x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tigers return to empty jungles

The roar of the world's largest cat can be heard in Sariska once more, after the government airlifted in two tigers.

The Sariska relocation project is the government's most visible achievement in tiger conservation.
The Sariska relocation project is the government's most visible achievement in tiger conservation.

NEW DELHI // Originally as a hunting ground for Rajasthani nobility, and latterly as a national park, Sariska in western India had long been famous for its tigers. But then, in 2005, after years without a sighting, the Indian government confirmed what many had suspected - there were no tigers left in the area. They had been poached out of existence. "It was one of the biggest scandals of modern conservation history," said Belinda Wright, an Indian- born Briton who heads the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

Now, the roar of the world's largest cat can be heard in the park once more, after the government airlifted in two tigers - one male and one female - from a neighbouring reserve. The relocation, the first of its kind in India, is one of the government's more creative attempts to halt a rapid slide in its tiger population. If successful, several more tigers could be brought in from other parts of India.

"I was sceptical at first, but I believe it will work," said Ms Wright, who was present at Ranthambore, the donor park, when the first tiger - a three-year-old male - was flown by helicopter to Sariska on June 28. At the turn of the last century, around the time Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book, India had an estimated 40,000 tigers still living in the wild. But hunting by the British and the Indian elite - the maharaja of Surguja claimed to have killed 1,710 during his life time - had reduced that number to under 2,000 by 1970, when tiger hunting was finally banned.

Shocked by the low numbers, Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, launched Project Tiger, an ambitious conservation programme that established 11 tiger reserves, including Sariska, between 1973 and 1978. Initially, the project was a success with tiger numbers doubling over 15 years, but it was eventually undermined by corruption, as funds were siphoned off, leaving rangers without even radios or boots to carry out regular patrols.

Tigers faced another threat around the same time: booming economic growth in China was fuelling demand for tiger bones, hearts, gallbladders and even penises - key ingredients in traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs. With no wild tigers left in China, India became the prime source for the illegal trade. Project Tiger finally collapsed in 2005 after the government admitted that Sariska was empty - despite for years saying the park was home to 18 tigers who had "temporarily migrated out of the reserve", a line that guaranteed tourists would still visit.

The resulting furore forced the government to order a nationwide tiger census. A report in February of this year revealed the tiger population had dropped to 1,411, down 60 per cent from five years earlier. Since then, the government has launched an emergency campaign to rescue the tiger, replacing Project Tiger with the more powerful National Tiger Conservation Authority. It has also pledged to create eight new reserves over the next five years and has allocated six billion rupees (Dh511 million) to pay for more forest guards and better equipment to track tigers.

It has also given the go ahead to set up a Tiger Protection Force - comprised of ex-army personnel and local villagers - to combat poachers. The Sariska relocation project, carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India, is the new authority's most visible achievement to date. "Time was running out for Sariska without tigers," Ms Wright said. In a country of 1.1 billion people, the idea of keeping a tiger reserve without tigers was coming under attack from groups keen to exploit the area's mineral wealth.

Wildlife experts are reluctant to declare the tiger transfer a success yet, primarily because they are not sure that Sariska is sufficiently protected against poachers and human encroachment. The park is also still home to three villages, with about 15,000 people. A temple in the heart of the reserve draws around 200,000 pilgrims a year, and a busy state motorway runs along the southern edge. For the moment, however, both of the new tigers are being kept in specially built enclosures designed to allow them to adapt to their new surroundings before being released into Sariska's 800sqkm of dry deciduous forest.

The male, known only as T-10, has already made several kills and roared several times, both of which are good indications that he is settling in, said P R Sinha, director of the Wildlife Institute of India. The next step is to release the male and allow him to pick up the scent of the four-year old female. But despite having been transported by helicopter, one of the biggest worries is that the tigers will try to find their way back home to Ranthambore, about 250km away.

"They have a very strong homing instinct," Mr Sinha said. "No one knows how they will behave." For that reason, Mr Sinha's team selected young tigers which had not yet carved out territory for themselves at Ranthambore. Both cats have been fitted with collars that allow them to be tracked by satellite and also by radio on the ground. If they settle, there are plans to introduce two more females and one more male to the area, possibly from other parts of India in order to mix up the gene pool.

The rest is up to T-10 and his new female companion. hgardner@thenational.ae