Sariska's future tense

Sariska's future tense

CONSERVATION

Sariska's future tense

Aflurry of alarm calls reverberating through the valley alerted us. The setting sun gave it an eerie background. Sambhars started giving vent to their unmistakable dhunks.

Peacocks took to the trees with their hoarse cries. Higher up on the trees, langurs were ducking their heads up and down, and warning others with their sounds.

All indicated the presence of a predator on the move. The Aravalli Ranges stood like a mute spectator to this daily drama. We were in the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan.

The tiger monitoring group had told us about the presence of the female tiger ST2 and the male ST4 in that area.

These are among the many tigers relocated here from Ranthambhore. We strained our necks looking for the elusive cat. Time stood still. Our driver, Jagdish, was the first to spot the tigress as she majestically strode on to the road, hardly 30 feet from us. She was ST2. She just looked back at us and walked straight to the water hole.

Nestled in one of the oldest mountain ranges, Aravallis, Sariska National Park, with a total area of more than 800 sq km, is a repository of serene dense forest, wide valleys and sprawling plateaus. With a natural grandeur, it was once the hunting preserve of the Maharajas of Alwar where British royalty, viceroys and dignitaries vied with each other in shooting tigers. All shootings were banned in 1955 when Sariska was declared a wildlife reserve. In 1978, it was declared a tiger reserve and in 1982, a national park.

Vanishing tigers

It was just five years back that Sariska hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The state wildlife department was merrily giving out tiger figures every year, and when an intrepid journalist came out with the revelation that there are no tigers left in the Sariska Tiger Reserve, it attracted worldwide attention.

A subsequent CBI enquiry ordered by the Prime Minister and an investigation by the Wildlife Institute of India confirmed the stark truth. How Sariska, with its valleys, forests, water holes, an enormous prey base and a habitat better than even Ranthambhore, lost its tigers is a long story. It was a case of ineptitude, inadequacy and shameful neglect.

To quote the Tiger Task Force, “While officials were busy misreporting the record of tiger numbers, poachers roamed about and cleaned the reserve out.”

Community-related issues

The one and only problem faced by Sariska is the hostile attitude of the villagers — 28 of their hamlets are strewn around the sanctuary; some even inside the core area. These villagers have stuck around the forest area’s main water holes, rearing their cattle. All efforts to relocate them have come to naught.

Closeness to cities like Alwar and easy transportation have made milk trade a roaring business. Added to this is the rearing of goats for meat. The villagers, mostly cattle grazers, have nothing to spend on feeding since these cattle and goats are driven into the sanctuary every day and occasionally tigers get attracted to it.

The government’s compensation of Rs 3,000 for every cattle killed by tigers, villagers say, is grossly inadequate compared to the actual value of more than Rs 20,000. They stick on to these villages in spite of all these disadvantages and carry out revenge killings and poaching. They also join together and scuttle any probe into the killing. For them, it is more profitable.

The bonanza of Rs 10 lakh per family offered as compensation for relocation has no effect on them. Adding to the woes of the villagers and the government is the activism of the so-called human rights NGOs, who advise villagers not to shift unless the compensation is raised to Rs 25 lakh. It is no surprise that out of 28 villages, only one village, Badhani, the smallest of them all, has been relocated completely since the process began.

Relocation from Ranthambore

In their efforts to save the tiger, the government carried out an ambitious programme — to relocate some tigers to Sariska from Ranthambhore. Five tigers, tagged ST1 to ST5, were released into the park in 2008. Skeptics were proved right when the male TS1 was poisoned on November 14, 2010 by villagers as a revenge killing. The government received much flak for this and the field director was shifted.

They have now posted R S Shekhawat as the field director, one of the ablest in the state. One more tiger has been now been relocated from Ranthambhore and has been tagged as ST6. All the tigers are radio collared, are tracked and logged in separate jeeps, round the clock, at high costs.

With hostile villagers located all around the park, forest officers are on tenter hooks. How long can they monitor tigers like this? In Rajesh Gopal, we have a dedicated and hard working Project Tiger Chief, but unless the state government takes more interest and gets these villagers shifted from the park, the future of relocated tigers in Sariska is bleak.

Based on prey base and habitat, Sariska can easily accommodate more than 40 tigers. Plans are now on to relocate more tigers to Sariska. But tiger lovers are hoping that the government realises that given the dwindling tiger population in the country, this is not the best time to experiment, for in the present conditions, tigers are still not safe.

Sariska still offers a bonanza for tourists and nature lovers. The sanctuary is teeming with wildlife. There are more than 7,000 sambhars, an equal number of nilgais, chital, wild boars, striped hyenas, caracals and leopards to quote a few.

It is also blessed with rich avifaunal diversity encompassing more than 211 species of domestic and migratory birds. It also houses 404 plant species. It is of interest to note that 50,000 visitors have visited this park last year alone.

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