The hunter becomes hunted

Wildlife


The tiger population in the state’s parks are dwindling for a variety of reasons.  Photos: Getty Images

Is the tiger’s roar growing weak in the State’s prestigious Bandipur and Nagarhole National Parks? Is the tiger population there under threat? The answer is a resounding yes. The attention and funds released by the Central government towards tiger conservation have obviously been inadequate. Recent developments at the Bandipur and Nagarhole National Parks are proof to this. More than 15 tigers in these parks have died in the past two years due to natural causes and poaching.

The causes of danger to the big cats are one too many. For one, there is a vacancy of about 40 per cent of the forest staff deputed to protect the tiger. With such a huge vacancy, it is to be wondered if the existing workforce is successful in the conservation and protection of wild animals in the parks, and if they are discharging their duties with commitment and dedication. Though the rules state that the Range Forest Officer, Assistant Conservator of Forests and Deputy Conservator of Forests of the sanctuaries should be at the headquarters, most of them conduct their ‘operations’ from Mysore!
Despite crores being released for tiger conservation projects, the frontline staff at these parks, who patrol the forests, are not paid salaries for months together! Now, how effectively can the poorly equipped staff, with no pay to fall back on, protect the tigers?

Also, those who are eventually appointed are over-aged; some are physically incapable or weak. Then there are those who have got their jobs thanks to political clout.

Political interference

It follows that there is political interference in trivial matters that take place inside the parks. Some politicians are at the helm of conducting illegal fairs, processions and other programmes. Permanent structures are being constructed, borewells are dug. Sand mining also goes on with indirect political support as does poaching and sandalwood smuggling. All these pressures have endangered the tiger habitat.

Development works like laying a road inside the park and electrical fencing inside the parks also disturb the tiger’s peace. The rehabilitation programme of the Girijans started in 1996-97 is moving at a snail’s pace as only 340 families out of the 1,500 have so far been rehabilitated. People dwelling inside the park pose another irritant to the tiger.

Human activities do not bode well for wild animals, including the tiger. There are around 40 resorts surrounding the two parks. These resorts take tourists right into the heart of the jungle under the guise of eco-tourism and disturb the tiger’s surroundings. A tiger needs food, water and security to procreate. If denied any one of them, it simply puts off procreating.

Destruction of habitat is a major problem for the big cats. Extension of farm land, animal husbandry, forest fires - all these are shrinking the tiger’s habitat. Unavailability of prey and territorial fights between tigers are also bringing about their death.

Poaching another cause for concern

Poaching is another reason for their dwindling numbers. There are instances of poaching tigers in both the parks recently. Tiger deaths have been discovered only upon recovery of their skins and there has not been a single instance of culprits being caught redhanded while killing the big cats. The decomposed body of a tiger was found in Gundre zone of Bandipur National Park in July 2009. The decomposed body made it impossible to say whether the tiger died of natural causes or at the hands of poachers. However, all ten toe nails were missing! In August, a tiger skin was found in Gundlupet.
The tiger was meticulously hunted in Moyar zone of the Bandipur National Park and shot by one Sangaiah alias Singa of Chikka Elchetti village in Gundlupet taluk.

It turned out that Sangaiah’s son Manja was a temporary forest department employee at the anti-poaching camp in Chigarekaadu, Moyar zone. One morning in June 2009, the carcass of a tiger that had died due to natural causes was found in Anatarasante zone of the Nagarhole National Park. All the toe-nails were intact till 3 pm. However, by the time, the tiger was buried, two of them were missing. Deccan Herald had exposed the crime and described how the forest staff who guarded the carcass had themselves stolen the toe-nails. So far, no action has been taken in this regard.

A team headed by ACF Sunil Penwar, of Antarasante zone, Nagarhole arrested two
people, including the son of an influential politician, living close to Bandipur, in May 2009 and seized a tiger skin. The tiger was shot down in the Gopalaswamy Betta zone of the Bandipur National Park. Those arrested confessed that Pulagi Mahadeva (a former associate of brigand Veerappan) of Melukamanahalli, Manja and Papu of Aggadahallihad killed the animal.

The forest staff who went to arrest them were assaulted. The Gundlupet Circle Police Inspector who came to their rescue was also attacked. Today, the accused in this case are roaming free, without care!

The Maddur Range Forest Officer of Bandipur National Park had found a tiger skin in November 2008. Investigations revealed that the tiger was hunted at Taraka of Antarasante zone. One Venkata of Hunasekoppa, HD Kote was arrested in this regard. The same Venkata is now out on bail. Another carcass of a tiger was found in Anechowkuru of Nagarhole National Park in May 2008 and bullets and gun powder were found in the body. The police registered a complaint but no action has been forthcoming. In September 2007, a tiger death was reported at Nagarhole and the culprit was arrested.  But he is also out on bail.

Culprits not brought to book

There are several reasons for the cases to collapse. Though the Forest department finds tiger skins and takes them into custody, it won’t conduct a thorough investigation and file a fool-proof chargesheet. Neither are the culprits arrested.

Political interference is another reason, along with the inactivity and corruption of forest officials. In several cases, the guns used in the crime have not been seized at all. The Forest department which obtains wide publicity at the capture of tiger skins, has not bothered to achieve anything concrete in stopping tiger deaths.

There is no attempt to discover and rout out the national and international networks involved. Tiger hunters are coming out on bail, making use of the loopholes in the chargesheets.The accused who shot a tiger in HD Kote and from whom the tiger skin was seized on May 9, 2009 got bail within 26 days, as he was the son of an influential politician.

It is evident that the department has failed in not only preventing the tiger killings but also in getting culprits convicted. In 1970-80, the tiger population increased, thanks to a few honest and efficient officials and committed forest staff though there was no political will, funds and even proper forest policy. However, the situation has reversed today.

Lack of ground-level staff has endangered the tiger's life, though there is plenty of political will from the Centre and the state governments and the Supreme Court, which rendered landmark judgments from time to time. If the tigers continue to be killed, the day is not far when our prestigious Bandipur and Nagarhole National Parks may join Sariska in Rajasthan and Panna in Madhya Pradesh.

World tiger summit: Will it help?

Recent newspaper reports suggest that the government has plans to organise a World Tiger Summit at Ranthambor, Rajasthan next year. Wildlife experts across the world will attend the summit, the first of its kind, to give suggestions on conserving declining tiger population.

Crores of rupees are spent on such international conferences and tiger projects at the national level. The idea is laudable indeed. But have the programmes been effective at the ground level? Have these programmes been able to achieve anything?

It was a wake up call to the government when a CBI investigation confirmed the shocking decimation of the big cats in the Sariska forests, Rajasthan, in 2004-05. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the matter into his hands and formed the National Tiger Conservation Authority. Heading the Authority himself, the Prime Minister released crores of rupees, giving a big boost to tiger conservation. Scores of meetings, discussions and training programmes were held.

The government also increased funds released for rehabilitation of adivasi families dwelling inside national parks from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 10 lakh.  Conservation of the tiger and its habitat triggerred off these measures.

Earlier, the Forest department tracked the tiger’s footprints and conducted tiger census in an unscientific and haphazard manner, followed by announcements that there were 4,000 to 5,000 tigers in the country. But in 2006-07, the census was conducted as part of the Camera Trapping Method.

According to the figures available, the total number of wild tigers in the country is between 1,400 and 1,500 only. The steep decline in the tiger population caused the Union government to sit up and take notice.

Out of the 1,400-1,500 tigers, around 200 are found in Nagarhole and Bandipur in Karnataka, earning world-wide distinction of being the best tiger habitats in the country.
There is admiration at the national level for the exemplary management of tiger conservation in these two parks. But a peep into the conditions of these parks throws up an alarming picture.

(Translated by B S Srivani)

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