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