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Reprieve for the tiger?

USHA RAI

Protecting the tiger is not going to be easy, but the new director of `Project Tiger' is an optimist.


Nurturing the tiger ... not an easy task.

"PROJECT Tiger" has a new director — young and soft-spoken Rajesh Gopal who was earlier looking after Kanha National Park.

With a doctorate in wildlife management, he now plans to use his expertise and experience in evaluating tiger habitat in the country on a regular, scientific basis. His ambitious plans include ecological auditing using satellite data in the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) domain and preparing a tiger atlas of India. New initiatives include refining the estimation techniques with crosschecks for the tiger, co-predators like the leopard and prey animals. The emphasis would be on area or region-specific refinement and the use of digital photography to capture pugmarks. With poaching on the rise, he plans to use information technology for crime detection too.

Of the 4,000 or so tigers in the country, 60 per cent are outside protected areas, which Dr. Gopal hopes to protect as they are more at risk from poaching and habitat destruction. Quite obviously, the prey base outside protected areas is sufficient. In addition to deer, chital and wild boar, domestic cattle are now an important item on the tiger's menu in several areas. So compensation for cattle killed will be extended to these areas and eco-development and anti-poaching work enhanced in all areas where the presence of tiger and other big cats has been registered.

Reserves in Central India like Kanha and Bandhavgarh have the optimum number of tigers they can accommodate — 114 and 46 respectively. Corbett in North India and Melghat in Maharashtra too have reached the optimum level (138 and 73 respectively) and in the battle for terrain, younger/weaker tigers are being driven out. Dr. Gopal is quite clear that no more tiger reserves will be set up. There are 27 in the country and if they are well looked after, a great job can be done in the conservation of flora and fauna, he says.

A tiger census has already begun, an arduous task. In the last few years there has been a lot of acrimony about the methods used in tiger enumeration. Two years ago the Tiger Conservation Programme of WWF-India came out with a neat, well-documented manual on enumeration using the traditional method of pugmark counting. This manual, circulated to all the parks and tiger reserves, is still the bible for tiger enumeration. It is a simple method, which the forest personnel can execute with a little guidance from their seniors. Photo trapping and other modern methods may be used in site-specific areas to crosscheck and validate information collected. So far, no tiger reserve has expressed interest in using the expensive photo trapping technique.

Before the start of the census operations, Dr. Gopal called for a meeting where experts shared ideas. WWF's Tiger Conservation Programme, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and Ulhas Karanth made presentations. The census operation is extremely difficult in reserves like the Manas National Park (where there is a law and order problem), Namdapha (where the vegetation is so thick that even light does not penetrate through the canopy) and the Sunderbans (where tigers spend a lot of time in the water). The results should be out by the end of April, if not earlier.

With the use of the latest technology, Dr. Gopal is confident of getting a more accurate estimate of the number of tigers. . Dr. Gopal's optimism stems from the big cat's innate ability to recoup from various vicissitudes. The gestation period for tigers is just 90 to 100 days and in a life span of eight to 10 years, a healthy tigress can have three litters. Even if half the litter is poached, there is still a strong base.

In some of the better-monitored parks, tigers and their progeny have been watched and studied over the years. Tiger lovers have watched every stage in their lives. The tigress, Sita, in Badhavgarh, who disappeared mysteriously over a year ago, had three or four litters. Badhi Madha in Kanha was seen for about 12 years and had her share of young ones. Choori, also in Kanha, is about eight years old. In fact about eight or nine tigers can be seen almost every day in Kanha adding to the tiger population of the park as well as its attraction.

In the Tenth Plan, priority is being given to mitigate human/wildlife conflict by settlement of rights, relocation of villages and eco-development. Habitat improvement, control of poaching and research and training are other areas of focus. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has asked for Rs. 227 crores — Rs. 100 crores for development of national parks and sanctuaries, another Rs. 100 crores for "Project Tiger" and Rs. 27 crores for the control of poaching and illegal trade. Financial assistance is needed for deployment of a strike force in all reserves. A well equipped and armed contingent is proposed for every 500 sq.km. In the Tenth Plan 70 strike forces are to be established and 400 anti-poaching camps set up, 50 sq.km. apart. Each camp is to be manned by a staff of six. Even if all the money and support envisioned is given and people living around parks and sanctuaries do their bit for conservation, nurturing the tiger is not going to be an easy task. But Dr. Gopal is an optimist.

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