October 4, 2013 at 6:32 pm #654MikeKeymaster
Amelia Gentleman in Rajasthan, India
Sunday March 27, 2005
Staff at the Sariska Tiger Reserve initially preferred not to
publicise the fact that its tiger population had gone missing. Now
the peculiar disappearance of the tigers is an international scandal.
This weekend, India’s government sent eight detectives from Delhi to
investigate who is to blame for what it being described as the worst
wildlife crisis in post-independence India.
The Prime Minister has launched a public commission to establish what
went wrong and to ensure the catastrophe is not repeated in any other
reserve. Animal protection organisations have expressed their horror.
For centuries, maharajahs and the elite of the British Raj travelled
to Sariska to hunt the tigers. When hunting became unfashionable and
then illegal, the reserve began to attract eco-tourists.
But in recent years the population of this highly endangered species
has dwindled here; in 2003 there were an estimated 25-28, and just 16-
18 in 2004; officials now think there are none. None of the staff has
seen any trace of a tiger for five months – no paw marks or trademark
scratches on trees, no prey carcasses.
The problem echoes a national trend; most experts believe India’s
estimate of 3,000 native tigers is a huge exaggeration. ‘It’s
probably the biggest conservation scandal in modern times,’ said
Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society
Many possible causes have been cited, with local officials, regional
ministers and wildlife experts naming their own scapegoats.
For some, it is purely a question of incompetent management; for
others, it is the local administration, which failed to move the 28
noisy villages inside the 880 square-km reserve or divert a busy road
used daily by thousands of trucks, cars and buses running through its
centre; others blame the central govern ment for inadequate funding.
Park officials suggest optimistically that perhaps the tigers have
temporarily migrated elsewhere or the rain has washed away their
Some newspapers have evoked Sansar Chand – a legendary godfather
figure in India’s taxidermy industry – and claimed that he
orchestrated a mass-scale poisoning of the tigers with the help of
corrupt game wardens.
Braj Mohan Sharma, the park’s deputy field director, denied the
corruption charges and said the problem was largely down to the
small, ageing team of unarmed forest wardens.
‘There’s been no recruitment of frontline staff since 1986 – there’s
haven’t been the funds. The average age of the wardens is over 50;
they have lived an unhealthy life and are not strong enough to catch
the poachers,’ he said at his desk in the park’s head office, a
chaotic, paper-strewn room showing signs of profound administrative
neglect. ‘There are no armed guards – they have about five guns
The flourishing hotel industry on park’s eastern fringes, which
attracts booming tourism numbers, is also a factor, as is the
thriving but primitive marble mining industry, using heavy
explosives. Most implausibly perhaps, the presence of a temple inside
the park, which welcomes thousands of worshippers every week, is
accused of having fatally disturbed the animals.
Amid all this confusion, park officials stress that they await the
results of the police investigation, adding that, until the annual
May animal census, no one can say for certain whether the alarm is
Sariska’s human population, which has always depended on the money
the tiger lures to the region, is starting to grapple with the
uncomfortable question of how it will survive. Everyone, from the
craftsmen who carve tiger statues to tour guides, wildlife experts,
taxi drivers and the suitcase carriers at the local hotels, faces
‘Tigers are not just the magnificent predators which sit atop the
forest food chain,’ said an editorial in the Hindustan Times. ‘They
are also very much part of our global brand, attracting millions of
tourists to the country.’
Most visitors do not realise their quest for a glimpse of the animal
is doomed. ‘No tigers? We had no idea,’ said a group of French
tourists as they climbed into open- backed vehicles for an afternoon
In nearby Alwa, Jitendra Singh, a representative in the Rajasthan
state parliament, was pessimistic: ‘The resort is a lifeline to
thousands. They live a hand-to-mouth existence and don’t have
anything else. This is going to affect a whole line of people, from
the hotel owners to the chai-wallahs at the cafes.’
Singh’s royal forefathers built the lodge on the edge of the park,
now the Sariska Palace hotel, and his home is full of dusty, stuffed
tigers killed by long-dead relatives. He believes there has been
severe incompetence on the part of the park
administration: ‘Officials seem to have been sleeping at their
But a new regime may be too late. The Tiger Den hotel is full –
mostly with tourists – but acting manager Ramawater Gujar said the
business will not survive without the big cats. ‘There is only one
thing here – the tiger,’ he said.
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