September 2004: A painstaking combing exercise in Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan, revealed that there were no tigers left. All the tigers were poached out of existence.
Total wipe out of tigers from the famed Sariska Tiger reserve was a national embarrassment. The nation witnessed the furore of wildlife activists, nature lovers and conservationists like never before. Sad but true – that we required an event of this kind for all to wake up and take notice of the fact that tigers are not safe, anywhere, anymore.
Post Sariska tiger scandal; there has been pressure on the Government to save Tigers from extinction. Indian Government is taking one of the boldest steps towards tiger conservation, or rather tiger restoration, in Sariska. This ambitious project involves relocation of 3 earmarked tigers to the Sariska Tiger Reserve, in Rajasthan. These tigers will be brought in phased manner from the famed tiger reserve of Ranthambore.
The recent Save-The-Tiger campaign petition to the Prime Minister towards tiger conservation has garnered enough momentum and media attention, to pronounce tiger conservation as national emergency.
The Prime Minister’s Office recently gave clearance to the Forest Department’s project for rehabilitating the Sariska Tiger Reserve. As per the project plan, Sariska would be made tiger-friendly and five tigers would be introduced to Sariska environs, in a phased manner, spanning a time period of 3 years. The Forest Department of Rajasthan, as a part of this restorative exercise, has been granted around Rs.155 million for this project.
Tiger Relocation – The Plan
Three young and healthy tigers were identified in Ranthambore Tiger Sanctuary for relocation to Sariska. In the beginning only one tiger will be sent, followed by a young tigress. The dates for relocating the other three tigers are not known yet.
On June 24th, 2008, a young male tiger, codenamed T-10, would be tranquilized, put in a special cage, airlifted in a helicopter, and released in Sariska. In the beginning, the tiger will be placed in an enclosure at Nayapani, which falls within the core reserve area, to help acclimatise and adjust to its new environs.
This period will be carefully studied and monitored before releasing him into the wild. While a 7-hectare enclosure, with similar vegetation and water hole has been earmarked, it is still unclear if this area is going to be used. There has been different news report alleging that the ear marked area is only one acre as it may facilitate easy monitoring. Once the tigers are acclimatised to the new habitat, they would be let out into the wild.
Once the tiger is released into the wild, a tigress would be sent to Sariska. If these moves turn out to be successful, the Forest Department plans send three more tigers to the reserve with a hope that these five tigers may breed more tigers and pronounce this project a success.
Sceptical as it may seem, we are making another tryst with destiny.
The whole world is watching this rehabilitation exercise with interest, as it has never been done anywhere else. The odds though will rest with the resilience of this magnificent creature. Questions abound though.
Why were tigers selected from Ranthambore Tiger Reserve?
It is estimated that there are around 26 tigers in the Ranthambore National Park. This is comparatively a better statistical number compared to other Tiger reserves in India. The flora and fauna of Ranthambore Reserve and Sariska reserve are similar in nature and it is expected that the deciduous nature of the forest may help in easy adaptation for the tigers. Additionally, there is gender imbalance of tigers in Ranthambore where male tigers outnumber the female ones, leading to excessive territorial fights and risk of inbreeding. Thus, Ranthambore was the only choice for the Forest Officials for this relocation experiment. Three tigers of around 20-30 months old have been identified as a part of the Sariska Tiger Rehabilitation exercise.
Will villages’ relocation in Sariska spell success?
It is estimated that there are around 12 thousand people residing inside the tiger reserve, with about 11-28 village in the core are and about 170 villages situated along the reserve periphery.
The beautiful balance that once existed between man and animal is no more. Mans greed has spiralled out of proportion – than nature can handle. With spurt in population, man has been consuming forest produce at an unfathomable rate, resulting in ecosystem imbalance and reduction in prey base for the tiger. Tribal settlements and villages that once peacefully coexisted with wildlife have proven to be major deterrents to a healthy ecological system in Sariska.
Armed with lessons learnt and with a national agenda of relocating the tigers in Sariska, the priority of the forest officials now is to create an environment that is tiger-friendly. One of the priorities was to relocate the villages, before relocating the tigers. The Tiger Task Force has recommended relocation of four key villages in and around the core area of the Sariska Tiger Reserve. The Rajasthan Forest Department has identified 222 hectares of open space along the highway for relocating 125 households from two villages of Bhagani and Kankwadi. Last year, the Bhagani village lying was relocated about 100kms away and now Kankwari is being relocated. The other two village settlements should be dealt with in phased fashion.
Expectedly, the villagers are resenting the whole idea. In 1970s, voluntary relocation of the villages was once attempted but it failed due to many reasons. It is reported that Government is now providing a relocation package to all families for changing relocating.
Will the Sariska poachers get into action yet again?
Tiger lovers all over the world mourned the death of tigers poached in Sariska. Being one of the most important tiger reserves in India, it was assumed that the reserve was a safe haven, where tiger population would be in presentable numbers. Zero-tiger statistic was unthinkable. But it happened. There was hardly any trace of a living or a dead tiger. From tiger skin, nails, meat, testicles, bones to teeth, there were no mortal remains spared of the national animal. The Sariska poaching scandal has exposed the fact that tiger reserves are not as impermeable, as assumed.
Now, when the tigers are being re-introduced, the uncomfortable feeling still looms around. It is well known that the risk of poaching is still existent. Sariska is not 100% immune to poachers. There is no guarantee that these tigers, once released from their enclosure, will not be poached. Animal lovers and wildlife activists are very sceptical about the tiger’s safety and welfare in Sariska. While the world is watching the relocation with excitement, animal lovers are not able to discount the risk involved. Nobody will be able to tolerate another incident of poaching.
Will its homing Instinct guide tigers back to Ranthambore?
Wildlife officials are wary that the tiger may try to get back to its original home, once released in wild. Homing instinct is said to be very pronounced in the cat family. Tiger’s homing instinct provides them a sense of direction that is beyond our five senses, guiding them back to their territories. Some are of the opinion that this instinct may guide the tiger back as it will try to make an attempt to return to his Ranthambore territory.
There does exist a Safety Plan for the New Tigers in Sariska
The relocated tiger will have radio-collar around their necks. These collars contain transmitters that send out information in short pulses, which will be picked up by a satellite, which in turn will transmit this data to dedicated centres for data processing. This earmarked satellite is being operated by Argos System, supported by NASA, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (USA), and the French Space Agency – CNES. It is estimated that the data results can be accessed and retrieved from anywhere in the world, within 20 minutes of transmission. It is assumed that this tracking will help study the tiger’s response to its new surroundings and will hopefully be a deterrent to the poachers.
Round the clock monitoring the newly set up watch towers, after the tigers are introduced. The National Tiger Conservation Authority is proactive in warning all the tiger reserves about the pre-monsoon pitfalls – a period best known for poaching.
Yet – unknown factors rest for time to unravel
- How can the tigers be introduced when the poaching menace has not been addressed? Once free, the tiger’s life is at stake.
- How big is the enclosure area? There seems to be a divided opinion and different data from different sources. When a tiger goes around, it covers few kilometres in one stretch. Has this aspect of tiger trail been considered?
- Will the tigers adapt to this new environment?
- There is a busy national highway along the Sariska Tiger Reserve. Will this not interfere with the forest life?
- There is a temple in Sariska that attracts more than 200,000 pilgrims a year. Will this situational risk continue?
- Why are the forest officials risking the tiger’s health and life by reducing them to being guinea pigs for this relocation exercise? Was there not a better solution of rejuvenating Sariska?
- The highway that transverse through the reserve poses danger and threat to the Sariska wildlife. Why is this aspect not treated as a priority?
There is hope for the future
Midst scepticism about relocating the tigers to Sariska, many people are hopeful that is this exercise would succeed in populating Sariska with tigers. The forest officials believe that somewhere down the line, the risk has to be taken. It is a new experiment, first of its kind in the country, for the apex animal of the ecosystem. Since the forests are in a better shape and can provide the required prey base for tigers, they are hopeful that tigers would acclimatise, survive and flourish there.
There are grey areas that still need to be addressed. The forest officials are trying to provide adequate monitoring and control to make this project a success. How far will this experiment succeed will be known in time. If the project is well executed, there are chances that Sariska will have more tigers soon. Apart from relocating more tigers, some may breed within the reserve. This new generation would mark the success of this entire exercise.
June, 2008: One tiger relocated to Sariska, with a hope that it will survive in the new environs and pave way for two more tigers to join and flourish there.
July, 2008: A tigress was transported to Sariska in the same fashion. The first round of the tiger re-introduction exercise is over.
It is just a start though. A welcome start. An experiment that has a lot at stake. For, where the tiger reigns, one finds the perfect natural balance. A balance that is vital for the safe keep of the eco-system, a balance that would make the forests get closer to what it was meant to be. A lot depends on the Sariska experiment. Right now, we can only just keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.
The Sariska journey has just begun. Keep a watch on this space for updates as and when they happen.