About three years ago (when G.V. Reddy left from here after serving as a Field Director) there were around 40 tigers, if not a few more. Reddy’s departure got the poachers active again. Most of the big game poaching here is done by three group of tribal – the Mogiya’s, Bagariya’s and Kanjar’s. Out of these three the Mogiyas are probably the most dangerous for the tigers and leopards. They live in a 100-kilometer long belt along the river Chambal on the Madhya Pradesh side. They often come over around the park and make small temporary huts on the outskirts of villages. The villagers support them because they protect their field from getting raided by wild ungulates. Almost all the Mogiyas are hunters but very few of them actually go after big cats.
During Reddy’s time the Forest Department was very actively raiding the Mogiyas. As a result most of them crossed the Chambal to live in M.P. When Reddy left small time hunting by locals got a boost. Every village has a group of people who regularly kill animals like hare, boars, sambar and spotted deer for meat. Reddy had managed to keep this in control. After he left this “small time hunting” got a boost. Soon the big guys were back from across the Chambal.
Tigers, Leopards and Sloth bears started disappearing from early 2003. By the end of summers 2004 there were not more than 30 tigers left. By the end of January 2005 there were not more than 25 left. It was only by the summer of 2004 that the first few signs became visible to the people who live and work here that the number of predators was going down. By the beginning of summers of 2004 it was becoming more and more obvious to some people like me, who are involved in tourism and are very interested in wildlife that most of the tiger sightings were happening in only three places – the lakes, Berda and Lahpur. There were large stretches inside the park, most of them in areas that are prohibited for tourists, where no evidence of tigers being found. There are many tigers that are not very visible but even they have to leave indirect evidence of their presence, such as impressions of their paws in the ground (known as “pugmarks”), scat droppings, scratch marks on trees etc.
Why did it take so long for us to realize that the number of large predators was going down? Only about 40% of the Ranthambhore national Park is open to tourists. This 40% is the best part of the park, mainly because the tourist vehicles “patrol” it very intensively and frequently. The rest of the area is technically out of bounds for us, though we do go in there once in a while. It was this area that is out of bounds for tourists that took the major brunt of poaching. The officials of the Forest department, initially, did not observe the signs of poaching and later on when they realized that things were not all well they started hiding the signs. The more senior officers who are based in Jaipur – the state capital – went on a denying that there was anything wrong. It took a combination of Sariska and Tiger Watch to shake them from their slumber.
During 2001 – 2002, I worked as a Field Assistant for a documentary film on tigers (“Danger in Tiger’s paradise”) that was aired by the BBC. I worked on this project till the end of February 2002. During this period there were three big males – “Nick-ear”, “Chips” and the “Chiroli male” that we used to regularly come across. Somewhere around the beginning of 2004 we stopped coming across anyone of these three males. By the time summers arrived in April, we had not come across any one of these three males even once. That’s when the alarm bells first went off in my head.