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Setting the big cats among the pigeons

So history is dead - as embodied in the corpse of ST1, the 'first ever' tiger to be translocated into the Sariska Tiger Reserve from neighbouring Ranthambhore. His demise is the symbol of the failure and the mockery made of a crucial conservation exercise. Prerna Singh Bindra writes.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2010 22:22 IST

So history is dead - as embodied in the corpse of ST1, the 'first ever' tiger to be translocated into the Sariska Tiger Reserve from neighbouring Ranthambhore. His demise is the symbol of the failure and the mockery made of a crucial conservation exercise.

The idea of reviving the population of tiger reserves was sound - if only after apathy had ensured local extinction. The failure was in the execution, monitoring and required follow-up.

To rewind, ST1 was flown into Sariska in June 2008, first among the three tigers relocated between June 2008 and February 2009. But was the reserve ready for its VIP guests? No. None of the preconditions for the tiger reintroduction programme had been met.

No serious attempt was made to divert the highways that cut through the reserve, or reduce traffic to Pandupal, the temple in the heart of Sariska causing much disturbance to wildlife. Only Bhagani - the tiniest, village with the smallest footprint - of the four within the reserve was relocated.

Though forest officials asserted that the villagers were 'eager' to have the tigers back, a visit to the reserve at the time proved the local community was indifferent, merely wanting business as usual, to have access to roads, temples, and freedom for buffaloes to graze inside to feed the lucrative milk cake business.

Yet, the tiger was flown in, post haste because there was pressure to do it before the retirement of a senior bureaucrat in the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and before the state elections, since the Rajasthan government had 'lost face'.

Such lofty motives aside, it was hoped this would mark a new era for Sariska. This dream crashed when the tigers failed to breed, and herein lay another costly error-the tigers were genetically incompatible. Under pressure, an elaborate DNA exercise was conducted, but again, it is doubtful that the choice of ST4 was based on sound DNA.

Importantly, he was one of the four dominant males in Ranthambhore. His departure, and the consequent vacuum, created havoc in tiger society leading to infighting, and death in his former territory.

But the biggest error of both the state and the Centre was the lack of monitoring of the tigers. How effective were the protection mechanisms put in place? Was there sufficient, well-trained and equipped staff to trail the tigers? Why, even though it was repeatedly suggested, did the Centre not constitute a committee of experts to closely monitor the rehabilitated tigers in Sariska, given the sensitive nature of the initiative?

ST1 is suspected to have died of poisoning, ST4 is missing in action, feared dead. In spite of the series of blunders, Union minister Jairam Ramesh announced that another tiger will be brought to Sariska shortly. The question is not only the fiscal cost but the poor management of the translocation project and the neglect of other reserves with breeding tiger populations like Nagarjunasagar, Srilsailam, Similipal and Palamau.

Prerna Singh Bindra is a conservation journalist. Views expressed by the author are personal