By the middle of January 2005, it became public that there were no tigers left in Sariska ti-ger reserve in north-eastern Rajasthan. It was the Indian national daily – “Indian Express” – that first broke this news. Incidentally, this is the same newspaper, that had over a decade earlier broken the news about the Second tiger crisis. Bengal tigers of India do owe a lot to the Indian Express.
For the last few months there were very strong and persistent rumours that there were no tigers left in Sariska. The last tiger that was seen alive by visitors was before July. There were reports of some people seeing a tiger in November and they were probably true but since they have not produced a photograph as yet, most people do not believe the reports. In November 2004 a friend of mine had met a researcher from Wildlife Institute of India, who was doing Field work in Sariska. He had told my friend that his entire team had not seen any evidence of presence of tigers in Sariska, for the last four months.
I met Jay Mazumdar, the Indian Express reporter, who first broke the Sariska disaster story in the beginning of February 2005, when he had come to Ranthambore national park. He had a very interesting story to tell us about his Sariska adventure. Jay, is a great guy who is very fond of visiting wilderness areas. He was a regular visitor to Sariska, which is barely 4 hours drive from his house. He told us that during his last three visits to Sariska he did not see any evidence of a tiger. His naturalist and driver in Sariska used to promise him that they would definitely “show him a tiger when he returns for his next visit.” When he went to Sariska in the end of December 2004, the naturalist told him that he personally had not seen a tiger for over 7 months. That got Jay’s journalist instincts rocking. He did some more re-search and found out that no one had seen a tiger for over 6 months – forget seeing a tiger, they had not even seen pugmarks of tigers. Later he went and interviewed the District Forest Officer or DFO – Mr. R.S. Shekhawat (who is now the Deputy Field Director of Rantham-bore national park) – an honest, upright and hard working officer. The DFO told Jay that he had been posted in Sariska in the month of August 2004 and he had not seen any evidence of the presence of tigers since he had been posted there. Jay came back from his trip and started working on the biggest wildlife related news of the decade for India. He admitted that he was initially hesitant about proclaiming, that “there were no tigers left in Sariska.”
Anyways in the third week of January the Indian Express headlines screamed “There are no tigers in Sariska” and all hell broke loose. All the “arm chair” conservationists of India sud-denly woke up from their deep slumber. The Project Tiger and the Forest Department of Ra-jasthan state went in a “total denial” mode. They came out with statements like “the tigers have temporarily migrated to the neighbouring state (a state which does not have any for-ests)”, “they are hiding and will soon be back” and so on. However, by the end of February, even they declared that as far as tigers were concerned, Sariska was dead. The end of a Pro-ject Tiger reserve.
Soon, the poachers started getting arrested and that is when the magnitude of the problem hit all of us. India, unofficially declared the Third tiger crisis, even though the officials were denying that there was any crisis. The Rajasthan state government ordered an enquiry and sacked a very senior officer of the Forest department.