Almost a year after the Hindustan Times expose (Rajasthan govt sent tiger siblings to repopulate Sariska, June 29, 2009), a National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) report has finally admitted that DNA tests conducted by Bangalore-based National Centre of Biological Sciences (NCBS) found the big cats to be siblings.
The HT investigation exposed how, between June 2008 and February 2009, two sisters and their half-brother were picked up arbitrarily from Ranthambore and sent to Sariska. Siblings often find it difficult to breed and when they do, it leads to acute inbreeding depression. In spite of regular mating, the Sariska tigers have so far failed to breed.
This January, the NTCA ordered DNA tests on tigers of Ranthambore and Sariska, to ascertain breeding compatibility before shifting any more of them and commissioned a field study by Aparajita Datta, member, NTCA, and AJT Johnsingh, former professor, Wildlife Institute of India.
Referring to the Hindustan Times investigation in their report submitted earlier this month, Datta and Johnsingh observed: "The media report is correct in saying the genetic analysis should have been conducted prior translocation to assess the relatedness of the animals when establishing a new population."
The report further noted: "From the three scat samples meant to be of the three different individual tigers now in Sariska…male and female have been found to be highly related suggesting that they are…siblings."
Rajasthan forest department has all along claimed that the two Sariska tigresses were half-siblings born to the same mother but the male tiger sent to Sariska was unrelated to them.
Meanwhile, though NCBS received scat sample for DNA tests from Ranthambhore only last week, the NTCA has decided to translocate two big cats that have moved out of the national park to adjoining under-protected forests.
“The scientific studies will continue but we need to urgently shift these two tigers -- a male in Kela Devi sanctuary and a female near Kota. Their future is anyway uncertain in these disturbed forests and they will get a second chance in Sariska," said Dr Rajesh Gopal, member-secretary, NTCA.
However, as Sariska is scheduled to receive its fourth tiger on July 4, after a 15 month moratorium, the state forest officials are again looking to take the easy way out.
"The NTCA plan is commendable. But the field officers have been trying to tranquilize those two tigers for quite some time without success. Wary, now they are seeking to widen their options by randomly targeting easy tigers from inside the national park," said Fateh Singh Rathore, ex-conservator, Ranthambhore.
An agency report on Sunday quoted a senior state forest official as saying that NTCA-appointed experts Datta and Johnsingh had submitted a list of 10 probable tigers in Ranthambore, of which two would be picked for translocation. "As only two tigers have to be shifted, the wide choice of ten tigers would prevent a delay in executing the big cat relocation plan," the official was quoted anonymously.
However, the report submitted by Datta and Johnsingh noted that the state forest officials themselves furnished a list of 9-12 tigers they deemed fit for relocation. The experts explicitly pointed out that they were "unable to comment on the suitability of most of these animals" and that there was "limited scientific information available…to make decisions based on objective scientific criteria".
Their report, therefore, recommended capturing only the two animals outside the national park and warned against selecting any other individual without determining their (genetic) relatedness.
Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist