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MP's Tiger Conservation Losing Teeth as Big Cats Continue to Drop Dead

Representative image.

Representative image.

Given the declining tiger population and Gujarat’s refusal to share its Asiatic lions, Madhya Pradesh, once known as the 'tiger state' of India, is fast losing out on earnings via wildlife tourism.

News18 Sunday Feature Madhya Pradesh has lost 29 tigers since January 2017, bringing into question the implementation of conservation schemes in a region once known as the ‘tiger state’ of India. Four of these deaths have been reported in the first month of 2018, with the latest one being recorded on Saturday.

Blessed with dense forests, Madhya Pradesh had 308 tigers as per the 2014 wildlife census in six tiger reserves – Panna, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Satpura, Pench and Sanja. This was a significant improvement over the previous 2010 wildlife census conducted in 2010 which put the big cats number at 257.

Since January 19 last year, MP has lost 29 tigers, with 25 of them dying in 2017. The number is an alarming jump from 2012 to 2015, when the state lost 46 tigers in all.

While the tiger deaths itself is a big dent on efforts to save the big cats, more worrying is the cause of death itself. Of the 25 tigers that died in 2017, 13 perished in forest areas that were not part of tiger reserves or wildlife sanctuaries, mostly due to electrocution by illegally powered farm fences.

Tiger conservationists say the main reason the striped carnivores ventured outside the protected area was to hunt for food and escape overpopulation in the limited area.

No remedial measures seemed to have been taken as two tigers died under similar circumstances this year — a tigress was electrocuted in Seoni near Pench tiger reserve and a tiger fell into a well near Balaghat. Another tigress was killed by a dominant male in Kanha tiger reserve, while the cause of death of the fourth tiger was yet to be ascertained.

According to a former field director of a tiger reserve in the state, the deaths point to lack of coordination and management among forest staff. Frequent transfers also disrupt the pace of conservation efforts, he said on condition of anonymity.

“There should be proper coordination among officers of tiger reserves and the officers who man general forest area,” he said, questioning the Forest Department’s inaction despite the tiger deaths.

A big area of tiger conservation ignored in the state is overpopulation in protected areas. Tiger is a territorial animal which marks its territory. Several tiger reserves are overpopulated, forcing cubs to venture out of protected areas in search of their own territory after detaching from their mothers.

“Cubs fear dominant male tigers. So after being detached from their mothers, they tend to venture out of protected areas to mark their own territory and often settle in dense forest areas, including those between Shahdol-Umaria and Katni. Tracing and monitoring them is important, but usually not done,” said a volunteer working in wildlife conservation in the state.

“The tiger reserve staff and forest staff from unprotected areas keep passing the buck to each other,” added the volunteer. Natural tiger corridors, he added, are never taken care of by the Forest Department.

On many occasions, the forest staff are unaware of a tiger’s death. When a tigress died in Umaria, the forest staff recovered the remains on December 11, a week later.

Jumping to the defence of forest staff, former chief wildlife warden RS Negi said the officers, too, have limitations. “A forest guard at times keeps vigil in areas up to 10,000 hectares,” he said.

Challenging Negi’s stand, wildlife activist Ajay Dubey said the authorities, especially the chief wildlife warden, are aloof to ground realities. “Effective monitoring is the key as big cats like tigers can’t be restricted with geographical boundaries,” Dubey said, batting for establishment of Special Tiger Protection Force on the lines of those established by Karnataka.

Dubey also pointed towards weak prosecution of poachers getting away after being arrested by forest officials.

According to Nitin Desai, Central India director of Wildlife Protection Society of India, the big cats also fall prey to illegally electrified farm fences. “It has been a common phenomenon in last two decades in Madhya Pradesh that tigers keep getting electrocuted at farms in Rabi season (winter),” Desai said. Tigers hunt plant-eating animals that flock farmland in search of crops in Rabi season and get killed by the powered fences, he explained.

Desai advised the MP government to follow Maharashtra’s example, where the forest department and electricity board joined hands to caution farmers against such power traps.

Sources in forest department, however, cited financial reasons for not implementing a plan to insulate 11KV lines hovering over farmlands.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the watchdog for tiger conservation in India, also seems to pass the buck.

“The NTCA has issued generic guidelines for preparing a security plan which inter alia covers the issue of electrocution. Further, an advisory has been issued in context of electrocution by this authority which recommends exploring solar fencing,” replied the authority to an e-mailed query from News18.

When asked how it planned to protect tigers that venture out of protected areas, the authority replied, “There are no specific guidelines for the purpose, but sporadic monitoring is carried out using PIPs and camera traps if tiger dispersal is observed.”

Given the declining tiger population and Gujarat’s refusal to share its Asiatic lions with MP, the state is fast losing out on earnings via wildlife tourism.

(More Sunday Features)