Tigers die in India's Nature Preserve
Somebody is poisoning the tigers in India's crown jewel of a wildlife preserve, Kaziranga National Park, heretofore a safe haven for some of the world's most endangered species. Ten of the big cats have died in the last three months at the world heritage site, although some may have died of natural causes.
The deaths of the big cats, India's national animal, have brought wildlife lovers to the realization that other animals also face an increasing threat in Kaziranga, a kind of real-life Noah's Ark whose wild inmates, besides rhinoceros, tiger and leopard, include wild buffalo, elephants, wild boars, Indian gaur, gibbons, bison, swamp deer, sambar, hog deer, jackals, monkeys, hornbills, geese, varieties of snakes and other reptiles and 500 species of birds. The oldest wildlife reserve in Assam, it is an exotic tangle of sheer forest, tall elephant grass, rugged reeds, marshes and shallow pools covering 430 sq km (with an additional buffer area of over 400 sq km) on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra River.
Asia Sentinel reported on August 7 that predators armed with high-powered rifles were killing increasing numbers of the rare one-horned rhinos in the park, which houses two thirds of the world's population of the huge beasts. Now the unprecedented rise in tiger deaths has caused serious concern among wildlife activists in the region. Authorities have responded that the deaths were not related to poaching. MC Malakar, chief conservator of forest wildlife of Assam, insisted that three of the tigers died due to old age, and one each died from fighting with each other or with buffaloes.
However, an unknown number have died from poisoning by villagers, who fear for their lives and depredations against their livestock. Three decomposed bodies which were recovered from inside the reserve might also indicate poisoning, conservationists say. Malakar told local media that in all cases the remains of the tigers were found, which would be unlikely if poachers had got at them. Nor has the authority received any information of a poacher network in or around the reserve.
Kaziranga was included under India's Project Tiger preservation program in 2006, then sheltering around 70 tigers although there has been no official census for more than eight years. The last, in 2000 showed 86, indicating that the high security park is losing tigers at a slow but steady pace. India as a whole has around 1500 tigers in the wild. The National Tiger Conservation Authority released a census report in February 2006 indicating that 1,411 tigers were left in India against a 2001-02 census of 3,642.
Amazingly, an initial survey by the conservation group Aaranyak said Kaziranga had a 'healthy and stable population of tigers'. An average of around 16 tigers lives in every 100 sq km in the park, the highest level in India's Northeast, the survey said. The Assam forest department has asked Aaranyak to start a database on the highly endangered mammals and their habitats inside Kaziranga.
Kaziranga has received international media attention because of rhino poaching during the last two years. Civil societies and advocacy groups of the region rigorously raised voices against the slaughtering of more than 30 rhinos in two years in the park. Pressure groups demanded a high- level enquiry into the matter of poaching in all wildlife reserves of the region. The concern for the rhinos remained visible in media through the editorials and the letters to the editor columns. Finally, the Assam government led by Tarun Gogoi bowed to the public outcry and declared on May 2 that his government favored for a Central Bureau of Investigation (of India) probe into the matter.
Nature's Beckon, an active environmental organization of the region, even alleged that a section of high placed officials of the State forest department were involved in the illegal wildlife trade. The director of Nature's Beckon, Soumyadeep Datta, alleged that park officials sold more than 300 rhino horns and other wildlife organs even after India adopted the wildlife protection act in 1972.
If the rhinos are being killed for their horns, which supposedly have aphrodisiac qualities, the tiger is being poached for its skin, bone and even meat. Chinese traditional food and medicines demand tiger bone, meat and also fat. China has long been identified is the largest consumer of tiger parts. Poaching, however, isn't the problem, Datta told Asia Sentinel. Deaths by poisoning are a serious issue which the park can't overlook, he said.
"The tigers are suspected of being targeted by the villagers in the fringe localities of the park angered by the loss of their cattle and human injury because of the big cats' entry to the villages in search of food, which finally tempts them to take revenge," Datta said.
UK Karanth, a conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, says that the "'shortage of prey is a bigger factor behind the world's dwindling tiger population than poaching." The head of India program for the New York based society, Karanth said in an interview that 'when the prey density drops, reproduction of tigers goes down drastically, mostly because of lower survival rates of cubs'. He however asserted that the tiger is a very productive species and it starts breeding at the early age of three.
The Kaziranga park director S N Buragohain also acknowledged that the number of incidents of man-tiger conflicts has increased because of shrinking habitat and growing encroachment by human settlement. An adult tiger needs about 5kg of meat every day. The tigers of the park are often reported as moving towards the nearby villages in search of prey.
"In such cases, the duty of the authority is to promptly address the growing resentment of the victims' families who have been living in the fringe areas of the park," Datta said, charging that the authority loves to talk about finding more funds but shows little interest in involving the local population in preservation.
The Union government in New Delhi allocates compensation funds for the affected families, but Datta and others charge that forest officials siphon them away. Their activists survey the areas often and found that nobody has received any compensation for their losses from the forest department. Under the 'Project Elephant' scheme, the central government created guidelines for grants to families who had suffered human loss and damage of crops from the wild animals. The scheme specifies various amounts starting from Rs1,000 grants for losses (fully or partly) ranging from dwelling houses to crops and livestock to the family members.
Understanding the importance of timely payment for human deaths (or injury) and compensation for loss of property in pacifying the affected families, New Delhi has recently raised the compensation against loss of human life to Rs 100,000. Under Project Tiger and Project Elephant, the government enhanced the sum for compensation for loss of life and property up to Rs 33.2 million.
Speaking to Asia Sentinel at Kaziranga recently, a local resident, Sunil Das, revealed those in his village have never received compensation from the forest department although wild animals – buffalo, elephant and tiger – often destroy their crops and kill cattle but the authority has always turned a deaf ear to their grievances.
If the people living on the fringes of any national park or wildlife sanctuary feel neglected and cheated by the forest officials, it will be simply impossible to reduce the incidents of poaching as well as poisoning of wild animals. The wildlife lovers say the forest department and the government must understand that and begin to function honestly, with little or no corruption, or the slaughter of some of India's most magnificent animals will continue.