The forest department has accepted that the tiger population at Panna reserve has fallen, but it differs with locals and experts on the reasons for the disappearance of the big cats.
Park director LK Chaudhary admitted that they hadn’t spotted a “tigress in the last three months”, but insisted that a
number of tigers were still there and they had evidence — pugmarks — to back it. But he refused to put a figure to it.
“Last year, the park was under the control of dacoits and can’t say if tigers were hunted,” Chaudhary said.
Officially, no poaching case has been reported over a decade and the fall in population has been attributed to old age.
But, locals and tiger experts, like Dr Raghu Chandawat, differ. “For many years, it was a free-for-all at Panna. One could enter the reserve with a weapon and return with a catch. Things have improved now, but we hear that there are only a few tigers left,” said Bhishan Singh Patel, head of the powerful Patel community.
Community leader Dhani Ram Patel had sought the help of dacoits in 2006 after the forest department confiscated the foodgrain they’d harvested from the banks of Ken river inside the park. Led by Mohan Singh Patel, the dacoits forced the forest guards out. “It had a huge impact on tiger population,” Chaudhary claimed. It was in July this year that the department got back the park, after Tokia was killed and Dhani Ram surrendered. The park opened in October but no tigress has been sighted.
Bhishan Singh didn't accept that dacoits brought on the Panna crisis. “Patels are not meat-eaters and considered protectors of animals,” Shyaminder Singh, who has a resort on banks of Ken, said. Most of the big cats disappeared years ago, but the department was in denial, they claimed.
The Wildlife Institute of India, too, has said not more than one tiger is left in the core area. “We’ve got a picture of a tiger. There may be one more, but most of the tigers are gone,” said a WII scientist who didn’t want to be identified.
Asked if all 24 tigers, according to 2006 count, had died of natural causes, he said it wasn't possible. “It appears to be the result of poaching and natural death.”
The team will radio collar the only tiger so it can be tracked through GPS when the two tigresses are relocated by February. Enclosures are being readied to habituate the tigresses before releasing them into the wild, said Chaudhary. “The success of Sariska will be replicated,” a WII scientist said.