Behind the happy headlines on Thursday of the latest litter of cubs set to arrive in one of India's best-known tiger reserves, Panna, a battle between environment and commercial activity threatens the very existence of the park.
There seems to be political pressure to shift the officer responsible for taking the tiger count here from zero to 13 in less than three years. Another tigress, T1, is expecting.
The park management, headed by field director R Srinivas Murthy, is facing political protest for trying to carve out a buffer zone mandatory for all tiger reserves. Politicians from both the ruling BJP and Congress and argue that villagers face loss of livelihood and displacement.
But more importantly, Bundelkhand's Panna district, more than 400 km northeast of Bhopal, is home to Asia's only diamond mine besides other mineral resources, and political lobbies argue that India is not tapping into Panna's vast mineral resources.
The national park, say wildlife experts, desperately needs the buffer zone to avoid getting back to the bleak days when tigers just from this national park. Under an amendment in Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 a buffer zone around the Tiger Reserves is mandatory.
The tiger count now is 13 including five adults and eight cubs. Once the cubs start dispersing, there is a possibility of their disappearing as happened in the past when the tiger count came to zero more than three years ago from an impressive 34. Unlike Pench, Kanha and Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserves, Panna doesn't have a buffer zone.
The Panna tiger reserve has a prey base to support at least 25 tigers, and it is expanding, said sources in the state forest department. The prey base has increased four times in the last two years.
Forest officials are worried that in the absence of the buffer zone, there is danger to the cubs, which struggle to gain dominance and consolidate their territory during their journey to adulthood. Forest officials say the territory of the male tiger spreads over 150 to 250 sq km and that of the female over 70 to 100 sq km.
While local people see the buffer zone as a big obstacle in the way of development, many eye the rich mineral treasure inside and near the reserve.
Sources in Bhopal bureaucracy, wishing not to be quoted for service reasons, say that despite doing the splendid job of bringing tigers back to Panna, Murthy could be shifted anytime citing that he has completed almost three years in that posting. Many officers, however, have enjoyed much longer. But Murthy has earned his share of enemies.
"About Rs 25 to 30 lakh worth sandstones called 'gora patthar' (fair stone used in manufacturing of face powder) are illegally mined and taken away daily from the area by the mafia with impunity. Nobody speaks against them whether they are in the ruling BJP or Congress. There are at least 500 illegal mines near the reserve," social worker Santosh Bharatiya told HT.
Forest minister Sartaj Singh acknowledges existence of illegal mines based on satellite imagery. But he says the physical verification of this data is underway to know the extent of illegal mining.
Praising the efforts of the Tiger Reserve management for raising the tiger count, the minister said two-third of 70 villages in the buffer zone had agreed to allow creation of the zone. If the rest did not agree, the buffer zone would be created in the first phase covering these villages. The buffer zone does not mean that the villagers would be shifted. In fact, they would play an important role in tiger conservation.
Murthy said the park management had got consent from 51 villages for creation of the buffer zone. The routine life of the villagers would not be affected by buffer zone, he said. He was optimistic that the villagers would understand their role in tiger conservation.
But politicians like ex-BJP minister Kusum Mehadele and Congress MLA Srinkat Dubey have their own fights.
"The national park is a slur on Panna. Whenever there is any development move, the park comes in between. We can't have rail here. We can't have a four-lane national highway. We can't have an airport. Hence, my slogan for the next election is 'National park hatao, Panna ko bachao aur khush-haal banao'," said Mehadele.
Dubey, who also admires the park management's efforts in raising the tiger count, said, "I am not opposed to the park. But buffer zone means local people won't be able to light a lamp at night or use loudspeakers during marriage."
However, ex-MP Lokendra Pratap Singh said, "The park is about 550 sq km. This can this mere 2% of Panna district stall development?" He said illegal miners opposed the buffer zone.
What gave a boost to local politicians protesting against the buffer zone was chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan's assurance last year at the global investors' meet at Khajuraho. The CM had said tigers could not be protected at the cost of human beings. The CM is believed to have changed his stance and has given a go-ahead to the forest department to take villagers into confidence, but the damage was perhaps done.
Situated in the Vindhyan Ranges, the Panna reserve spreads over Panna and Chhattarpur districts in the north of the state.
It was created in 1981 and later declared a Project Tiger Reserve in 1994.
The reserve forests were the hunting ground of the erstwhile rulers of Panna, Chhatarpur and Bijawar princely states.
(With inputs from Neeraj Santoshi)