Cheetahs can wait
The Pioneer By Anuradha Dutt
Right now we need to save the remaining big cats
Over the past decade, saving big cats — tigers, in particular — has been the focus of wildlife conservation in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. India is home to over half of the world's tigers, with the latest census placing the number at 1,706. The number, as per the 2008 census release, was 1,411. Tiger habitats spread over 17 States were surveyed for counting. Though the number is up, poaching is still the biggest threat to the survival of tigers and even leopards. It may be recalled that Project Tiger was upgraded in the last decade with the National Tiger Conservation Authority and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau being set up after Sariska reserve's tigers, estimated at 16-18, were poached. The fact came to light in January 2005. Subsequently, Panna sanctuary was found to have been divested of its 27 tigers by poachers.
An exercise to revive the big cat population in these reserves was initiated by re-locating tigers from other sanctuaries. The world-wide demand for tiger and leopard pelts and parts drives poaching. All the brain-storming by conservationists and the concerned agencies on how to counter it effectively has not been able to yield a fool-proof strategy. Government responses seem to be exceedingly slow, with a panel to probe the disappearance of four tigers from Ranthambore reserve about eight to 10 months ago being set up now. It should submit its findings by the month end. No one knows whether they are dead or have simply migrated in search of new territory.
In such a scenario, the Centre's plan to bring six to 12 cheetahs from Africa or Iran or both, to the Palpur Kuno sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh by early 2012 has triggered disbelief among wildlife experts such as Belinda Wright, who question the rationale of this exercise, given the failings in tiger conservation. Rajasthan, too, may be brought within the ambit of the cheetah revival scheme. Cheetahs were decimated by hunters in India early last century. However, experts point out that Palpur Kuno's proximity to Ranthambore means that tigers, leopards and cheetahs would be forced to co-exist, with big cats prone to wandering outside the reserves. This would create volatile situations, with the threat of poaching dogging them everywhere. In fact, the four tigers that are untraceable since many months may be an intimation of the fate that may befall the cheetahs.
Undeterred by criticism, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs has reportedly approved re-introduction of cheetahs in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. It has also hiked the budget for tiger conservation from Rs 650 crore to Rs 1,216.86 crore, owing to the increase in cost of relocation of villages from tiger habitats and other factors. A statement released by the committee tries to justify the plan to bring in cheetahs thus:
"Re-introduction of cheetahs in the States of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan under the scheme at a cost of Rs 50 crore after ensuring the historical co-existence of cheetahs with other carnivores, especially the tiger, would benefit all the 40 tiger reserves falling in 17 tiger States, besides the people living in the fringe areas as well as communities opting for voluntary relocation from the core or critical tiger habitats."
It is mystifying how the existing tiger reserves will benefit from the cheetah revival plan. Whether African (or Iranian cheetahs) will be able to adjust to the alien environs and co-exist with tigers, carnivores that are very different from lions, which move in packs, is a debatable point. Earlier, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had vetoed the plan to relocate some of the Gir sanctuary's lions to Palpur Kuno. Mr HS Panwar, former Director, Project Tiger, credits the success of lion conservation in Gujarat to the fact that "the Government of Gujarat is seized of the matter right from the Chief Minister to field formations of forest and police departments."
The 2010 census revealed that the Asiatic lions' number had gone up by 52 to 411. It was 359 in 2005. Trophy hunters had reduced their numbers to a meagre 15 in the early 20th Century. The Nawab of Junagadh had first accorded protection to the Gir habitat and its denizens. Gujarat's success in this sphere needs to be contrasted with the routine poaching in, say, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and other parts.
Data on apprehension of illicit traders in big cats, collated only for July and August, is edifying —
• August 21: Two persons arrested for illicit trade in tiger bones; the animal was poached in the vicinity of the well-guarded Nagarahole Tiger Preserve.
•August 7: Two persons were arrested and leopard pelts seized from their possession in Kashipur town in Udhamsingh Nagar district.•
•July 31: Two persons were arrested from South Delhi, with two leopard pelts being seized from them.
•July 10: Chandrapur police seize leopard skins seized from four men near Kothari, 200km from Nagpur.
The list of offences, beginning from January, suggests that big cats' poachers are operating quite freely. In two recent judgements, meted out by lower courts in Rajasthan, on June 19 and June 25, the accused were sentenced to seven years' imprisonment and fined. These cases related to poaching of tigers in the Sariska reserve and Akbarpur range. But the option of appeal is always available to them. On August 5, a Bangalore lower court sentenced three tiger poachers to a three-year jail term. This was the first such conviction in Karnataka. But if poachers are let out on bail, the trend so far, it would nullify their crime.