Why the tiger may turn out to be a sacrificial goat in this high-stakes multi-million-rupee gamble to repopulate the Sariska Tiger Reserve:
- At least 28 villages, including 11 in the core area, have yet to move out
- The monsoon season makes it difficult to keep track of the tiger's movements once it's let out of its enclosure
- At least three roads, including a state highway, still operational, making road accidents a high possibility
- A temple in the heart of the reserve denies it inviolate space
- The only way to keep the tiger safe is to confine it in its little enclosure for an indeterminate time, by which time it may lose its wild instinct
- Experts say political expediency behind the great hurry to bring the tiger before its home is ready
- Villagers aggrieved with tiger for snatching away their land and livelihood
***You'd think there is a war afoot in the Sariska National Park. Fifty beds are laid out on the ground for the men of the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary, their underpants and vests drying on the scrub trees outside. Some 60 ex-servicemen are camped across the 881 sq km forest, another 100 home guards are expected soon. The generals climb in and out of jeeps, followed by forest guards with their walkie talkies, charting out elaborate strategies. Some of the 250 guards are camped in the densest sections of the forest, warding off mosquitoes as they talk in code over the wireless. Young men and women, carrying radio sets and antennae, stumble back from their vigil at the watch tower. Computers keep track of data pouring in from six satellites. Patrols armed with torches and radios conduct mock drills in the dark of the night. And at the centre of all this fuss is a cool, well-fed cat—one of the 1,411 tigers that the latest census says still survive in the wild. It was airlifted from Ranthambhore into the heart of Sariska last week—a hair-raising experiment that seems to have left his captors more worried than him.
The plan, brewing for at least two-and-a-half years, is to repopulate our forest habitats by capturing grown tigers from the wild in ones and twos and airlifting them into forest parks like the Sariska Tiger Reserve, where the last tiger disappeared four years ago. On paper, few experts—and there are more tiger experts now than tigers, as conservationist Ullas Karanth caustically puts it—have any problems with the plan. After all, with the forest corridors having disappeared long ago and tigers fighting a losing battle for survival even in green islands like Ranthambhore, experts say human interventions like this may be the only way to save tigers from extinction.
But there are few experts, whether involved in the project or watching this first-ever multi-million rupee gamble from the outside, who don't admit the risks involved. For instance, Dr Parag Nigam, the scientist from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) who has been girding up for this venture for months, says his job of anaesthetising the chosen tiger and carting it safely to Sariska gave him several heart-stopping moments. Shooting an anaesthetising dart into the animal seems a straightforward affair but, Nigam explains, it's a sequence of tricky operations and many things can go wrong. He could miss its flank by an inch or two and damage a vital organ; he could shoot too much drug into the animal, forcing it into too deep a sleep where he can't keep track of its heart and breathing; when the drug begins to take effect the animal may choose to wander away from the cage meant for it and get into a fatal accident; if the plane takes too long to land—as it did, thanks to the cloud cover—the drug may wear off, causing trouble to both the tiger and its captors; or it may get so traumatised by the experience that it may never recover its health fully. "If anything were to happen to this tiger on the way, with all this hype around it, I would have been finished!" shudders Nigam. Which is why he made a thanksgiving visit to the temple when the tiger landed safely in Sariska.
Despite the drug wearing off mid-way through its flight, the tiger proved surprisingly docile, recalls a grateful Nigam. He turned over, stretched, stuck a paw out of the cage and then settled down with his head cradled in his forepaws, untroubled by the roar of the helicopter and the odour of so many humans. Once he was let out of his specially-made cage into the pre-prepared one-hectare enclosure, he did another thing that made Nigam send up a silent prayer of thanks: he "sprinkled"—the scientist's term for a tiger's pee to mark its territory—in the narrow enclosure which will be his home until his nervous caretakers decide it's time to set him free in Sariska.
Paradigm shift: The 3-year-old tiger being moved in a cage
But the suspense is far from over, for both Nigam and his associate from WII, Dr K. Shankar, an expert on collaring big cats in the wild. The first step was to monitor the tiger's movements both through a satellite radio system and by keeping a vigil from a watch tower specially built to overlook its enclosure. The tiger slept, sat, roared and—joy of joys—ate. Its first prey, a deer introduced into the enclosure, was half-consumed by the next day. "Sometimes tigers will kill but not eat the prey if they are traumatised," explains Shankar, listing yet another thing that could have gone wrong in this brave—foolhardy, some would say—experiment in tiger conservation. As a further precaution, Nigam has kept a fully equipped medical van waiting outside his guesthouse, just in case his charge takes ill suddenly. He will then shoot off his dart gun and treat the sleeping animal until it is on its feet again. But the real cause for their concern is that they cannot keep the animal in its present enclosure for too long: the tiger may just get too fond of the luxury of being virtually spoon-fed.
Clearly, it's time to let the tiger go. But with 28 villages within the park's boundaries and residents showing no sign of being willing to shift to alternative sites, the scientists are worrying that once the tiger is let out of its enclosure, he may run off towards the villages and not into the dense jungles where its prey, sambhars and cheetals, have multiplied abundantly in the last four predator-free years. Nigam is prepared for this eventuality as well, coaching his soon-to-be successor on how to remove a frightened tiger from within a villager's home. Bringing a female along may have helped, the scientists concede. In fact, the original plan was to bring the tiger and tigress together to Sariska, and a likely mate had already been collared for the move. But what with all the uncertainty about the iaf helicopter, whether it could take off and land in the scheduled time, the tigress gave its captors the slip. It simply vanished when the WII team went out with their dart guns, forcing them to plan for another air trip.
It's not as if these concerns are new. Some experts, like Ullas Karanth, had already warned of the danger of relocating animals which end up in enclosures instead of roaming freely in the wild. "If the relocated animals are meant to sit in enclosures for a few years as it happened with rhinos in Dudhwa, where was the urgency to take the tiger to Sariska before it was ready for relocation?" he wonders. "Why do you need a tiger in a cage to conserve them?"
Sudden view: Traffic in Sariska may constitute a threat to tigers
Another well-known tiger expert, Raghu Chundawat, voiced similar doubts. When the relocation project was first suggested some three years ago, Chundawat says he strongly supported it. "It's the only way to prevent tigers from disappearing from 80 per cent of their habitat. " His problem is not with the plan so much as its execution. In their shoes, Chundawat says, he would have used a different approach: increased the enclosure from one hectare to 100-200 hectares; kept the animal confined to this wider enclosure for a longer time; and certainly not done it during the monsoons, when it is much harder to drive the tiger back into its enclosure.
If the goal is to establish a viable population of 50-100 tigers, Karanth points out, then Sariska is not the right place for this translocation because it would require 1,000 sq km of forest free of humans. It's a goal even the most optimistic official in Sariska says is impossible to achieve. Even relocating the 11 villages in the core area seems a distant dream, despite the Rs 19 crore the Centre has just coughed up for the rehabilitation of the villagers. "They drive a hard bargain," admits R.S. Somshekhar, director of Project Tiger in Sariska, who has worked tirelessly for the last two years to move out just one village, Bagani, from the core area.
"It's all one-upmanship," says Karanth. "The pressure to airlift tigers to Sariska is for political reasons and not for purely conservation purposes. Why spend a so much money on reintroducing tigers into Sariska when you can invest where there are more viable tiger populations, like in the Western Ghats, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and the Terai."
Many disagree with Karanth, arguing that if Sariska's daring experiment succeeds, we can not only save the Aravali tiger gene pool from disappearing forever, but save the tiger's much-fragmented habitat as well. "We owe it to tigers to give them back Sariska, which is a prime habitat for predators," says conservationist Belinda Wright. There couldn't be a better time than now, according to Wright. "The time is right, the team is ready and the government is willing." And so what if the venture is fraught with risks? "Any path-breaking venture has risks," says Wright, "and the only thing to do is to minimise the risks."
Chundawat agrees: "Anything can happen. It's like when you go in for a surgery, the doctor makes you sign an agreement that you are willing to take the risks involved." So is this brand-new emigre to Sariska, with his own expense account of Rs 1.5 crore, satellite monitoring, room service and a security staff of over 450 men, really nothing more than the proverbial sacrificial goat? As Somshekhar puts it, with all the dispassion of a true scientist: "If we didn't bring it here, it may have got killed anyway by straying out of the Ranthambhore reserve. There's a population explosion there, and accidents will happen." On the other hand, if something were to happen to the Nameless One—project officials are afraid to name the tiger for security reasons—at least a few score necks would be on the line, not to speak of the egg on the face.