Feb 9, 2015
DEHRADUN/LUCKNOW: Happy that their numbers have gone up, wildlife experts and even forest officials monitoring tiger trends say that if there has been a population growth of the big cats, it’s not because of the government but in spite of it. Across the tiger habitats of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, what the census doesn’t say is the abysmal condition of forest workers in charge of the animal’s protection, the lack of infrastructure and wherewithal, the chronic shortage of staff. Corbett tiger reserve (CTR) with its 230 tigers has pushed Uttarakhand to second spot nationwide, and Pilibhit is the only tiger reserve in UP to show an improvement in the number of the big cats, but both have serious issues facing them. With a staff of just 219 forest personnel, 11 short of the total number of tigers it has, CTR has a daunting task for itself. A special tiger protection force (STPF) for the reserve is yet to take any concrete shape even six years after the idea was conceived. In 2008, the Centre had mandated national tiger conservation authority (NTCA) to form a national tiger protection force for raising, arming and deploying a task force to counter poaching activities in all tiger reserves of the country. The force was to be trained on the pattern of Indian Reserve Battalion and armed with the latest weaponry. But it’s still stuck somewhere and no one knows when it will see the light of day. There is no time-frame for the formation of the force and neither is there any clarity on the cause of the delay. Uttarakhand principal chief conservator of forests SS Sharma had told TOI recently that the process was on, though he could not explain what was keeping it from fruition. Funding is another cause of rather grave concern. At present, CTR gets Rs 7 crore annually from NTCA, Rs 1.5 crore from the revenue generated through wildlife tourism and anotherRs 1.5 crore from central schemes. According to Sharma, around 2 lakh tourists visit CTR every year and contribute to 20% of the total fund the reserve gets. Sinha, however, says this is just not enough.
“There is dire need of more money to put in place a better security system, infrastructure, promote eco-tourism and enough manpower to protect CTR from poachers,” he said. Short of staff and funds, the CTR authorities say they have the gods to thank for this spurt in the population of tigers. The population of big cats in the country, according to the latest tiger census, has risen by nearly 30% in the past three years — from 1,706 in 2011 to 2,226 in 2014. Uttarakhand has 340tigers, up from 227 in 2011, which is second only to Karnataka (406). A major part of this growth comes from the world-renowned CTR, which alone has contributed 230 tigers to the state’s 340 big cats. A healthy tiger boom in CTR is critical to the big cats’ population all over the country. “Corbett tiger reserve has the largest density of tigers in the world. It is the source and nursery from where tigers are translocated to other areas. Hence, it is important that these forest areas should be intrusion-free and inviolate,” said Sameer Sinha, director, CTR. Even as issues of rehabilitation of encroachers — people living in Sunderkhal village in the CTR and van gujjars in Rajaji national park (RNP) — remain unresolved, man-animal conflicts and stealing of tiger prey base have taken worrisome proportions. “Protection of prey base is of paramount concern and critical to survival of tigers here,” Sinha added. The growth story in Pilibhit is even more somber, coming as it does with a string of caveats. The tiger census has disappointed UP as the count here dipped to 117 in 2014, one less than its figure in the 2011 census.
UP has three tiger reserves — 884 sq km of Dudhwa tigerreserve, 720 sq km of Pilibhit tiger reserve and 80 sq km of Amangarh tiger reserve (carved out of 221 sq km Bijnor forest). According to the latest census, Pilibhit tiger reserve (PTR) has shown an increase in the number of big cats here, an improvement of five tigers over its 2013 figure of 23. But there is slight juggling of numbers behind this. PTR was notified in 2014 and thus does not compare its growth vis-a-vis its figure in 2010, which was a whopping 40-plus then. In 2012, the tiger count was down to 30, which further dipped to 23 in 2013. Rampant poaching is the biggest challenge PTR faces. Recently, nine poachers were arrested in Pilibhit with sizeable quantity of tiger bones, teeth and other body parts. The action came following arrest of two poachers in Nepal, who confessed to have poisoned two adult tigers to death in PTR in December 2013. Besides, three other tigers were poisoned to death here in 2012. Forest officials say one of the major problems PTR faces is the presence of 275 villages with a population of nearly 5 lakh within a 5-km radius of the forest’s buffer zone. “The forest is surrounded by villagers and at times poachers enter the forest along with villagers. However, we have become more vigilant and arrested a gang of poachers recently,” MP Singh, chief conservator of forest, said. “The main source of income for these villagers living near the buffer zone is illegal felling of trees. Besides, most poachers are residents of these villages. These poachers are in touch with other gangs of poachers and provide animal parts to them,” said T H Khan, secretary of an NGO that works on issues related to PTR. Felling of trees is such a big issue here that 23 forest staff, including DFO and SDO, were suspended in July last year. Like CTR, there is an acute staff shortage in Pilibhit. There are vacancies for 23 forest guards, 3 sub-divisional forest officers, assistant conservator (forest), range officer and veterinary doctor. “We have written to the state government for appointment of more staff on many occasions,” Kailesh Prakash, divisional forest officer, PTR, said. “Staff crunch is directly responsible for rampant poaching here. While the situation warrants setting-up of a special task force, PTR is yet to install even trap cameras,” said Ambitabh Agnihotri, a wildlife activist. “Even if the latest census figures are taken to be accurate, the so-called spurt in the tiger count in Corbett and Pilibhit has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The story in Dudhwa and Amangarh, the two other tiger reserves in UP, is no different. As one wildlife expert said, “The gods seem to be merciful. The government isn’t doing much. The next census, if these problems are not addressed immediately, might just tell a different story”.
As posted in Timesofindia.indiatimes.com