In 2007, a press conference was hurriedly convened by the Wildlife Wing of Odisha forest department at a posh Bhubaneswar hotel to explain the “misconception” that Odisha had lost a huge number of tigers in Similipal Tiger Reserve. Mediapersons were curious as never in the history of the reclusive Wildlife Wing was a press meet held before.
The camera trap based tiger census in Similipal conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India – National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had exposed one of the worst kept secrets of Odisha. For two days, the tiger disaster was the main news in most national TV channels and print media. The screaming headlines embarrassed Naveen Patnaik government, and the Babus scurried for cover as the CM had to fend off questions about the lost tigers!
Despite the vociferous explanations from the Chief Wildlife Warden and the Park Director, nobody believed the ridiculous claims that the counting method was wrong and hence the undercount. The camera trap-capture-recapture method was adopted by the Government of India in 2007 to replace the faulty pug mark census which had a huge error margin, courtesy over-counting. The biggest breakthrough with camera trap method was that the probability of over-count was extremely low. No doubt the management bodies of Tiger Reserves with low tiger populations were upset when the new technology was introduced.
THE COVER-UP CHAMPIONS
Until 2006, the department had reported 192 tigers in Odisha including in Similipal which held a minimum of 102 tigers. However, the 2007 census which revealed presence of only 30 tigers, a shocking decline of 72 tigers in one year, shocked wildlife lovers across India! The Park Director Dr Debabrata Swain disputed the figures of WII and claimed that tigers were undercounted.
Probably as a reward for the cover up, he was recommended by the government to the post of Member Secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). Citing that tigers of Similipal are shy and avoid people, Swain also claimed that the team could have captured more tiger images in camera traps, had the census been done in monsoon! There was no explanation for the lack of cattle kills in Similipal; the lack of tiger scat, the absence of tiger sighting by even forest guards, leave aside tourists; and the lack of tiger sounds at night, etc. All these signs indicated very low tiger numbers.
The rigmarole of disputing the WII-NTCA tiger figures continued. In 2011, when fresh figures were out the state government continued to claim there are 61 tigers in Similipal while the 2010 census report estimated the tiger count at 23, as per a national portal.
The All India Tiger Estimation Report, 2014 released in January 2015 reported a fall in Odisha's tiger population to 28 from 32 in 2010 and 45 in 2006. In August 2015, the forest officials again rejected the figures and claimed that the number of big cats in the state is around 60.
15 years down the line after the first rebuttal in 2007, the tiger story of Odisha has still not changed. No lessons learnt, none held accountable. Cover up and filibustering continues while crores of rupees are blown by a hopelessly non-performing forest department. Nobody knows why the field staff of Odisha forest department participate in the census if their chief does not accept its credibility!
It is worthwhile to have a brief look at the tiger population trends in Similipal Tiger Reserve during the 30 year period till 2002 as per state government data: In January, 2004, the Odisha government claimed that we have 192 tigers including cubs. Similipal was reportedly having 94 tigers, Sunabeda (proposed TR) had 32 tigers while Satkosia (proposed TR) had 18 tigers. The situation post 2010 did not improve despite the public condemnation about the failure of tiger conservation in Odisha.
Some states reported dramatic increase of tigers as per the NTCA census results for 2014 and 2018 while Odisha stagnated:
Odisha is the only state that reported constant figures revealing failure of tiger protection. Tigers are good breeders provided there is a sufficient prey base and protection from poaching. Since there were 28 tigers in 2014 and also in 2018 in Odisha, what happened to the newborn tigers? We should have added at least 12-15 tigers between 2014 and 2018.
The only possible explanation is rampant poaching which has driven our tigers to near extinction.
The forest department has miserably failed to control poaching even in tiger reserves like Similipal which has been steadily losing tigers. During the last census in 2018, only eight individual tigers were caught in the camera traps. Sadly, the Satkosia TR has lost its last remaining wild tiger and it is now officially a tigerless tiger reserve if you can use this term! Every year, NTCA spent more than Rs 4-5 crore on tiger protection in Similipal. However for last 15 years tiger numbers are plummeting.
The ill-conceived Satkosia Tiger relocation project with a budget of Rs 25 crore launched in 2018 in a human dominated area was doomed. Our warnings that it would lead to a disaster were ignored as the department had fallen in love with big ticket multi-crore projects. Without securing an inviolate space for the pair of tigers they went ahead with this foolhardy plan! The plan backfired with disastrous consequence leading to angry public protests as the female tiger Sundari attacked cattle and local inhabitants. The simmering resentment reached a boiling point when there was a human kill. The forest department was forced to catch and keep Sundari in captivity, and ultimately, the red faced Odisha government had to return the surviving female tiger gifted by Madhya Pradesh after almost 18 months of captivity. Senior forest officers are now embarrassed to talk of tiger re-introduction in Satkosia again.
The other relocated male tiger was found dead on November 14, 2018 at the border of the park in Narsinghpur forest. He had deep ring-like neck wound, and was probably killed by poachers. The Satkosia TR Park Director, however, gave a bizarre explanation - Apparently the death was due to porcupine quills caught in its throat since some quills were recovered from his stomach during post mortem!
What about fixing responsibility on the officers for the Satkosia tiger catastrophe, for the huge waste of public funds, for the loss of human life? As usual the guilty got away since no enquiry was conducted as unaccountable bureaucrats rule the roost in Odisha.
Odisha has excellent habitat and vast wild spaces for tigers to flourish. As poaching is uncontrolled they are also targeted for their bones, claws, skin and whiskers by professional poachers in Odisha. Of course no forest officer of Odisha will ever be held accountable for the loss of our valuable tigers despite the government spending crores on their protection! NTCA also needs to share the blame for remaining a silent spectator while crores of central government tiger protection funds were blown up and yet the population continued to fall.
NTCA has legal powers as per the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 since its orders are enforceable. But it has never exercised them to fix accountability on any park manager of India due to the biradri (brotherhood) system. The same cadre looks after wildlife both in the state and the centre; hence they are reluctant to punish anyone. Their advisories and orders were usually ignored by the Similipal Park management.
In 2010, an enquiry was ordered by the Centre into the massive poaching of elephants in Similipal Tiger Reserve (the author was a member). Many things were recommended but sadly, most remain unimplemented including the most important one to have an independent state level committee of conservationists to regularly visit and monitor the status. Obviously the department did not want any oversight as they were scared of being exposed.
Can we get back our tigers? I do not want to sound pessimistic but it is very unlikely since the tiger population has plunged below the viability level. We do not have more than 20 adult tigers. Isolated tiger populations can only survive if they have genetic exchange with other populations and without a meta population of at least 100 tigers of Odisha are doomed.
Though the state celebrates the fact that Similipal has reported black or melanastic tigers, it is actually a matter of deep concern as it indicates genetic aberrations; not healthy for the future survival of the isolated population. Another five to eight years, and this population would die out too due to inbreeding resulting in successively weak and debilitated progeny.
The roar of the tiger which once used to roam free in most forests of Odisha 30 years back shall fall silent soon thanks to the inept and non-accountable people in charge. Our children have to visit well managed tiger reserves outside Odisha to watch the king of the jungle as he majestically walks across a forest road or takes a dip in the water pool!
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author is a conservationist and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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