In a message intended to boost India’s losing battle to save its national animal, the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday cleared a plan to reintroduce tigers to Rajasthan’s Sariska tiger reserve, where the Royal Bengal Tiger’s local extinction in 2004 sparked worldwide alarm.
Three tigers — a male and two females — have been identified at the Ranthambhore tiger reserve, home to Rajasthan’s only surviving tiger population. Officials plan a “soft release”: the three tigers will be first introduced in a 5-6 hectare enclosure within Sariska, a former hunting reserve of the Maharaja of Alwar. Scientists and officials will keep the new tigers under observation for a few weeks before they are fitted with tracking collars linked to an orbitting satellite and released into the scrub jungles of Sariska.
India first realised its tiger conservation programme was failing when Sariska lost all its tigers in 2004. Since then, a crisis has emerged with most reserves reporting declining numbers of Panthera tigris tigris, the scientific name of the Royal Bengal tiger.
“The process of financial clearance has already begun. The first installment of funds required for relocation is expected next week,” said Dr Rajesh Gopal, member-secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
The PMO had set up a tiger task force after Sariska lost its tigers, and the Supreme Court asked the CBI to investigate what was happening. Eventually, Project Tiger, the national tiger-conservation programme, was given more powers and reborn as the NTCA and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in 2006.
Today’s clearance comes with Rajasthan’s written commitment to fast-track a pending agenda: the relocation of villages, regulation of pilgrim traffic inside the reserve, and development of areas that serve as buffers between the core of the reserve and the outside world.
“We don’t want to reintroduce tigers before we feel it is safe,” said Gopal. “The Centre has enhanced the relocation package to Rs 10 lakh per family. So far only one village has been relocated from Sariska. A lot remains to be done.” The budget for the Sariska tiger recovery plan prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India is Rs 1.50 crore.
(Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist. He broke the Sariska story in January 2005)