murthy is the unsung hero of Panna.

"It was a tough task, to bring tigers back to Panna and ensure that they stayed there," recalls Murthy.

"The people around Panna were dead againt us. Nobody wanted tigers back in Panna, just nobody," he remarked.

So how did the Panna Forest Department face these challenges? "It was tough in the beginning," says Murthy, who now has a much bigger say in the affairs of wildlife managemenet after being elevated to the position of member-secretary, Madhya Pradesh State Bio-Diversity Board.

"We went on involving the people around Panna to work, drilling into their minds the importance of saving the tigers. After a few initial hiccups, their resistance became less and we found it easier to concentrate on tiger conservation in Panna. That’s all there is to it," he adds.

On hindsight, many successes look easy. And so do failures — as in the case of Sariska. But the point is, having squandered the second chance, will Sariska get another?

Updated Date: Jun 13, 2019 21:13:26 IST