I did this Sariska relocation story for Tehelka, but I was constrained by words, so I am now posting an addition. Have put in a few points in between.

i also should have mentiond-dont know how it escaped me-the owner of the oldest hotel in Sariska-he told me that ‘it was good the tiger went. It has helped expand our business to conferences and off site-potherwise we just depended on the tiger.”


It was a momentous, indeed a historic occasion when the IAF helicopter carrying its precious, if unusual, cargo landed amidst the lush green forests-in the Valley of Death…and renewed Hope. However, the euphoria and hype that surrounded the return of the Royal Bengal Tiger to Sariska Tiger Reserve, after a gap of five odd years-after it had been ruthlessly emptied by poachers, was tinged with apprehension.

Would the rehabilitation, the first of its kind in the world, be successful? Will the tigers survive, and breed, and repopulate Sariska as is anticipated, and hoped? I wrote the story the day the male had been translocated-June 28, a female (she was picked up from Lakarda, in the heart of the Ranthambhore reserve) was flown in on July 4.

The translocation itself had gone as well as expected, but that is just the beginning—and if I may say so-perhaps the easier part of the exercise. I am not undermining the endless hours of work put in by the scientists, the forest officers and others concerned-indeed it is their resilience and determination which made this part of the operation a success. There is little doubt that India has the scientific expertise, knowledge and the capability required for the exercise.

But is Sariska ready to receive the tigers?

Think about it: We have air-lifted a Royal Bengal Tiger-and I need not remind you yet again, how so few remain, and oh-so-precariously—from a wild area, to rehabilitate it into another. It’s the first time in the world that such a crucial operation has been done, and the eyes of the world are upon us. I am not overly worried about ‘the eyes of the world’, it is-or should be in Utopia- within us to understand the responsibility of the task. But, do we? For one, was it the very grandeur, the idea of being “the first”, that pushed this operation post-haste, without ensuring that the tiger would have the best possible chance of survival, and protection?

Why this sudden flurry then to shift the tigers? We know that there was political pressure from the chief minister’s office. Sariska was a tremendous loss of face, and the tiger had to make its grand comeback before the elections. A very senior official was retiring too, which is why the concerned team was told that ‘the first tiger must reach before June 30. Which he did.

So what that most, if not all of the commitments which the Rajasthan government had made-the preconditions for the establishment of the tiger have not been fulfilled?

The crucial factor that led to poaching was the lack of protection, monitoring and apathy. The good news is that protection has improved considerably under new and able management—given the limitations. Herein lies the crux—most of the staff responsible for negligence that led to poaching of all its tigers, and no less than 15-20 leopards, has not been held accountable or removed, merely shuffled around. Moreover, Sariska still suffers from a staff shortage of over 30 per cent, and a senior officer admitted that “atleast 40 per cent of the current staff is useless, ineffectual, unmotivated-and better removed. The ex-paramilitary personnel that have been deployed as an emergency measure are of little help, lacking the commitment required for the task”.

If the state government-right from Chief Minister downwards-was so serious why wasn’t the embargo on recruitment lifted, and new staff inducted and trained to provide the best possible protection to the tigers?

I talked to a few villagers, and the hostility was apparent, and disheartening. A villager told me, “le to aave hai, zinda keve raakhenge, kaun raine dego? They have brought him, but how will they keep him alive, who will let him? I did not (and still am hesitant) have the heart to write this in print, but that doesn’t the truth-however unpleasant-go away—tat here is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently.

We cannot forget that it was with the connivance of villagers that Sariska tigers were poached-and we cannot afford their hostility now.

The forest department says it has done a survey which said that over 90 per cent of villagers want the tiger back—maybe they do, but it is pretty much clear that they are not willing to make any sacrifices

Most of the preconditions on which rested the centre’s approval for the tiger reintroduction programme have been not been met. Top amongst these was the relocation of four of the 28 villages within the reserve. Only one, Baghani, the least populated, hence with the minimum footprint has been rehabilitated. Officers assure that other villages Umri, Kankwari, Karaska are agreeable to relocate-but there are rumbles of disagreement, primarily on the alternate land allotted.

Another rider that called for banning of heavy vehicles on SH 13 connecting Jaipur-Alwar, had people on the roads agitating against the ban on June 26. “The ban will affect 109 villages, and dent their livelihood,” claims Mahendra Sharma, the lawyer representing Road Bachao Sangharsh Samiti. The villagers are in no mood to compromise, and are unwilling to use the diversion road that adds an extra 14 km. Banwarilalji, the sarpanch of Jhodawas village agrees, adding that neither can the public digest regulation to pilgrim traffic to Pandupol. The road to this ancient Hanuman temple cuts right through the core of the park and become a busy, noisy throughfare every Tuesday and Saturday when the entry to the temple is free. Collectively, both roads account for no less than 2,500 vehicles daily. The public sentiment is that the tiger is very welcome, but minus the sacrifice it calls for. The underlying threat is apparent-that the tiger’s return must not be linked to the road or the temple-else there could be trouble, creating a fear that the tiger has entered hostile terrain.

And even if the CM was keen to get the tigers to Sariska, it is doubtful that the state will stick to its commitment to regulate vehicular traffic on the roads, or meddle with ‘religious sentiments’ with elections around the corner.

No conservation plan can be a success unless it has the support of local people. While Ranthambhore has its share of problems-and poaching is a serious threat, the tiger enjoys support since the livelihood of a section of the locals rests on the tiger-whether as guides, employment in resorts, petty business etc. Ranthambhore has a thriving ‘tiger economy’, while in Sariska, the tiger is viewed as a hindrance by a section of the population—including the strong mining lobby. Marble and dolomite mines surround the reserve, many operate illegally, and it is a well-known fact that the mining lobby hoped that the barren reserve would be thrown open for mining. Which is one of the reasons that the forest department-both the state and centre—were keen to get the tiger back in Sariska-it was the only way to keep the powerful, well-connected mining lobby from eating into the reserve. The tiger will save Sariska.

But we must save the tiger, too.

There are other issues-how long are the tigers going to remain in captivity? The first one has been in the enclosure for over a week-and feeding on goats. Is that wise? Or will a tiger that gets used to the easy feast of livestock gravitate towards the same? With so much livestock—there is pressure on the park of over three lakh cattle—it will be easy for the tiger, but only serve to throw him into conflict with man.

The concerned officers are vague on the date when tigers will be released in the wild. I can understand their misgivings. Officers voiced their fear about the ‘homing instinct’ of the tiger. That when released, the relocated tiger might make a desperate attempt to return to his earlier home in Ranthambhore.” If so, it would be asking for trouble-come into conflict with people, and pen itself to other threats.

But there is a greater dread: What if the tiger walks into the wild, and into a death trap, as before? How secure is its new home?

There are no easy answers to any of the questions. Am I against the tiger being relocated to Sariska? No. We all want the tiger to roar in Sariska, forever, but the exercise has to rise beyond such petty concerns and party politics, and must be the collective commitment of all concerned. Commitment, not just to get the tiger, but all efforts to protect and conserve. It cannot just be the task of the park officials and staff, the WII, the NTCA etc., Unless there is political backing to enable them to do their task-the forest staff is rendered weak. Harsh measures need to be taken, too-both at the department level and the political level.

I have been told repeatedly, that “if these tigers had remained in Ranthambhore, they would have been poached anyway.” To clarify succinctly -Ranthambhore has more tigers than its small area can hold—and the spillover population strays into villages (or even in Keladevi and Sawai Man Singh sanctuaries) where protection is weak or non-existent and the tiger is either poached or poisoned. A former DFO of the reserve had said that any tiger that walks out of Ranthambhore, “walks into a death trap.” Why don’t we secure the areas we have declared as tiger reserves?

Why didn’t we atleast fulfill the conditions required for the safety of the tigers before we shifted them to Sariska? Because all these are difficult exercises-long-term, requiring patience, strong political will, tough decisions. Decisions that could be politically suicidal, or in case of officers, put you into the back-burner. But needs to be done nonetheless. The Rajasthan government-and on them ultimately rests the onus of protection-has made the commitment, and we can only hope that they will stand by it.

Relocation is inherently fraught with risk, and has to be given every chance to succeed. While the relocation itself was smooth, thanks to the efforts of all concerned agencies, it marks the beginning of the reestablishment.

The real test starts now-will we honour our commitment to the tiger? Do we have it in us to protect the tiger, above all, in Sariska, is a question that remains unanswered.

On the new arrivals of Sariska rest my prayers, and hope.