The Ran­tham­bore and Sariska tiger re­serves see a pre­cip­i­tous fall in their rank­ings

India Today - - STATES - By Ro­hit Par­i­har

Even as In­dia cel­e­brated the in­crease in its na­tional tiger num­bers, wildlife officials in Ra­jasthan were down­beat. The 2018 Man­age­ment Ef­fec­tive­ness Eval­u­a­tion (MEE), an au­dit of In­dia’s tiger re­serves by the Union min­istry for en­vi­ron­ment, forests and cli­mate change, down­graded two of Ra­jasthan’s re­serves— Ran­tham­bore and Sariska—from ‘good’ to ‘fair’. The re­port notes the slow growth of Sariska’s tiger pop­u­la­tion and raises fears that poor man­age­ment and the ab­sence of a long-term plan puts

the re­serve at risk of los­ing its big cats. Ra­jasthan has three tiger re­serves—Ran­tham­bore, Sariska and Mukun­dara Hills—which, to­gether, are home to 69 tigers, up from 45 in 2014.

Em­bar­rassed at the dress­ing down, Ra­jasthan for­est officials have sprung to their de­fence and even of­fered an anal­y­sis of what went wrong. They have iden­ti­fied a 2016 de­ci­sion to start full-day and half-day sa­faris in Ran­tham­bore as big rea­sons for their slide in rank­ing. In­sid­ers say that the former state BJP gov­ern­ment, at the be­hest of tourism lob­bies,

in­tro­duced two pre­mium sa­faris that al­lowed tourists to move freely be­tween Ran­tham­bore’s 10 zones, with­out care for the con­se­quences to the tigers them­selves. The rea­sons are fairly ob­vi­ous—tourists spend heav­ily on sa­faris, some­times as much as Rs 2.5 lakh for a sin­gle 12-hour out­ing—but this kind of high tourist traf­fic and ‘over­ex­ploita­tion’ is not with­out con­se­quences. “Long sa­faris put tigers un­der tremen­dous stress dur­ing their rest­ing hours. As a re­sult, they have been stray­ing [be­yond their usual ter­ri­to­ries] to look for new rest­ing ar­eas,” says Arindam To­mar, ad­di­tional prin­ci­pal chief con­ser­va­tor and chief wildlife war­den of Ra­jasthan. He has or­dered a stop to the full- and half-day sa­faris in Ran­tham­bore’s pop­u­lar zones 1 to 5, though they will con­tinue in the other, less-vis­ited ar­eas. For con­text, reg­u­lar sa­faris are no longer than three hours per zone.

Ra­jasthan is now ranked 15th among 18 states in In­dia that are home to tigers. Over­all, In­dia’s tiger re­serves have been im­prov­ing, with not a sin­gle re­serve earn­ing a ‘poor’ rat­ing in the pre­vi­ous two au­dits. Since 2014, four re­serves have im­proved from ‘good’ to ‘very good’ and six from ‘fair’ to ‘good’; how­ever, four re­serves have dropped in the rat­ings, in­clud­ing Ran­tham­bore and Sariska. The re­port also re­veals that Sariska has a wor­ry­ingly high mor­tal­ity rate for tigers. Cur­rently, there is only one fit male tiger and eight fe­males, a dis­as­trous sit­u­a­tion for fu­ture pop­u­la­tion num­bers. There have also been in­stances of poach­ing in re­cent years. The heavy move­ment of ve­hi­cles and vis­i­tors in Sariska is also a risk fac­tor—as per re­ports, Sariska’s big cats suf­fer from el­e­vated cor­ti­sol lev­els, in­di­cat­ing ex­treme stress, which can also re­sult in low fer­til­ity. Ran­tham­bore also faces a sim­i­lar chal­lenge in con­trol­ling vis­i­tor num­bers.

The MEE re­port also crit­i­cised Ran­tham­bore’s officials for fail­ing to de­velop a grass­land area on lands freed up when 12 vil­lages were va­cated from the re­serve’s core ar­eas some 35 years ago. ‘There is an ap­par­ent lack of sci­en­tific tem­per in the man­age­ment of the re­serve,’ says the re­port, not­ing that ex­cept for the mon­i­tor­ing of tigers, no se­ri­ous ef­fort has been made to carry out re­search or de­velop the re­serve. The re­port also slammed the man­age­ment of both re­serves for their poor rap­port with ru­ral folk liv­ing on the pe­riph­eries of the re­serves, and sin­gled out Sariska for fail­ing to de­velop a plan to evacuate the vil­lages still in­side the re­serve’s core ar­eas. V.P. Singh Bad­nore, the gov­er­nor of Pun­jab, who was at the fore­front of the re­lo­ca­tion of tigers to Sariska, has called for ur­gent at­ten­tion to save the floun­der­ing tiger re­serve.

The MEE re­port is an ur­gent wake-up call for the man­agers of Ra­jasthan’s tiger re­serves, who need to quickly for­mu­late a plan for both tigers and tourists. No doubt this would also serve their own long-term in­ter­ests, be­sides en­sur­ing the health of the re­serves they man­age.

THE NEXT GEN­ER­A­TION Tiger cubs at the Ran­tham­bore re­serve


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