Thursday, October 30, 2008

Vanishing tigresses of Panna

That the tiger in the Indian wild is critically threatened is a well-known fact. At the beginning of 20th Century 40,000 of these striped animals used to roam the jungles of the country. Wanton killings, rising human population, economic development followed by shrinking habitat brought their numbers to a perilous low of around 2000 towards the end of 1960s. That is when the country woke up to the need for protection of this magnificent beast.

It was at the initiative of the more pro-active of politicians, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that the Project Tiger was launched in 1973. Its objective was to, “ensure a viable population of tiger in India for scientific, economic, aesthetic, cultural and ecological values…” Succeeding for a short while, the Project helped in boosting up the numbers to around 3500 in the course of a couple of decades. However, lackadaisical approach to its protection coupled with a raging demand for its body-parts in East Asian countries saw their numbers plummet again. The last census, organised on a more scientific basis earlier this Century, pegged their numbers at around 1400 – a number which is in no way viable for fulfilling the Project objectives.

It is in this context that the reports circulating for sometime of vanishing tigresses in the Panna Tiger Reserve in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh (MP) are disconcerting. Sariska, a popular tiger-reserve near Delhi, located in the touristy north-western province of Rajasthan, lost all its tigers to pachers in 2005 and two tigers – a male and a female have had to be introduced in it recently. And, now the same catastrophe seems to have befallen Panna.

Created in 1981, Panna National Park was elevated in 1994 to the status of a Tiger Reserve under the Project Tiger. Situated in the picturesque Vindhyan ranges, close to the World Heritage Site of Khajuraho, the Park is known for tiger habitat that is considered about the finest in the country.

All, apparently, was fine with the Reserve until around 2003 when the slide seems to have commenced. With declining tiger-sightings, the figures dished out of its tiger-population in 2004 were so hotly contested that a re-census had to be ordered. Although the fresh census revealed the presence of 35 tigers, the controversy about absence of tigresses in the Park never really died down. Even the Central Empowered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court, comprising inter alia the well-known Indian “tiger scientist” Valmik Thapar, had commented in 2005 on its mismanagement, predicting that the Park was headed the Sariska way.

The year 2007 saw fresh reports about the vanishing tigresses of Panna. Raghu Chundawat, the famous tiger-researcher of Panna, came out into the open in a national English language news-channel speaking about the absence of tigresses in the Park – an observation that, he claimed, was shared by Park officials. Clearly, poachers were active, as was soon proved by press reports.
The current year, too, witnessed no let up in the incidence of adverse reports. In fact, the prestigious Sanctuary Asia magazine published in its June 2008 issue vehement denials by a senior MP Forest Department official of the Park’s plummeting numbers of female tigers. Asserting that it had not become a “bachelor Park”, he maintained, it had a healthy population of 30-odd tigers.

The same issue of the periodical, however, carried a “Counterpoint” by Raghu Chundawat who, drawing from his technical knowledge acquired during his extended researches on Panna tigers, claimed that “breeding territories” – generally stable and constant in a secure (tiger) population – have appreciably declined in numbers. According to him, loss of seven such “territories” has been documented, suggesting disappearance of 80 to 100 % of Panna’s breeding tigresses.

Whatever might be the official projections, Chundawat’s contentions received support from the fact that in September 2008 the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), finding an unviable male-female ratio, advised the MP Forest Department to introduce more tigresses into the Park.
Quite obviously, lessons have not been learnt from the Sariska debacle where persistent wrong reporting of tiger numbers resulted in the animal’s disappearance from that popular Reserve. Repeating the same mistakes in Panna in an apparent effort to protect skidding reputation(s) well-meant inputs from experts were being ignored, even rubbished, overlooking the larger interests of the country and significance of tiger’s survival to it. Tiger, after all, is not just a feature in our jungles; it is much more than that – “a metaphor for our ecological foundation”, as Bittu Sehgal, a prominent Indian naturalist, has opined. It also happens to be a “metaphor” for the country’s water, food and economic security besides being its vehicle to fight climate-change with.

The need of the hour, therefore, is to set at rest all the controversies of the past and quickly initiate action to organise relocation of a few tigresses in the Park as advised by the NTCA. The best time to undertake relocation of animals, experts say, is winter, which is just round the corner and should be taken advantage of.

Unfortunately, Panna National Park has, of late, made news for all the wrong reasons. The only good news that came in about it was the recent rejection by the National Board for Wildlife of a proposal to further fragment the Park by laying a railway-line through it. Now that the proposed railroad is out of the way, the Central and the MP governments will do well to implement the stalled proposal of the Park’s extension over the, reportedly, “ideal” tiger country. Utmost care will, of course, have to be taken to ensure protection of the carnivore and its prey-base in the extended Park.

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