Friday, March 16, 2012

4. The Future of Indian Tigers and Asiatic Lions.

4. The Future of Indian Tigers and Asiatic Lions.
By Lavkumar Khachar

The Big Cats seem to be in the news of late! In Gujarat there is the countdown for the lion census during the last week of April, and I have received information from a naturalist friend in Kolkata that the tigers are reported to be doing extremely well in Kaziranga.  What of Manas where not many years back the situation was not so good? I will get the most reliable information from the young members of a Nature Club there called ARANYAK. Actually I have overshot the area of my immediate concern which is Madhya Pradesh whose demand for wild lions and the childish offer of swopping tigers for lions compelled me to marshal my aging thought processes on the matter. If, what I showed about Ranthambhore should not make it a success story that it is being made out to be, I am not sure the two flagship Tiger Preserves of Madhya Pradesh can stand up to scrutiny.

There are dark stories of a tigress in Kanha with her paw in a trap. The rumors are that subsequently more traps were found in the Reserve! Like everywhere else, there appears to be an absence of leadership from the front. I understand there have been no ground censuses for some years now and that the number of over 120 tigers is padded. What with a total lack of any program to involve the surrounding communities in the management of the Reserve, poachers must be enjoying free entry.  Assuming that both in Kanha and in Bandhavgarh healthy populations of breeding tigers exist, by now there should be overflow of tigers into surrounding areas. If this is indeed happening, there would be plenty of reports of livestock kills and the Wildlife Department should be able to provide figures of compensation paid for such depredation to substantiate claims. I for one would be the happiest person to be proved wrong as it is good wildlife management that I am concerned about and not my reputation for whatever it is worth. Parochialism apart, as a Gujarati, I would like to have all the official figures from the Madhya Pradesh Government justifying their capability to ensure the safety of the wild lions given. In the same breath, I would ask the Gujarat Forest Department to, in all honesty, assure me that the much touted Purna Sanctuary in the Dangs is indeed capable of providing a home to free ranging tigers. If the tigers are to be kept in enclosures, then we certainly do not want wild tigers, zoo animals would fit the bill admirably.

Years back, I had visited Kanha, then motored to Bandhavgarh and from there went on, like all itinerate tourists, to Khajuraho. The countryside is lovely.  The Bandhavgarh escarpment with the fort is magnificent, as indeed is the gorge of the Ken River close to Khajuraho. Tigers or not, the trip is worth making. Between Bandhavgarh and Khajuraho, a detour to the left takes one to the Panna Tiger Reserve. Again, a beautiful countryside which should be full of tigers but we saw none. Friends inform me that the official figure is 30 tigers for Panna, but those who know say there is only one male! There is an interesting story going around that local villagers used to cultivate land exposed as water was drawn from a large reservoir; this land fell within the Tiger Reserve so one of the more short sighted Field Directors ordered that the standing crops be destroyed. Legally, the action was unassailable in Law so the villagers took the final recourse of going to a local tough. One day the Forester going about his duties inside the Reserve was stripped of his uniform and laborers found him tied to a tree.  That presumable was the end of the Forest Department's presence. Whether this thug killed the tigers or thanks to the fear he instilled in the protective staff the poachers had the forest and the tigers to themselves is a moot question. Let Madhya Pradesh first repopulate this lovely area with tigers (and their prey) before they ask for free ranging wild lions.
One of the objections to introducing lions into the proposed Kuno Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh is that the lions would, at some time have to contend with tigers moving in. This argument is meaningless precisely because the Madhya Pradesh record of effective management of their reserves is questionable. If the one Big Cat that is a National Animal cannot be effectively conserved, what chance does the second Big Cat have?  That is where my objection lies. When the earlier two attempts to introduce lions in these areas have failed, then what is the purpose of making a third attempt? At this moment of time, we in India must concentrate on improving our management skills for what we possess and not start new experiments; when the Gir Lions are spreading well beyond the Gir Lion Sanctuary, all effort should be to develop necessary understandings of how to integrate a large predator into human dominated habitats.

Let each State first demonstrate full success in caring for what it possesses and in saturating existing sanctuaries with the indigene wildlife. Let us demand that the concentrations of herbivores exponentially increase across the countryside before we enter into experiments of transferring large and potentially dangerous predators like lions and tigers to not only endanger the animals themselves, but the human population. I am sure my naturalist friends in Gujarat and elsewhere will join me in demanding that there be full concentration on the exciting spread of lions and their acceptance by communities well beyond the traditional lion country. Attention must not be diverted to introducing wild tigers anywhere in the State. If tigers do stray in from the adjacent "Tiger States", so be it. As it is, the Wildlife Department is fully stretched with leopard-human confrontations not to have more on its hands. It would be thoroughly irresponsible to agree to introduce tigers other than under safari conditions anywhere in the State.

Every State in India should have spacious zoological gardens with healthy populations of Indian Tigers and Asiatic Lions outside the limits of large urban centers. There should also be vast areas enclosed and huge safari situations should be developed with plenty of local herbivores and relevant predators. These should be commercial enterprises in which the local communities must have majority stake. Surrounding these safaris the villagers should be encouraged to provide simple hospitality to visitors who may wish to spend a week end or stay longer.  Such facilities would be welcomed by the growing urban middleclass as quality get-away. Whatever loss may be suffered by crop damage or domestic stock killing would be more than amply compensated by the guests. Both the Tourism Department and the Wildlife Department should see their roles as facilitators for social change and not eye the revenues generated.

                                                                                                                                                       Lavkumar Khachar.

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