The tragedy of Sariska, aMy beautiful picturend the Panna debacle—the local extinction of tigers caused largely by a breakdown of protection systems, an apathetic government and mostly, the cancer of denial shocked the country. It stirred our conscience and galvanised society and the government to take action. The Prime Minister set up a Tiger Task Force and both states-backed by the centre– made tremendous efforts in trying to revive the parks—even if accountability is yet to be fixed. The efforts have paid off. Yet, even as we struggle to shed the shame of Sariska and Panna, history is repeating itself in another tiger reserve––Satkosia in Orissa, where the tiger may be locally extinct, or at best, close to it. Worse, rather than make efforts to revive this tigerland, the state seems intent to write the reserve and its tigers off.

I remember my first visit to Satkosia in 2007,  a few months before the sanctuary was notified as a tiger reserve. It was a reserve with low tiger density even then, still, my visit there yielded pugmarks of a tigress—and her young, I encountered elephants, and fair herds of chital, sambar, and many a wild boar. The staff were buoyant, vigilant–and protective about their tigers. My next visit was in 2010, and I was shocked to see the change… none of it good. Protection was perceptibly weaker, motivation sagging—and the tigers? Not one pugmark…

The 2010-11 report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) appointed Management Effectiveness Evaluation team—of which I was part, had warned of the precarious status of the reserve and the tiger even then, pointing out that the reserve suffered from “poor protection, little wildlife orientation, no monitoring and suffering from neglect and apathy.”

The warnings were not heeded—and not unexpectedly, the situation in Satkosia deepened into a crisis. In March this year, state conservationists reported that “virtually no signs of tiger breeding had been witnessed in over three years in the reserve.” Said Bhubneswar based conservationist Aditya Panda, who is associated with Satkosia, , “The reserve has not recorded any tiger breeding in at least three years. It appears that the relict tiger population of the reserve is crashing because of a skewed sex ratio, with no breeding tigress surviving. Prime areas like Labangi, Raigoda, Tulka, Puranakote, etc. which earlier used to report frequent signs of tigers, are reporting scant, or nearly nil signs of tiger presence.”

The state media took up the issue, and the park management fumbled, conceding to the near extinction of tigers. Acting on the reports, the NTCA sent an appraisal team, but its report is yet awaited—even as the crisis in Satkosia deepens.

It gets worse, even as this tragedy played out in the reserve, a young male tiger was found to be roaming in the vicinity of Bhubaneswar. The tiger is remarkable—in spite of wandering in dense human dominated landscapes for over seven months, he evaded any conflict with humans with only a single instance of cattle killing, that too within the Chandaka sanctuary which abuts the city.  Yet, the tiger was captured and locked up in the zoo.  Desperate to escape, he scaled the 18-foot high chain-link fence of his enclosure, only to be caught again a month later, this time confined–and languishing– in a more ‘secure’ cage.

The tiger is believed to be originating from Satkosia, having  roughly followed the course of the Mahanadi River, a fact corroborated by the visiting experts from Wildlife Institute of India and NTCA. They advised that Satkosia had good quality habitat and sufficient prey base to act as a suitable release site for the tiger.

But Satkosia does not want its tiger. And the state prefers the tiger in the zoo to rejuvenate its gene pool of inbred captive tigers—rather than revive and secure Satkosia.

Evading responsibility, the Regional Chief Conservator of Forests, Angul, who holds additional charge as field director Satkosia, Pandav Behera, wrote to the Chief Wildlife Warden in a letter dated 25th November 2013 asking for the tiger to be released elsewhere, in “absence of manpower and other such infrastructure.” He also confessed to the near-extinction of tigers writing that, “tiger pugmarks in the reserve were becoming difficult to obtain” and that a “tiger scat collection exercise in the reserve had drawn a ‘nil’.”

Even as I write this, news comes in that under pressure not to cage the wild tiger, that the state intends to release the tiger in Similipal. Why? When, Similipal  has its own stable, breeding tiger population, and reintroducing this  tiger will most likely end up tinkering with the existing social structure of the local tiger population, which could prove disastrous. And why not Satkosia, where such an effort is crucial? Shouldn’t Orissa work on making Satkosia secure, for its tigers?  Or is there another motive altogether in its refusal to do so, given that the state now proposes to de-notify over 159 sq km from Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary which forms a majority of the tiger reserve.

Is Orissa dismantling its tiger reserve?

Satkosia cannot be written off.  The state must shed its apathy, and commit to conserve, and secure Satkosia. The first step toward its commitment is welcoming its tiger back—with all that it entails. Six years into its inception, the reserve is still to have a dedicated field director, and one must be appointed on priority. Villages within the core area must be relocated.  Most villages within the core are desperate to move out—for instance, Raigoda, which occupies prime tiger real estate—has been petitioning for relocation for over a decade. The people here are in desperate situation—no access to basic facilities, no means of livelihood—they have virtually given up agriculture because their crop is continually  raided by elephants, wild pig and deer. Augmenting staff,  their training and capacity building plus wildlife orientation should be taken up. special efforts must be taken to strengthen protection so as to augment prey abundance, which has possibly taken a hit due to hunting in the past.

Reviving Satkosia is critical for the tiger’s future in Orissa.  Satkosia is connected, through  stepping stone corridors with the Similipal Tiger Reserve.It forms a crucial ‘bookend’ of a massive 13,500 sq km tiger landscape that spans the heart of Orissa. This landscape comprises many forests––Kandhamal, Kalahandi, Ghumsar––once legendary for their tigers. Today, while the forests still stand with their impressive sal it is feared they could soon be ‘empty forests’. The revival of tigers in Satkosia is vital to sustain a stable, breeding ‘source’ population of tigers that can ‘feed’ these forests.

Pix: Perhaps the last remaining tiger in Satkosia––a male tiger camera trapped near Labangi two years ago.
Credit: Satkosia Wildlife Division

This article was first published in The Pioneer.