Friday, March 19, 2010

God Save Bandipur's vulnerable tigers

It is heartening that the Indian government has willed itself to set up a new department for wildlife conservation under the Ministry for Environment and Forests to ensure regular flow of funds for wildlife protection.

The proposed department is to have its have a secretary and a separate budget. This has been done to relocate forest settlers from the core areas of tiger reserves. Great news!!

If the decision of the National Board for Wildlife, chaired by prime minister Manmohan Singh is to be translated into action, the government ought to do more than just dole out funds to states which have a viable/ vulnerable tiger populations. It has to act tough, even wrap the non-performing tiger states on its knuckles to get the results.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) was created at the behest of the prime minister to save the critically endangered tiger from possible extinction in India's tiger reserves. But NTCA, despite drawing a techinal document to form guidelines for preparation of a tiger conservation plan, has been a mute, rather toothless, spectator to all the gory, heinous happenings in the 38 reserves that have been earmarked for the protection of India's flagship species.

If Dr Rajesh Gopal, member secretary, NTCA is vexed, there is reason. Not more than twelve tiger reserves have been following NTCA's guidelines. There has been utter disregard for the authority, with each tiger state having its own set of rules, problems relating to acute shortage of funds and field staff, rising man-animal conflicts, shrinking habitats...

Let's have a look at NTCAs "Approach to Tiger Conservation Planning'. It lists out seven points in consolidating and strengthening fo source populations of tiger in tiger reserves and protected areas:

1. Protection, anti-poaching activities and networking
2. Strengthening of infrastructure within tiger reserves
3. Habitat improvement, including water development
4. Rehabilitation package for traditional hunting tribes living around tiger reserves
5. Staff development and capacity building
6. Delineating inviolate spaces for wildlife and relocation of villagers from crucial habitats in tiger reserves within a time frame (five years) and settlement of rights
7. Safeguarding tiger habitats from ecologically unsustainable development.

Wow! That is promising, right? But in reality, though the guidelines were issued in 2007, tiger states are far from achieving at least three of these crucial tasks.

Let's take the porous, open-to-poachers Bandipur National Park for a case study. The 992 sqkm park, according to Wildlife Institute of India's (WII)figures, is home to approximately 80 tigers. Already, 15 tigers have succumbed to territorial fights and poaching over the last 12 months. If the present situation (lack of protection) is to be prudently assessed, it won't be long before Bandipur goes the Sariska and Panna way. Both these reserves lost all its tigers to poaching for obvious reasons. cing.

The ground reality in Bandipur national park: There is an acute 54 per cent shortage of front line staff. Of the 46 per cent on roles, 16 per cent fall in the "petty cash payment" temporary staff category. Most of those engaged in protection work are emancipated, bone weary and disillusioned.

It is fortunate that the temporary staff are now getting their pay in time (unlike when they would get their pay once in four or five months after much goading and remonstration). But without an off day to rest and share their life with their families, they are not even performing at 35 per cent of their ability.

So, what is the NTCA talking about "staff development and capacity building" and "protection, anti-poaching activities and networking." Apparently, these guidelines are Greek and Latin to the Karnataka government, which has done precious little to protect its endangered tigers, established to be 290 at the last count. The Karnataka forest minister we are told has no clue about what the "Save the tiger" clamour is all about. His inaction reflects that he doesn't care.

Forget the forest minister. Let's ask what the IFS-heavy Karnataka Forest Department is doing to protect wildlife and motivate its foot soldiers, who are the eyes, ears and nose of the forest. Without the watchers, trackers and guards our wildlife denizens would disappear, even before you utter "Swami Nityananda Namaha". Very few officers feel for the underpaid, overworked, stressed staff. Very few have a likening for wildlife. Some seem to have stumbled into the department for want of a decorated, cushy 10 to five job. So it seems.

Taken the argument further, it could be said that only a couple of range forest officers are doing or like doing what they have assigned to do. Bandipur, which borders the forests of Kerala (Waynaad wildlife sanctuary) and Tamil Nadu Mudumalai Tiger Resrve), is divided into 12 vast ranges.

We should glad even if three rangers are functioning. It is alleged that they had paid politicians to get themselves posted in places of their choice. Obviously, they have to recover their investment! Obviously, they have chores other than patrolling and protection to do!

Forget the lackadaisical attitude of the Karnataka government, the ineptitude of the decision-making IFS cadre and the slumbering rangers, the critical post of the Field Director Project Tiger (FDPT) can itself be questioned when it is not given to the right personnel. How can we expect a Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) who has no wildlife back ground to perform, protect tigers. It has been the fancy of the Karnataka government to appoint any Tom, Dick and Harry as FDPT, without a care in the world about the future of the vulnerable tiger.

We are told that the relocation of villages from critical tiger habitats have suffered a setback because of the frequent transfer of officers in Bandipur and Nagarhole national parks. The centre had set a five-year time frame to delineate inviolate spaces for wildlife and relocation of villages. But it could take an eternity before this can be achieved. Where are we heading?

To cut the long story short, the Centre, which frets over tiger death, and the NTCA, which is powerless as it is toothless, could do well to reprimand the tiger states if they don't follow the Tiger Conservation Plan. Unless, this is done, there is no point having high-level meetings and setting up new departments for wildlife protection.

Wish our Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh does something about the hapless situation in Bandipur before it goes the Sariska and Panna way.

Should we say, God save out dwindling tigers.

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