……….About a year ago the Rajasthan Forest Department declared that they would relocate tigers from Ranthambhore to Sariska to right the wrong. When they fist came out with this plan almost everyone (including me) laughed at it. Most people (not me this time) had declared Sariska as history. A few months after it came out in the news that there were no tigers in Sariska – four of us – Dr. Dharmendra Khandal (Field Biologist of Tiger Watch), Dr. Amit Kotia (a fine botanist), Juhi Chaudhry (the then co-coordinator Kids for Tigers) and I – had gone to Sariska for a few days. At that time the Project Tiger and the Government of Rajasthan were still denying that tiger had been wiped out from Sariska. We had some great wildlife moments there. The habitat was amazing but the tigers were missing. Just a few weeks after we came back they government finally conceded that there were no tiger left in Sariska.
This was a big blow to the Rajasthan Forest Department and the Project Tiger, in fact, to the entire conservation movement in India. But nothing much changed. The budgets, priorities, procedures and staff stayed the same. But a handful of officers of the Rajasthan Forest Department and the Rajasthan police worked their heart out. The protection level went up dramatically. A number of poachers were apprehended and suddenly the poaching community (mainly members of the Mogiya and Bawaria hunting gathering tribes) was on the run. A convicted tiger poacher from Ranthambhore – Devi Singh Mogiya – told us this, on camera.
The Mogiyas and Bawarias are off shoots of the larger Pardhi tribe. The general public opinion is that these people are extremely dangerous, very secretive and totally ruthless. They maybe ruthless for wildlife but they are really scared of any kind authority. They may be secretive but at the local level I was common knowledge that they were poaching big time. It is just that no one really bothered about them, till Sariska happened.
Once the protection level increased tiger numbers in Ranthambore gradually recovered. In May 2005 the Rajasthan State Empowered Committee had declared that there were 26 tigers in Ranthambhore, which was untrue. At that time there were only 18 tigers – 13 adults and 5 cubs. Till a month or so ago there were 23 adults (one of the earlier 18 – Yuvraj – a young male was killed by Mogiyas somewhere in the end of November and six newer cubs had grown up), 6 sub adults and 8 young cubs. I could be wrong here by one or two but that would be about it.
There were recent media reports that the forest authorities had sighted 14 cubs (below the age of 4 months) during the hot summer months of 2008. This was hogwash. There are right now 8 cubs (in four different families) and not 14. And out of these 8 only 4 had been positively till the end of May. I don’t know how this figure of 14 came up. Anyways these figures are not really important. What is more relevant is that the population is on the recovery mode. Ranthambhore is not overflowing with tigers (as it is made out to be) but it is definitely on a rapid recovery mode.
By the beginning of this year the relocation plan became very serious. A lot of our “cocktail party” conservationists were dead against the plan. A few (that included me) were skeptical about it (in fact till a month ago I use to think that the Forest Department may not finally have the nerve to pull it off) but were not against it in principle. This was the only idea if Sariska had to be revived as a tiger reserve. The habitat and prey was there in Sariska but the tiger was missing. The experiment had to be tried out, even if it failed.
I have not been to Sariska in the last 6 months but the news that I was getting was that a few, actually five, enclosures – where the tigers would be released as soon as they reach Sariska. Once the tigers get over their “trauma” of the journey, they would be released.
By the second week of May most parts of the park were closed for tourists. The only part that was left open was the area of the lakes and the part from the lakes to a forest guard post called Guda (towards the southern end of the Ranthambore national park). The tourists were not complaining because this is one of the most popular part of the national park. Monitoring of tigers in the closed part of the park was intensified and some tigers were short listed for relocation. By the middle of June a few of the shortlisted tigers were radio collared, besides the three that had been radio collared some months ago.
The tigers that were shortlisted were young tigers that had separated from their mothers about a year or so ago. A tiger of that age group would have just about established (particularly females) their territories in Ranthambhore but would not have been totally entrenched there. To move even one tiger, four or five would have to be identified so that they would be able to surely find one of them to tranquilize a few hours before they were to be air lifted.
The plan was to make a stopgap helipad inside the Ranthambore national park, where an Indian air force helicopter could land. Experts from the Wildlife Institute of India would tranquilize one of the identified tigers, put them in a covered cage, load this cage on the helicopter and fly them to Sariska, where they would be released inside the enclosures. Sounds easy but it is very difficult to pull off.
In late 2007, three tigers were radio collared in Ranthambore for monitoring purpose. When this was done, we suddenly realized that the Forest Department was serious about shifting tigers to Sariska. One of these three tigers – a male that is slightly over 3 years old and is known as the Darra male or T 10 – was the first tiger that was the first tiger to be relocated to Sariska. The helicopter arrived in Ranthambhore on the evening of the 28th of June. The idea was to relocate the first (of the five – 2 males and 3 females) tiger on the morning of the 29th. It almost did not work out because it was raining heavily on the 29th morning. The tiger (Darra male) was located and the entire forest team was waiting for the rains to stop. Slightly after 1000 hours or so the rain stopped, the tiger was tranquilized, put in the cage and airlifted. It was real touch and go. The tiger recovered from the tranquilizing dose in midair but was still too dazed to move around. They managed to land him in Sariska and move the cage to one of the enclosures. The top brass of Rajasthan Forest Department was in the helicopter with the tiger.
A forest officer told me that the moment they opened the gate of the cage, the tiger almost charged out of it and hid behind some bushes in the enclosure. They had left a bait for him in the enclosure, which he killed a few hours after being released but did not eat till much later.
On the 6th of July a tigress, known here as Bachhi (or daughter – because she is the daughter of a Ranthambhore most famous tigress – Machali – from the last litter) was similarly moved. This time the entire operation went like clockwork. Bachhi was my favorite, an absolute beauty, and I have some amazing pictures of her. What was interesting is that these two were territorial neighbors and had mated about a month ago. Both of them are still very young so the mating may not be fruitful but they would be surely recognizing each other’s scent. A day after Bachhi reached Sariska, the Darra male was released from his enclosure. He is now free to establish his domain. The forest department has been cleared the first big hurdle but there is still a big hill to climb. I am sure they will climb it.
In the map pasted below Bachhi’s territory is marked in red, while the Darra male’s territory is marked out in black. Hope they do well.
Hats off to officers like R N Mehrotra (Chief Wildlife Warden, Rajasthan), R S Shekhawat (Deputy Field Director, Ranthambhore national park), R S Somashekhar (DFO Sariska) and their supporting staff. You pulled out the first two rabbits out of the hat. Congrats.