An NGO, “Udai”, led by Shehla Masood, a wildlife activist has been seeking action against those who were responsible for the death of a tigress in the famed Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh (MP). She handed over a memorandum to the chief minister on the International Tiger Day for action against those responsible for the death of the tigress. The memorandum had more than 36000 signatures on it. The tigress died on 19th may, 2010 after having been hit by a vehicle the night before when some so-far-unidentified important visitors entered the Reserve for an allegedly unauthorised and illegal night-drive. It died in the Jhurjhura area of the Reserve and, hence, has since come to be known as the “Jhurjhura tigress”.
The killing caused a furore in India and abroad. According to the member-secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), enough evidence was available to indicate that two vehicles were involved in the accident. The vehicles entered the Reserve after the closing time at 9.30 PM and, unofficial reports indicate, carried sons of two state ministers who are one-time princelings. Wielding their power and influence they squelched proper investigations. Vociferous demands, including even from the central Ministry of Forests & Environment (MOEF), for a Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) were ignored. The State’s Forest Department handed over the investigations to the provincial Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Keen observers of the ways of the State said that this was done only to effectively put a lid on the case. That is apparently true as the investigations have led nowhere even after five months and the culprits have remained anonymous.
The death of the “Jhurjhura tigress” has been dwelt upon in some detail only to indicate the attitude of utter indifference of the state government, especially its Forest Department, towards protection of tigers. These are the days of declining tiger numbers and every piece of news about them makes it to the media. Sighting of new-born cubs or deaths – natural or due to internecine fights – and even mating or refusal to do so, by relocated tigers, all make it to the media in fair amounts of detail. There are any number of non-governmental organisations that are running campaigns with a view to raising awareness about the need to save tigers. Clearly, there is visible desperation about the plummeting tiger numbers in the country. In the midst of all this almost universal concern the brazen apathy of the State that has given to itself the sobriquet of “The Tiger State” is insensitive, even jarring and bizarre.
This is more so because its recent record in tiger conservation is none too satisfactory. Only last year the Panna Tiger Reserve lost all its tigers. Despite a very early warning – in 2004-05 –by a long-time researcher of Panna tigers, RS Chudawat, and later repeated warnings by central teams of professional tiger-watchers from various tiger conservational organisations such as NTCA , the Central Empowered Committee constituted by the Supreme Court, etc. were not paid heed to. The State’s forest bureaucracy obdurately ignored them and remained in denial mode.
The Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted by the MOEF to enquire into disappearance of tigers from Panna severely indicted the State and its officials for failure in various areas of tiger conservation. Not to be outdone, the Forest Department set up its own investigative team under the chairmanship of a retired principal chief conservator of forests. Its report blamed the disappearance of tigers on emergence of a skewed sex-ratio with males outnumbering females that induced the latter to migrate out of the core area into the buffers only to be poached. The report did an excellent cover-up job and did not fix responsibility on anybody. In fact, none has so far been held accountable for the loss of Panna tigers. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), the most articulate and vehement in denying absence of tigers in the Reserve till the forest minister admitted in in the State Assembly, was only moved out for a while and was promptly brought back as soon as the State-level panel submitted its report.
The lackadaisical attitude of the State’s forest department was further evidenced by disappearance of tigers from the Sanjay National Park in Sidhi District which once hosted 30-odd tigers and now don’t seem to have any. A Panna-like revival is on the cards but would be successful only if proper care is taken. Even in Panna two cubs born of a recently relocated tigress went missing and are now presumed to be dead. Again, a sub-adult tiger was crushed in April 2009 in the Bandhavgarh Reserve under the wheels of a tourist vehicle that gained entry because of lax control-systems in the Reserve.
Worse, the government nonchalantly gave approval to the widening of a highway connecting Nagpur with Seoni that cuts across the corridor that the tigers and other wildlife use to commute between the Kanha and Pench tiger reserves. The road, in any case, had fragmented their habitat, and yet the government gave the approval unmindful of the impact it would have on the tigers and other wildlife. The government’s apathy is also reflected in its apparent lack of enthusiasm to protect and nurse the tigers that have recently been discovered in Madhav National park in Shivpuri and in the jungles around Dewas. Apparently some tigers still survive outside the protected areas which need to be nursed and nurtured and a hawk-like watch needs to be kept over them.
It’s not that the government and its foresters do not know what needs to be done. They know it all having been in the profession for decades. Only they have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and shun one-upmanship vis-a-vis their counterparts in various central tiger organisations and institutions towards whom they have adopted an adversarial attitude. After all, in so far as tigers are concerned the objectives of both are the same.
The Forest Department will also have to shed its obsession with tourism. That unrestricted tourism is a bane for the tourist sites, especially the national parks, is being increasingly appreciated. The infamous tiger-shows that virtually corral tigers and the department’s new initiatives of monsoon and eco-tourism with forest patrols may fetch revenue but are not conducive to conservation. Animals also need to be left to themselves, at least, for some time.
The need for escalated efforts to protect wildlife cannot be overemphasised. While higher posts are promptly filled up those in subaltern levels have remained unfilled. Recent regularisation of part-timers has not helped as most are above 45 years in age. The need is of revised recruitment policies for induction of young and energetic guards, properly equipped and armed to enable them to actively participate in the fight to save tigers, a fight which, as commented by an official of Wildlife Trust of India, is increasingly being “fought only with the generals but no soldiers”.
Above all, what is required for saving the tigers is political will as that will bring in its wake a change in attitude of the bureaucracy, including the foresters. This was exemplified by Indira Gandhi whose initiative in launching the Project Tiger brought in a remarkable attitudinal change among the officials. As wildlife conservationist Belinda Wright says, “If CMs (chief ministers) are on board there will still be some hope”. Unfortunately in MP, the CM is not yet “on board” and at the bureaucratic helm are those who (over)saw the disappearance of tigers from Panna. Clearly, tiger is under threat in the “Tiger State”.