Trouble in paradise

This is the story that got me into trouble…….

Is India’s best-protected tiger reserve now under threat? Prerna SinghBindra travels to Corbett, and finds a likely trail of poaching and obfuscation

He is a massive tusker, his bulk almost hidden in the tall, scorched grasses that he is feeding on, carefully plucking the soft stalkswhich he thrashes wildly with his trunk to clean it of the mud. He is close, uncomfortably so, but even as I feel his beady stare on me, I get the strange impression that the elephant’s senses are attuned elsewhere, and I softly whisper to the driver to move on. Balamda rolls the jeep forward, silently, just a few feet ahead, when again,inexplicably, I sense an intangible change in the air. My hair stands on end, and the heart beats faster … or does it go still? I look back, instinctively, to catch a glimpse of a tiger glide across the path just behind us, into the bushes.The tiger had been there all the time as we stood with our attention focused on the tusker, watching us. He was waiting for us to give himpassage, so he could move on. Yet another incredible moment at Corbett Tiger Reserve: sighting two of India’s rarest creatures, the Royal Bengal tiger and the Asiatic elephant, in their haven.But is Corbett really a safe haven?I am treading on sensitive territory here, probing into matters that,I am warned, are best left unsaid. For, Corbett is India’s best tiger reserve, isn’t it? Every indication says so. Tiger sightings have increased: there are at least three tigresses regularly seen with cubs in the tourism zone. The recently concluded census by the Wildlife Institute of India records an increase in tiger numbers – there are currently 164 tigers in Corbett as compared to 132 in the Reserve in2002.Then why is Corbett a park on edge? I wouldn’t go so far as to say
that there is a crisis, but the fact is, there are enough indications to show that there is trouble in paradise. Though its deterioration began much earlier, the fact that things are not quite right in the Reserve was brought into sharp focus on March 10 when the body of atigress was recovered from Compartment 10 in Corbett’s Jhirna range.As a norm, it is mandatory in the case of the mortality/death of anytiger (or any other Schedule I species for that matter) to do athorough, step-by-step post-mortem to arrive at the cause. But in this case, the tigress’ body was hastily burnt and disposed off. For, the dead tell tales. Subsequent inquiries were made, which revealed the possibility of foul play.The body of the tigress, it is suspected, was disposed off in a hurryto cover up the fact that it had been poached. The post-mortem reportsays a “step-wise post-mortem could not be conducted and the cause ofdeath could not be ascertained as all tissues and organs were completely putrefied”. But, according to the same report, the dead body was just three days old. How, wonders one source, “could body parts liquefy in such a short period in moderate temperatures?”Why the body was disposed off in a hurry is evident from a photograph of the dead tigress. Not only was the body in a good enough conditionto allow for a post-mortem, but there were wounds on its neck and flanks. Eyewitnesses I spoke to, but who do not want to be named, saythat the wound on the neck was very deep, indicating that a trap could have strangled the tigress. Now, we will never know for sure. It maybe pertinent to note here that the body of the tigress was found inthe same area where a series of elephant poachings took place in2000-2001.This case caused enough of an alarm for the Chief Wildlife Warden,
Shrikant Chandola, to demand an explanation from the Corbett TigerReserve director Rajiv Bhartari. The note, dated April 11, 2008,available with the Sunday Pioneer, demands an explanation for the director’s failure to give a satisfactory reply to the questions raised by the Chief Wildlife Warden’s office regarding the death of the aforementioned tigress. The letter also says that the director hasnot been able to explain the laxity regarding the post-mortem of this tigress, as had been requested repeatedly. However, speaking to SundayPioneer, the director maintained that the body was putrefied, and the photograph, misleading.Sadly, this is not the only incident of a suspected cover up. There isanother curious case of a tigress which was camera trapped in Corbettby the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India during the census,with a deep wound on her neck caused, it was concluded, by a snare.The tigress survived for a little over two months, then disappeared.It was suspected that the wound must have festered, and ultimately caused her death. Later, a tigress was found dead in Dhela range inthe Reserve on September 22 last year. Then too, the post-mortem report explained that the body was too putrefied to arrive at adefinite conclusion, and listed the cause of death as natural.However, a letter accompanying the report pointed out that this was believed to be the same tigress with the wound on its neck. In thatcase, how could its death be dismissed as natural?A tusker killed in January 2008 in Kalagarh range is also suspected to be killed by poachers, since its tusks were removed when the body wasdiscovered. However, the post-mortem report said that the elephant died “due to falling off a cliff”. And the tusks, said the park authorities, were taken away by villagers “since the elephant was
dead”.Even if one were to give these cases the benefit of doubt, they raise enough questions to serve as a warning.So what has gone wrong in Corbett? The truth is that protectionsystems have weakened, and poachers have infiltrated into what isamong India’s best-protected reserves, with among the highest tiger densities in the country at 19 per 100 sq km. That the situation hasbeen worrying since the past two years is evident from a letter from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to the park director stating that a “mortality of as many as 15 tigers and 16 elephants have been reported owing to various causes from Corbett Tiger Reserve and its surrounding areas since 2006.” Some mortalities are obviously due to natural causes but a few, vouch highly placed sources, are dueto suspected poaching while their deaths have been passed off asnatural.This letter, dated March 21, 2008, by Dr Rajesh Gopal, member secretary, NCTA, expresses serious concern about the protection of tigers in Corbett. It states that “the chowki level monitoring of wildanimals in the prescribed format [all tiger reserves are divided intobeats that are required to keep records of wildlife – particularly tiger – sightings, signs etc] has not been followed till date despiteadvisories and observations made during field visits. Likewise, the monthly monitoring report of field evidence [relating to tigers] hasalso not been received since 2006.” The letter warns that in the”absence of ongoing monitoring protocol in a standardised manner, itwould be impossible to forecast and keep track of untoward happenings in the area targeted by poachers.”That poachers are already active is hinted in the letter that saysthat there have been seizures of animal body parts in areas
surrounding Corbett. For instance, a raid on March 2 in Kalagarh yielded tiger canines and claws, 500 gm of ivory, and antlers. I spoketo a source who was present in a subsequent raid – a failed one. Adeal had been struck for 25 kg of ivory on March 14. The ‘buyer’, an undercover agent, had seen the “maal” – about four pieces of ivory,collectively weighing nearly 25 kilos. But when they – forest officersand guards along with members of a Delhi-based NGO – went to ‘buy’ theivory in a village that borders the Reserve a little past midnight,the attempt fell through. The traders sensed foul play, and the gamewas up. The undercover agent from the NGO was beaten up and the three traders ran away, even though there were nearly a dozen forest guardsand officers present.Then, on March 19, in Barhapur that adjoins the Reserve, a leopardskin was seized. All of the body parts and derivatives were sourced from Corbett. Officers and NGO personnel, who have been gathering intelligence information, reveal that there is at least one quintal of ivory available around Corbett and Rajaji National Park today. Bothtiger and leopard skins are available for the asking – though obtaining the latter is easier than procuring tiger skins because of the stakes involved.Worse, officials admit that seizures represent just about five percent of the actual trade, and that the mortality figures are not reflective of the actual numbers either, for some get a quiet burial in a bid to avoid controversy. Both these facts hold true for all overIndia.The problem with Corbett is that the southern side is porous with densely populated villages, as is the Bijrani range, which is adjacent to Lal Dhang and Sawaldeh, villages whose members have previously beenknown to be involved in tiger poaching. How vulnerable the tiger is in
Corbett was brought to light on April 29 after the arrest of a poacher, Dariya, in the Bijrani range, in the heart of the Reserve.During subsequent interrogation the poacher admitted that he was inthe Reserve to kill a tiger. He confessed that he was dealing with Sansar Chand, India’s most notorious wildlife criminal. Dariya said that since Chand is currently in jail, he was dealing with one of Chand’s men, Narayan who stayed in Delhi’s Kishangadh. Investigations also showed that local Gujjars were involved in this particular case.Incidentally, the Gujjars are ‘settled’ in the Reserve, less than 10km from Dhikala.It is clear that Corbett – like most tiger reserves and sanctuaries inIndia – is open is to loot. Considered the jewel of tiger reserves,Corbett is now privately ranked as “most vulnerable”. The very fact that Corbett has a good population of tigers, combined with gaps inprotection, makes the Reserve insecure. Protection has slipped from being a priority, a fact pointed out in a note by the Chief WildlifeWarden of the State to the Corbett director. “Tiger protection doesnot have top priority nor is a plan for it being prepared. Protectionchowkis have not maintained registers monitoring tigers, [nor is there] any move towards rehabilitation of Gujjars from the Reserve -in spite of repeated reminders,” says the letter.”All of which,” the letter goes on to observe, “is a reflection of thenegligence of the park management towards tiger protection.”Equally important is protection, and active management, of the bufferzone of the Reserve, where tiger mortalities tend to be more.Both the letters point out that tourism in the Reserve is getting disproportionate attention, taking the focus away from protection – so much so that there is now a move to appoint a separate officer for
tourism. The spend on tourism has crossed Rs 3 crore in the past three years – the highest ever, and more than any other park in the country,according to a source. That tourism is high on priority is evident from the fact that most rest houses – 19 in all – have been spruced upand additional rooms built in the last three years. There has been a long standing proposal to remove – or at the very least, scale down -the tourism facilities at Dhikala Chaud, the main tourism hub and a grassland much favoured by ungulates, elephants and tigers, but thecomplex is only growing and today resembles a small township. This kind of spend needs a re-look – especially when the situation issuch that rangers in the park complain that their fuel bills forpatrolling have not been paid for nearly two years, and that some daily wagers have not been paid for six months. I spoke to Rajiv Bhartari about the problems in Corbett. He denied that protection standards had slipped – the fact that there are seizures, he maintained, was by itself an indication that his force is alert. He said his staff had showed exceptional courage in nabbing Dariya, seizing a live wire used for electrocuting animals and in recovering over 50 traps in Amangarh, bordering the Reserve. Tourismis part of management too, he said, and besides, it had benefited the community with local youth finding employment. What needed attention,he believed, was the increasing tourism pressure and infrastructure outside the Reserve – there are currently over 50 resorts outside the park, and over 50 in the pipeline. “We are doing our best within the resources,” said Bhartri. One big problem is that 40 per cent of forest staff posts are vacant inCorbett: against a sanctioned strength of 334 posts, the staff strength is only 192, though there is additional help from specially-assigned staff that was employed following the elephant
killings in 2000-2001, and now, the Tiger Protection Force. Bhartari added that they have also recently changed their protection strategyto a three-tiered one that involves forest guards patrolling insidethe Reserve, a special force of ex-servicemen concentrating on theperiphery, and the support and cooperation of the police and the district collectorate for the protection of the park. They are determined, said the director, to ensure that there will beno threat to the tigers of Corbett. I hope so. Fervently. There is little doubt that Corbett’s protection needs to be strengthened, now, before it is too late. The very factthat tigers and tuskers flourish here makes Corbett vulnerable,turning it into a target for poachers. Poachers have invaded this sanctuary before, when elephants were slaughtered in the core zone in2000-2001, and they are now active once again. Even during my recent visit, it was suspected that there was movement of poachers inside. It was in Corbett that Project Tiger was launched in 1973 – giving hope to a magnificent but dying species. Corbett is a treasure unsurpassed, it holds nearly a tenth of our wild tiger population, and certainly it is here that the tiger will thrive. It is also a vital gene pool for the Asiatic elephant, and other rare wild species. Whichis why Corbett, and the forests that surround it, must get the best protection possible. There is simply no other way.Cutting through Corbett

OTHER THREATS

Apart from poaching, there are other equally vital issues that plagueCorbett. Jhirna, at the southern side of the park, was historically avery disturbed area with three villages inside. Other denselypopulated villages also border it, and their cattle graze inside thepark, degrading the habitat. Killing for game, and commercially, was fairly common here. Then, a
massive effort saw two villages being shifted, while shifting thethird village has been almost completed. The forest got a chance to rejuvenate. With pressure from grazing, and other anthropologicalpressure removed, grasses grew, the ungulate populations increased,and their predators, tigers, followed. Elephants have become a commonsight as well.However, there is trouble again. Not only is poaching back, but aforest road was cemented through the national park against a SupremeCourt order at a cost of crores of rupees. The road has become a thoroughfare between Kalagarh and Ramnagar, and traffic is constantly increasing, affecting the wildlife of crucial ranges like Jhirna,Kotirau and Dhara. Additionally, the Kalagarh irrigation colony that takes up about 5 sq km of the park is yet to be vacated despite aSupreme Court order passed over a year ago. Equally important is the need to create a ‘Greater Corbett’ landscape that encapsulates Landsowne, Haldwani, Ramnagar and Terai east andwest, which will also provide connectivity with Rajaji, essential forlong-term genetic viability.

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