India's big cat transfer plan hopes to restock empty tiger reserves
Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi
Embarrassed at having tiger reserves empty of tigers, India is launching a controversial plan to relocate some of the big cats to Sariska, a wildlife park where 13 of the animals have been killed by poachers in recent years.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests plans to take some of the tigers in the Ranthambhore reserve - one of the few with tigers left - and relocate them to Sariska.
'This is the first time anyone has moved tigers from one habitat to another anywhere ... but I'm confident we can do it,' said the ministry's Project Tiger head, Rajesh Gopal.
Since both parks are in Rajasthan state the habitat is similar and it is hoped the tigers will not be too disorientated by a new landscape.
But Ashok Kumar, of the Wildlife Trust of India, is not enthusiastic.
'Tigers are comfortable when they know the lay of the land, where to find prey and watering holes,' he said. Mr Kumar also believes the exercise will be futile unless the root causes of the disappearance of tigers from Sariska are removed.
About 12 villages have sprung up amid the ravines, forests and scrubland of Sariska. For the villagers, the tiger is a pest because it attacks their cows and buffaloes.
'They are not at all sentimental about the tiger. With tigers dead, they're pleased their cattle can graze safely,' said Mr Kumar. Poachers sometimes even recruit villagers to help them trap tigers.
Other conservationists, such as Valmik Thapar, agree with Mr Kumar: 'If you can't first persuade the villagers - and there about 11,000 of them now - to move out of Sariska, then you are wasting your time.'
The plan is a measure of India's belated anxiety over the fate of the 'lord of the jungle'. Apart from genuine concern, less altruistic motives connected with tourism also come into play. Sariska - a four-hour drive from Delhi - used to be full of families driving around in open jeeps. Children delighted at spotting deer, wild boar and jackals, as they waited for the real thrill - a glimpse of the big cat.
Now the park is deserted and business is down at the nearby hotels and forest lodges.
At the turn of the century, about 40,000 tigers roamed India. By the 1980s, there were only 4,000. Now the official number is about 3,500 but conservationists say the real figure is probably 2,000 at best.
Meanwhile, efforts are under way to relocate Sariska's villagers. Compensation figures are being discussed. The people in two villages have agreed to move out.
'I'm very hopeful. Once the villagers are out, the forest itself is in very good shape and will be able to sustain the tigers,' said Dr Gopal.