Prerna Singh Bindra | New DelhiIn what can only be described as the last-ditch attempt to prevent a Sariska-like situation in nearly a dozen tiger reserves across the country, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has advised an in situ build-up of tiger population in 11 reserves.
The advisory, sent on May 27, 2009, to the Chief Wildlife Wardens concerned, suggests that to save tigers from local extinction, the reserves must opt for active managerial intervention which essentially entails having “a founder population of two adult tigresses and a tiger in a large enclosure, built in situ within the reserve, to protect it from poaching and other decimating factors”.
The letter details that the tigers must be translocated from the same habitat or landscape, that the enclosure should contain natural prey base and, importantly, that this is to be a one-time intervention. The tigers should be radio-collared and released after the first generation of cubs reaches two years of age. The 11 reserves include Valmiki (Bihar), Palamu (Jharkhand), Manas (Assam), Nagarjunasagar (Andhra Pradesh), Namdapha (Arunachal Pradesh), Indravati (Chhattisgarh), Buxa (West Bengal), Kalakad Mundanthurai (Tamil Nadu), Dampa (Manipur), Sanjay-Dubri (Madhya Pradesh) and Simlipal (Orissa).
However, the directive has become the subject of a heated debate. Says Dr Ullas Karanth, conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, “Such reintroduction exercises — and I am including Sariska and Panna — do not reflect optimal use of resources and I do not see them as priority. They fail to address the real issue of tiger decline and take the focus away from protecting viable tiger habitats where recovery can naturally take place.” Also, points out another conservationist, is it practical to invest considerable resources into this programme when the reserves are unsafe?
How can we ensure that the reserves will be safe two to four years later when the tigers are ready for release? And surely, this couldn’t be a blanket solution for 11 reserves. While it may be the answer in say, Buxa, where the lack of tigers has been an ‘open secret’, areas like Manas require a rethink. Though there is little doubt that tiger numbers are low, there is a need to scientifically assess the population first. Besides, though the situation is improving, their protection leaves much to be desired
. Strengthening the existing infrastructure and capacity for protection of wildlife and its habitat are a priority.
Dr Rajesh Gopal, member-secretary NTCA, stresses that this strategy is supplementary to protection and an essential one-time managerial intervention only for those reserves where tiger population is in dire straits.
Elaborates PK Sen, former director of Project Tiger, “These directives have not been issued to all reserves; only where there is no viable population of tigers. It does not preclude protection, which is in fact primary, following which the population may be built up using in situ enclosures. The first consideration is protection by strengthening personnel, developing intelligence and adequate infrastructure. However, this has little meaning in reserves where the tiger population has almost died out and must therefore be augmented by such interventions.” Should these reserves, he reasons, be allowed to become other Sariskas or Pannas?
Most of these reserves are still viable habitats with unviable tiger populations, mainly transient tigers which are very vulnerable. “The in situ build-up of both tiger and prey is an ecological imperative to conserve the genetic pool of that particular region to ensure that the population does not die out,” says Dr Rajesh Gopal. Equally important, he emphasises, is backing it with sound protection measures, strong leadership and habitat management, ie notification and management of buffer zones.It is hoped that this will also hold the errant States accountable. And therein lies the crux of the issue. The onus of protection rests with the States, but most have been failing miserably in the task. Panna is a prime example, points out a senior official, where the State continued to be in denial for years, till all its tigers were gone. Most States have not learnt the lesson and continue to inflate tiger numbers and deny that reserves — including Buxa, Sunjay-Dubri and Palamu — have negligible tiger populations.
They also continue to ignore repeated warnings and advisories for strict protection measures from the Centre. In the face of such apathy
, it is envisaged that such an intervention will provide for a base population that can be strictly monitored and conserved — and the State held responsible for any laxity
, lest there be any more Sariskas or Pannas.