That Madhya Pradesh lost the sobriquet of “Tiger State” after the last national tiger census conducted in 2010-11 is now history. Having had the largest number of tigers during the preceding censuses it was widely known as the “Tiger State”. Whether the sobriquet was given or assumed is not quite known. It is a pity that the state, despite the massive financial assistance and expertise lent by the Centre and availability of its own enormous human and other resources could not retain the sobriquet. Ironically, despite the rise in tiger numbers in the country from 1411 in 2006 to 1706 in 2011 it is Madhya Pradesh which lost the largest number of them – the number came down from 300 to 257. The only other ‘tiger region’ that lost tigers during the period was Andhra Pradesh – it lost 23 of them.
For its bull-headed and lackadaisical ways the forest department has been engulfed in controversies for some years now. The biggest of them all was relating to the Panna Tiger Reserve which lost all its tigers by the close of 2008. Despite the early warnings from several sources, including the nation’s tiger conservation agencies, the department refused to pay any heed to them. Its Principal Chief Conservator (PCCF-Wildlife), HS Pabla, mulishly kept claiming that the Reserve had 20-odd tigers when everyone else reported that they were disappearing fast, mostly because of rampant poaching. Instead of taking steps to check the veracity of the statements, especially of the central tiger conservation agencies, the forest department, sticking to its guns and displaying an adversarial attitude, joined issue with them.
This is not all. After the tigers were all gone, when an inquiry conducted by the Central Special Investigation Team (SIT) came to the conclusion that they were mostly poached the state government set up its own enquiry committee, as is evident now, to put a lid on the whole thing and to protect its PCCF. The state level inquiry came to the conclusion that gender imbalance in the tiger population caused by declining number of females made the males go looking for them outside the Reserve only to be poached or just get killed. No mention was made of the reasons for occurrence of the gender imbalance. Likewise, no mention was made of the failure of the Reserve staff or visiting forest officers to notice the progressive gender imbalance over the years. Needless to say, no effort was made to fix responsibility for the total disappearance of the tigers from the Reserve.
However, 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 asking for CBI inquiry into them. After examination, the latter picked up three cases which, according to it, seemed worthy of independent investigations. Prayatna’s efforts indicate that the forest department had received several reports of poaching of tigers, yet it failed to take the needed steps either at the field level or in the headquarters. This corroborates the contention of the SIT which after evaluation of all the relevant factors concluded that there were no ecological reasons for the tigers to become extinct in Panna. According to it, a steady decline in the numbers of females was noticeable since 2003, the maximum decline taking place between 2003 and 2005, and then continuing on until 2007-08. Poachers brought down more females as they have smaller home ranges and hence they became extinct before male tigers.
Seemingly, obsessed with tourism, the department kept dismissing every report appearing in the media as “media hype”. The local MPs and MLAs had expressed concern and some cases were filed in the Apex Court too. During the same period letters were also written to Chief Secretary and Principal Secretary Forests by the Chairman and Member Secretary, respectively, of the Central Empowered Committee after its two visits to the Reserve. Developing a peculiar imperviousness, the department ignored them all. When it was virtually curtains for the tigers in Panna in June 2008, Pabla was still waxing eloquent about their presence therein in the prestigious Sanctuary Asia magazine.
After Prayatna's expose even the forest minister’s comments was ostrich-like – that his department was prevented from doing the needful by a dacoit gang that was camping in the Reserve. The SIT has categorically stated in its report that the outlaws were in the Reserve between 2006 and 2008, whereas poaching, a fact never given due credence to by the state, had been continuing since 2001.
Clearly the fall in tiger numbers in the state is a natural consequence of the dedicated efforts made and “due diligence” displayed by the Madhya Pradesh government and its forest department. Beginning with the chief minister, who put humans before the tigers in a tiger reserve and consistently opposed creation of a scientific buffer and succeeded in having a moth-eaten buffer delineated for the Reserve, all have contributed their bit. According to the SIT, “Without a good buffer….. survival of small tiger population, even under moderate poaching pressure, is difficult”. And Panna has acute poaching pressure, surrounded as it is with settlements of tribes that are traditional poacher, poaching tigers not only in Panna but all over the country.
When the death of the “Jhurjhura tigress” indicated involvement of sons of two prominent politicians who illegally entered the Bandhavgarh Reserve inquiry was handed over to CB CID just to kill it. Despite the lapse of 16 months, the CID is yet to come out with its investigation report and the case remains buried in its dark recesses.
Again, when on the lines of the advice tendered by the National Tiger Conservation Authority “Prayatna” filed a writ in the state high court to ban tourism in core areas, the department opposed it tooth and nail, the PCCF even advising hoteliers and tour operators to have themselves impleaded for the specious reason that tourism prevents poaching. He forgot that tourism, with its infamous tiger-shows, was very much prevalent in Panna and yet the Reserve lost all its tigers – most having been poached. According to the SIT report, during 2002-2005 “The management shifted focus towards tourism and during this period even the forest department in their document have accepted maximum number of poaching…”
Tiger-tourism seems to have remained a priority with the forest department but it has failed to protect the very resource (and its habitat) it was exploiting. Apart from Panna, the Kanha Reserve, the supposedly best-managed, lost as many as 29 tigers at the last count. It even lost nearly 3000 sq. Kms. of tiger-habitat that has led to frequent internecine fights for territory – many ending in tiger fatalities.
Besides, the department has achieved the distinction of clocking the third highest number of vacancies in “frontline positions” in the country – the very staff that are responsible for protecting forests and wildlife. There has, however, been proliferation in the higher echelons of the department. Quite bizarrely, even the Tiger Strike Force created by the state has had successes in catching poachers of only wild boars and stray ungulates. It has so far failed to catch a single poacher of tigers.
Now that Karnataka is the new “Tiger State” and Nagpur may become the “Tiger Capital” the question that nags one is whether the once-upon-a-time “Tiger State” will be able to save its tigers. Given the present dispensation, it seems unlikely. The dice are heavily loaded against the tigers. The top brass of the government do not seem to have a perspective for the tiger in the natural order of things. And likewise, the top brass of the forest department do not want to see reason and face facts. The days of “Shere Khan” in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, therefore, appear to be numbered.
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