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Tigers in India's Panna Reserve are Unsafe
|by Proloy Bagchi|
Despite expenditure of enormous amounts of tax-payers’ money on tiger-conservation somehow we are not able to protect this national animal. Madhya Pradesh appears to be a prime example. Not only substantial numbers were lost in Kanha National Park, the entire population in Panna Reserve was wiped out necessitating relocation in it of tigers from elsewhere. No wonder, the state lost the sobriquet of “Tiger State” Panna Tiger Reserve has been in controversies for some years now and virtually all of them relate to its mismanagement. Despite the early warnings from several sources, including the nation’s tiger conservation agencies, the state’s forest department refused to pay any heed.
While credible reports from 2002 onwards indicated that the Reserve was rapidly losing its tigers to poachers, the Principal Chief Conservator (Wildlife) obdurately kept claiming that it had 20-odd tigers. Instead of taking steps to check the veracity of the statements, especially emanating from the experts of the central agencies, the forest department, sticking to its guns joined issue with them.
This is not all. When, after the tigers were all gone by the close of 2008, an inquiry conducted by the centrally-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) came to the conclusion that the tigers were lost not for any ecological reasons but were mostly poached, the state government, not satisfied, set up its own enquiry committee. Its findings mostly contained half-truths and concluded that gender imbalance in the tiger population of the Reserve made the males go looking for (the depleting number of) females outside the Reserve, only to be poached.
No mention, however, was made of the reasons for the growing gender imbalance or the failure of the Reserve’s director and his staff to notice the same and report it to the headquarters. Needless to say, no effort was also made to fix responsibility for the extinction of the tigers in the Reserve. The SIT, on the other hand, did make a mention of the gender imbalance that had occurred in the Reserve. It had concluded that on account of their smaller home ranges tigresses in the Reserve were consistently poached without let or hindrance giving rise to the progressive gender imbalance.
In any case, the cat is now out of the bag.
Ajay Dubey of Prayatna, an environmental action group, has ferreted out information that the forest department recently handed over details of nearly two dozen cases of tiger deaths in Panna to the home department and asked for CBI inquiry into them. After examination, the department picked up three cases which, according to it, seemed worthy of independent investigations. In one of the cases the forest officials had seized in 2007 a jeep with Uttar Pradesh registration that was forcibly trying to enter the Panna Reserve with armed passengers. A police report was lodged but no follow-up action was taken for several years. The jeep was later released to a close relative of a BJP MLA. It is not clear whether there was any attempt to poach tigers but the case is being handed over to the CBI.
In another case, forest officials, acting on a complaint filed by a villager, recovered jaw-trap and bones of tiger. The tiger was reportedly killed between 2004 and 2005 but the offence was registered only in February this year. On being asked to furnish details of the case the director of the Reserve failed to comply. The third case is of a tiger that was killed between 2004 and 2005 a report regarding which was not lodged with the Police. Evidently, the forest department had received several reports of poaching in the Reserve, but, obsessed as it was with tourism even in its core area it failed to do the needful. Clearly, whatever it kept summarily dismissing as “media hype” were not mere hyped up reports. They were based on facts. Tiger enthusiasts had become so concerned about the indifference of the forest department to the persistent poaching in the game park that some of them took the extreme step of filing cases in the apex court.
During the same period, letters were written to Chief Secretary and Principal Secretary Forests by the Chairman and Member Secretary, respectively, of the Central Empowered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India. These, too, were not taken cognizance of. When it was virtually curtains for the tigers in the Reserve in June 2008 the Principal Chief Conservator (Wildlife) was still waxing eloquent about their presence therein in the prestigious Sanctuary Asia magazine. Even after the Prayatna expose, the attitude of the department, including that of its minister does not seem to have changed. When asked about the new revelations the forest minister’s reply appeared like that of the proverbial ostrich. He asserted that his department was prevented from doing the needful by a dacoit gang that came and camped in the Reserve. It was, in any case, a patently wrong contention.
According to the SIT, the outlaws were in the Reserve between 2006 and 2008 whereas poaching, a fact never given due credence to by the forest department, had been continuing since 2002. Looks like, the Panna Reserve has nothing but a bleak future in front of it. Even the chief minister, putting humans before tigers in the Reserve, insisted on a moth-eaten buffer being delineated for it excluding the mines worked by his political cronies. This after he received as many as two letters from the Prime Minister for creation of a proper buffer based on scientific assessments. Besides, he made the department overlook the SIT contention that “Without a good buffer….. survival of small tiger population, even under moderate poaching pressure, is difficult”.
And, Panna has severe poaching pressure, surrounded as it is by settlements of traditional poaching tribes, viz. Pardhi and Bahelia who, leave alone the Panna Reserve, poach all over the country. Even middlemen in tiger-trade are present in strength around Panna.
Unless the forest department sheds its bullheadedness the survival of the recently trans-located tigers and their progeny, if any, in the Reserve is likely to be in peril.
Panna along with Sariska hold out an example to all the states that have tiger reserves of what the consequences can be if the legendary lethargy of official establishments in protection and conservation of this national animal persist. What seemingly needs to be done all around is to enhance the security around the reserves and prompt attention to the alerts received from various quarters, especially the knowledgeable people, about the wellbeing of tigers in the reserves. Poachers are prowling all over, more so in central India and hence there is need for greater alacrity in protecting the animals.
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