Nita Bhalla, Reuters
Sariska Tiger Reserve, India: A trek to Tiger Point in Sariska Tiger Reserve used to almost guarantee views of the big cats. Now antelope graze with little to fear near a redundant sign depicting a picture of India’s national animal.
The antelopes’ predator has disappeared from the reserve after its population was wiped out by poachers two years ago, a massive conservation scandal widely blamed on the negligence of the park and state government authorities.
Saying they have learnt from these mistakes, officials are now planning to bring the big cats back to the reserve in what conservationists say will be the world’s first ever attempt to reintroduce tigers to a habitat.
“This has never been done anywhere in the world and it is a challenge, but we can do it,” Laxmi Narayan Dave, minister for environment in Rajasthan state where Sariska is located, told Reuters.
This semi-arid region of western India’s Aravalli Hill Range was once the tiger’s ideal habitat, where it could stalk its plentiful supply of prey — chital, sambar and wild pig — across Sariska’s 880 square km (340 square miles) of scrubland, forests and ravines.
But in early 2005, India was shocked by news that the entire tiger population in Sariska had been wiped out with poachers slaughtering at least 13 tigers over four years.
‘Rebuilding The Future’
There were about 40,000 tigers in India a century ago, but decades of poaching and depletion of their natural habitat have cut their numbers to 3,700. Some wildlife experts say the total could be as low as 1,200.
Environmentalists say the world trade in animal parts is second to narcotics, and a single tiger skin can fetch up to $20,000 on the international market.
Sariska — once a popular spot for tourists laden with binoculars and cameras packed into open-top jeeps — now lies virtually empty after losing its main attraction.
Forest officials say the annual number of visitors to the reserve has halved to 30,000 since the tigers disappeared.
But while Sariska’s new publicity brochure subtitled Rebuilding The Future painfully omits the tiger, featuring other animals like the panther and hyena, forest staff are confident the big cat will reign over the reserve once again.
“The time is right to bring the tiger back,” said Rajesh Gupta, deputy field director of the reserve.
“The habitat is beautiful, the prey of the tigers has increased and the biodiversity is enriched.”
Following International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines, five young adult tigers — three females and two males — will be introduced over a staggered period of three years.
The first tigress could be brought into the reserve by the end of the year, officials say, and will be monitored for a month before a male is introduced. The remaining three will then be introduced over the next two years.
If the population adapts and breeds, two batches of two to three tigers will be brought in every three years as experts say restocking is essential to maintain genetic and demographic viability of the population.
The stock will come from neighbouring Ranthambore National Park, which has a similar habitat to Sariska.
Officials say tigers will be fitted with radio collars with a satellite tracking facility and there will be a team of around 12 forest officers as well as wildlife researchers constantly monitoring the animals.
Mitigate Threats First
Conservationists have welcomed the plan, but stress that all factors which led to the extinction of Sariska’s tigers must be addressed.
People living inside the forests pose a threat to the tigers, say wildlife groups, as they are often hired by organised poachers to kill the tigers.
The villagers also resort to felling trees for fuel wood, as well as keeping herds of cattle which compete for grazing pastures with the tiger’s prey.
Authorities plan to relocate the villages in the core area of the reserve but so far only two of the 11 villages have agreed to relocate for a compensation package that includes Rs100,000 ($2,440) per family.
If the relocation of the two villages is successful, it will convince other villages to follow, say officials.
There are also two highways which run right through prime habitat inside the park carrying thousands of vehicles every day, which conservationists say must be diverted.
Every day, hundreds of pilgrims visit the ancient Pandupol temple in the reserve, leaving litter and polluting the park with fumes and loud music.
But despite the threats, conservationists say reintroduction of tigers is necessary.
“In the future, the reintroduction of tigers will be instrumental if we are to save populations,” Urs Breitenmoser, co-chair of the IUCN’s Cat Specialist Group, told Reuters by phone from Geneva.
“There is a risk, but there is no chance without risk.”