Airlifted tigers to repopulate Indian reserve

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2008, 12:00am

Bengal tigers are known for their stealth. But the arrival of one of the big cats at an Indian reserve had onlookers shielding their ears from a deafening noise. And it was not the creature causing knees to tremble. It was the roaring military chopper carrying the drugged and caged animal, landing at a makeshift helipad.

The airlift was extraordinary by any yardstick. But what led to deployment of an Indian Air Force helicopter to fly the cat to Sariska Tiger Reserve was truly bizarre.

The helicopter flew two sorties in quick succession. A few days after transporting the tiger to the reserve in a blaze of publicity, it ferried in a tigress, in the hope they will start a family.

Citing 'operational' reasons, officials refuse to disclose the names of the big cats. But they were flown from the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, western India, where the Sariska reserve is also located, in an experiment to reintroduce the species and spawn a new population. Both are outfitted with radio collars so that they can be tracked.

Authorities say more tigers will be introduced in phases if the Sariska project is successful.

Sariska made international headlines three years ago after The Indian Express newspaper revealed that its entire tiger population - 24 animals - had been wiped out by poachers. The killings stunned the nation. The furore forced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government to call in the Central Bureau of Investigation to catch the culprits. And under UN pressure, Dr Singh also promised to set up a national taskforce comprising former soldiers to save the tiger.

Hot on the heels of the Express expose, a report by the Wildlife Institute of India confirmed that no tigers were left in the 866 sq km reserve.

But even the CBI failed to catch the poachers - although eight forestry officials were sacked - with Sansar Chand, a notorious tiger poacher and the prime suspect in the Sariska case playing a hide-and-seek game with police.

Significantly the Sariska reserve, in Rajasthan's Alwar district, is an integral part of Project Tiger - a system of 28 national parks and sanctuaries aimed at protecting them - launched by late prime minister Indira Gandhi with great fanfare in the 1970s.

'The killing off of the entire population in Sariska was devastating, but we hope the reintroduction of the species in this reserve will spawn a new population and ultimately expand the region where tigers can grow and flourish,' said Sybille Klenzendorf, director of WWF's Species Conservation Programme.

'Tiger numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate and it is imperative we take action now to keep them from disappearing altogether,' Dr Klenzendorf said.

R.N. Mehrotra, Rajasthan's chief wildlife warden, said: 'We are dying to hear the roar of the big cats in Sariska. We will pull out all stops to protect the airlifted tigers so that the repopulation drive achieves its objectives as quickly as possible.'

Time is obviously running out for India's tigers, grappling with poachers and a shrinking habitat. The latest census in February revealed that there were only 1,411 left - down from 3,600 five years ago. At the start of last century India had an estimated 40,000.

The first Indian tiger census was conducted in 1972, revealing the existence of only 1,827 of the animals. The number jolted Gandhi into launching Project Tiger. The Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 was also her brainchild.

Praising the airlift, wildlife experts say that the battle to save India's tigers is crucial as the country still accounts for 50 per cent of the world's tiger population and is the last refuge of the magnificent animal. The Javanese, Balinese and Caspian tigers have vanished and the South China tiger faces an uncertain future.

Conservationists say that Chinese medicine, which uses tiger parts, is the bane of India's vanishing tigers. The head, skin, claws, meat, blood and penis all command high prices. Even its whiskers are in great demand. A whole body goes for as much as US$50,000. Smuggling of Indian tiger parts into Tibet via Nepal is a lucrative business.

China's insatiable appetite, says Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, is responsible for the alarming rise in poaching across the Bengal tiger's traditional habitat. In China, 'tiger skin is in demand for coat trimmings, while bones and other parts are processed in the traditional medicinal trade and then smuggled to different parts of the world', Ms Wright said.

'The demand has led wildlife criminals in India to collaborate closely with their counterparts in neighbouring countries like Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Many have been arrested in tiger-related wildlife cases in India over the past three years.

'Probably the most shocking seizure in history took place on October 10, 2003, when the Chinese customs authorities stopped a truck on the road to Lhasa - 31 tiger skins, 581 leopards and 778 otter skins were seized,' she said.

'Many of the skins were wrapped in Delhi newspapers. The haul represented at least 1 per cent of our wild tigers.'

Not too long ago, parliamentarians cutting across party lines petitioned Dr Singh, urging 'highest-level' intervention to protect the endangered species. Conservationists have also recruited Indian cricketers in a desperate bid to save the big cats. 'Live and let the tiger live' is the players' slogan.

But the situation is grim. There was an outcry when Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram recently allotted only 500 million rupees (HK$92 million) for tiger conservation in the annual federal budget. Bittu Sahgal, editor of the conservation magazine Sanctuary, retorted: 'The amount of money spent on destroying the tigers' habitat is 100 times more than the money granted to save the tiger. The entire tiger population in Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand will soon be wiped out.'

An editorial bristling with anger in The Hindu newspaper said: 'A nation with a trillion-dollar economy that makes a one-time grant of such a meagre amount for a species that has suffered decades of wilful neglect must ask itself if that is all it takes to protect India's national animal.'

But Ms Wright said that even in today's gloomy scenario, 'India is still the best bet for saving the tiger in the wild'.

'Tigers live in 17 Indian provinces, with five states reportedly having 100-plus tiger populations. There are still areas with relatively large tiger populations and extensive tracts of protected habitat.'

Some experts say it is useless airlifting tigers to Sariska without first eliminating poaching. They have dismissed the repopulation campaign as a stunt. They are predicting that the airlifted tigers will prove to be 'sacrificial lambs' inevitably falling prey to poachers' bullets, poison or traps.

But Ms Wight is all for it. 'We owe it to the tigers to give them back Sariska, which is a prime habitat for the predators. Any path-breaking venture has risks, and the only thing to do is to minimise the risks.'

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