Sitting on a treehouse at the Ken River Lodge near the Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) in Madhya Pradesh, owner Shyamendra Singh looks at the lodge's tiger-sighting chart. Running his fingers over the blank boxes for January and February (till the third week), he says, "Panna is another Sariska in the making." <b1>
There were only five direct tiger sightings between October 2007 and February 19, 2008. "On October 10, we saw a tiger called 'Broken Tooth'. We haven't seen him after that. In November and December, we saw a new male tiger. But nothing after that," he says.
When news about declining numbers started doing the rounds, a special census was conducted in the PTR in 2004. It put the number at 35. "But the report found no pugmarks in the Chandannagar range," points out Singh.
"The PTR covers 543 sq km and the Chandannagar range is 95 sq km. If we go by this report, then there were 35 tigers in 448 sq km (543 sq km minus 95 sq km) - one tiger per 13 sq km. If that were the case, sightings would go up phenomenally."
What Singh is alleging puts a question mark on the National Tiger Conservation Authority's latest report on the country's tiger population, which says that the PTR houses 24 tigers.
Conservation biologist Raghu Chundawat, who studied the Panna tiger from 1995 to 2003, supports Singh's apprehensions: there are only two to four tigers left in Panna and no female tiger, he says. "The new census figures are the same as those that came out in last May's preliminary report. They were out of date because even before the analysis was done for Panna, two tigers were killed."
Sanjay Tewari, a TV correspondent in Panna, has been following the tiger story for sometime now. "The forest department is trying to save its officials. I was invited to join the 2004 special census. For eight days, we saw only some pugmarks." Most locals allege that inefficient park management, ineffective patrolling and poaching are responsible for this decline.
"Poaching is now highly organised, lucrative and not park-based. It can only be properly dealt with by intelligence-led enforcement," says Chundawat.
The PTR director SK Krishnamurthy disagrees. "When we are accepting the NTC report for the whole country, then why aren't we accepting the Panna numbers?" The most recent sighting, he says, was on February 15 by his park staff and the park has conducted five 'tiger shows' for tourists. However, he is not very sure whether it was the same tiger or five different tigers. He blames the winter and PTR's valleys and gorges for the fall in sightings.
Singh and Chundawat say that park authorities must acknowledge the problem and introduce a female tiger without delay. The park's prey base is very good and there is enough space for more than 25 tigers.
PK Sen of the Ranthambore Foundation visited Panna in January to look into the allegations. "The situation in Panna and Sariska is different but the number that the census gave is not there. We did not see any tigers but saw pugmarks and kills. The important thing here is the male-female ratio."
Till then, predators of the predator may continue to be on the prowl.
One more tiger dead
On January 17, a tiger was found shot near the Satna division, a hundred kilometres from the Panna park border. It was tranquilised by the PTR officials and taken to Bhopal. "It succumbed to the injuries on February 22," says G.S Chauhan, director, Van Vihar Bhopal. Was it a Panna tiger?
Park Director SK Krishnamurthy thinks not, while some others feel it is from Panna and had strayed out because there are no female tigers left in the park. "Even if it is not a Panna tiger, the existence of poachers shows that this area is not safe anymore," says Shyamendra Singh, owner of Ken River Lodge, near the Panna Tiger Reserve.