Sunday, September 7, 2008

Lambs to the slaughter

Many rains have come and gone since the last tiger was baited and butchered in Sariska. Some say it was a one-eyed male called Rana Sanga. Proud and strong, Rana frequented water holes near the forest temple of Pandu Pol. His battles with other males had left him scarred, but he was a champion nevertheless. A mascot of sorts, Rana Sanga was popular with both tourists and forest guards. But come 2004, Rana would roar no more. “When I got transferred here, Rana must’ve been far away, maybe in a soup bowl in China. But I could feel his presence while walking back to my post from the temple. But today…” Ghewar Chand’s steel grey eyes narrowed into slits and he clenched his jaws. I could feel the magma of impotent emotions well and ebb and tear at his insides before subsiding without expression. “Aaz toh uska bhut bhi bhag zayega”, he said, and closed his eyes. Looking at him, I wondered if he was tired or sleepy, or were his eyes too burning like mine.

I was in Sariska to see if her newest denizens, a pair of airlifted Ranthambore tigers, had even a sliver of a chance to survive what their predecessors could not… greed, corruption and apathy. After driving for a while, I met Ghewar Chand, a forest guard. Since he was heading towards Pandu Pol, I offered him a ride. We hadn’t gone far when our jeep got stuck… not in a bog or a ditch, mind you, but a traffic jam in the middle of the forest - between scores of buses, jeeps and vans belching dark grey clouds and a platoon on a pilgrimage; hundreds of men women and children… a haggling gaggle of pain. The smoke burned into my eyes and lungs and I too closed my eyes as we waited for the road to open up.

Beyond the smoke screen though, the forest looked lush and verdant. Ghewar Chand (he requested I conceal his real name, and I have) claimed to have seen the tigress that very morning. Every move of the radio-collared tigers is being monitored by a team of ‘experts’. There’s a company from the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary that has been brought in to bolster the park’s security. And every official I met assured me that all who’d contributed towards the tiger’s extinction had been taken to task. Poachers like Kallya Bawaria had been apprehended; villagers living inside the park area have been, or are being rehabilitated and corrupt guards and officials have been transferred.

That seemed too good to be true, and it was. Some forest guards, like Ghewar, under conditions of anonymity, revealed that poachers that have been caught are nothing more than the proverbial tip of the ice berg. Many are still living in villages adjoining the park and will strike at the first opportunity. Some of the villagers I spoke to reluctantly agreed that they “might have given shelter to the poachers” but they “didn’t really know what they’d been up to until it was too late”, and no, they weren’t going to leave their ancestral forest lands unless the government increased compensation from 10 to 15 lakhs. The guards and even the ‘Armed’ Constabulary hadn’t been issued any weapons and only have sticks with which to protect what might yet be the last of Sariska’s tigers. Worst of all, many corrupt officials and guards that had been transferred out have allegedly ‘bought’ back their transfers and returned to Sariska, “some with promotions”, said Ghewar, shaking his head. Ghewar, incidentally, hasn’t been promoted in more than 30 years of service... he says it doesn’t matter anymore.

“See this,” he asked, pointing at a scar that ran along the bridge of his nose. “I was out patrolling with two colleagues, after dusk. Not too far from the temple, I saw a band of villagers, perhaps from Khareda, moving through the forest. We challenged them, but they were too many. They had rifles, spears and axes. I managed to catch one but his accomplice turned and attacked me with an axe. I ducked but it caught my nose… they all ran away… what could I do with this stick…”

Finally, the road opened and the convoy drove up to the temple. Plastic bags and bottles floated on a brook gurgling nearby. Ghewar had the look of a man whose quarters had been snatched away and none offered in return. He was disgruntled, too long of tooth and weak of bone to protect anything… least of all, a tiger. But that is all Sariska’s tigers have; a bunch of ageing, dispirited guards (no fresh recruitments in 20 years), surrounded by a baying mob of grumpy villagers (who’ve lost homes, cattle, crops to the reserve and gained little in return), managed by a corrupt and immeasurably negligent set of officials (almost none of whom have been punished). And if the poachers don’t get them, the tigers risk being run over on the highway that runs through the park (which has already claimed many a big cat). Given the circumstances, I wouldn’t bet on the tigers lasting too long. In fact, it’s surprising the tigers survived here for as long as they did.

Despair must’ve been writ large on my face for Ghewar waved as I left and said “there’s hope sahab… if we get a bit of encouragement, and some guns, we might yet save face, and the tiger…”

Ah well, too many ifs, too many buts… and before long, the tigers of Sariska might yet again become lambs led to the slaughter.

Too little, too late?

The fact that the recent relocation of two tigers from Ranthambore to Sariska Tiger Reserve is the first time such an exercise in the wild has been successfully undertaken is hardly comforting. With plans to bring in another of these striped cats into Sariska after the monsoons, weather is not the biggest impediment in the path to resuscitating the tiger population in Sariska.

The tiger’s cup of woes had runneth over in 2004 after poachers wiped out the last of these royal predators using metal traps and guns. There is however little to condone the irresponsibility of forest officials who, in addition to giving exaggerated tiger numbers, over the years leading to the wipe-out, took no notice of warnings that came their way either. The State Empowered Committee (SEC) Report mentions a letter that was addressed to the Sariska Field Director cautioning against the activities of poachers in Sariska, to which there was no action until after the SEC visited the Park! One can imagine the ignorance and apathy when it is recorded that it was Wildlife Institute of India and a private individual, and not Sariska management, who notified that the tigers had vanished from Sariska.

Recommendations by the SEC ordain rehabilitation of human population a top priority. Management shake-up includes demarcating the roles of the Field Director and Scientific Officer as against that of the DFO and protection staff, so that research studies in the 881 sq km Park do not interfere with protection roles. And even then, it might still be a case of too little too late


1 comment:

  1. my email to PM on tiger population 14-Feb-2008.