Recently, the Thanagazi fort near the Sariska Tiger Reserve went under the hammer and was bought by Ramesh Meena, a property dealer, for 7 crores. Though, in today’s world of frequent and stupendous acquisitions (EPL with Abrahmovich and Co.), the event may not stand out as anything out of the ordinary, especially for those not too interested in the history of Kachwaha Rajputs or Rajasthan Tourism, it was another link in the chain of events that could influence an oft-highlighted element of the Alwar region, the wildlife. Only a week earlier, Sansar Chand, the notorious poacher, had been let off, for technical reasons, from facing charges under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) by a Delhi Court. Incidentally, the said individual hails from Thanagazi as well, and is known for being responsible for poaching around 200 Tigers and being involved in the trade of Tiger skin and body-parts over many years. He has also hunted down endangered animals in a number of states. However, since Chand was the man responsible for wiping out 25 of Sariska’s tigers (probably the last of the Sariska tigers), it will be the fate of the mighty felines that is now tipped towards a more uncertain end, even as poachers continue to plague the national park today.
Tigers are said to have evolved in northern China and other parts of East Asia, before migrating south and ‘invading’ the lion-infested South Asian subcontinent. The correlation between the two species and their coexistence is a matter of debate among a few wildlife enthusiasts, especially since the invading force, the tiger in this case, was the stronger and larger of the two cats, and incidentally displaced the lion as the National Animal as well! Concerns have been lately raised with the plans to move a few Gir lions to the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, which has a tiger population as well. Sariska’s is a very interesting case with regards to tigers. The place is among the last to be inhabited by the tigers in their westward movement over the Indian plains. The entire Sariska – Ranthambore belt is said to have been one large tiger-corridor historically, before being broken up by human settlements and agriculture. This is often seen as a reason for the Ranthambore tigers being close to their Sariska counterparts, with regard to a historically shared gene-pool, and the driving theory in the relocation of the Ranthambore tigers in Sariska after the complete annihilation of the tiger population of Sariska in 2005, as reported famously by Jay Mazoomdaar in The Indian Express. Imagine the amount of environmental and external pressure imposed on the indigenous tiger population to lead to such an extinction, barely a year after the official census put the count at around 16.
Today, Sariska Tiger Reserve is in a sorry state. The last time I went to the Reserve was when the first tigers were being relocated from Ranthambore. Being the closest tiger reserve to Delhi, Sariska was a natural choice for someone who’s crazy about tigers in the wild. And I highlight that to denote the importance of the matter. With 1706 tigers left in the wild, as per the 2011 Census, the emergency bells should be tolling loud and clear. The one image I recall time and again when the subject of the Sariska tiger is raised, unfortunately, is that of the subject of a taxidermist’s experiments: a stuffed tiger in the Alwar State Museum. And it is often seen that in the absence of a being or an event, one often tends to try and reconstruct it using the limited knowledge of its times that one has at one’s disposal. Same was the case here. Having heard that the Sariska Tiger was an inch or two larger than the Ranthambore tigers, I tried picturing the magnificent stripes cutting across the dry, deciduous forest. It was like the times when Calvin finds Hobbes going from the piece of stuffed cloth that he is to being a dynamic, agile living tiger. Having lived in this reverie, the bitter truth was all too apparent, we had lost a precious part of our bio-system. Most importantly, since the tiger is an important part of the food-chain in those parts (that is one of the many reasons for the conservation of Tigers) and the tiger, in itself, is something we will probably never like to consign to a museum, the time’s come for taking definitive action. One needs to look at the various factors affecting the tiger-population.
First among equals is the problem of human settlements near and in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Sariska, unfortunately, has a road cutting across the reserve that goes to a certain temple inside the reserve itself. One also has had various villages dotting the fringes of the reserve, many of which have been successfully relocated. One needs to involve the remaining communities in conserving the animal population by presenting to them models and incentives that will help them in their lives as well. Incidentally, often poachers take the help of the local people for their pursuits by promising money and other benefits to them in return.
Secondly, the whole idea of relocation needs to be analyzed a little. For one, one does not need inbreeding and a limited gene-pool. I am reminded of X-Men here where Colonel Striker aims at building Weapon X by pooling in the characteristics of all X-Men. Similarly, to survive the onslaught of the aforementioned pressures at Sariska and emerge as a strong group of felines, one needs to avoid bringing in tigers restricted to a gene-pool to Sariska. If this were not done, one may face the imminent danger of a catastrophic extinction that the Gir Lion faces today.
Lastly, one needs to enhance the capacity of the authorities at Sariska to tackle problems and to even take down poachers, if needed. For instance, it is suspected that during the monsoon season of 2004, when roads are mostly closed and the park is off-bounds for tourists, the poachers carried out a mass poaching exercise, and the park-authorities, who till 2005 had only five guns, two revolvers, three jeeps and four motorcyles to patrol the entire forest, were arguably unable to do much about it with their limited resources. Even when poachers are caught, legal procedures often lead to their acquittal on technical grounds or for the absence of stricter laws. Though we do have an Anti-Poaching Act it is a ‘toothless act’, according to the media. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 also has its share of problems.
The roar that reverberates through the forests of Sariska today is probably the lament of a larger populace, which is on its last straw. We have to work together to stop the tiger from ending up as only Calvin’s rag-doll (sans its vitality) or in a taxidermist’s prize collection!