The crack of gunshots often rises above the blood-curdling roar of Royal Bengals in Jharkhand’s lone tiger reserve, in the heart of Maoist rebel country too dangerous for even the diehard forest guard to venture into.
Forest officials can rarely enter Palamu Tiger Reserve — one of the oldest habitats brought under Project Tiger in 1973 to protect the national animal — spread over 414 square km of core area and 715 square km of buffer zones because of running battles between security forces and Maoist separatists.
Bereft of protection, Palamu’s tiger population has dwindled to a precarious three animals, said state wildlife board member Dr DS Srivastava quoting census data released in December 2014.
From 22 tigers in 1973 to 42 in 2003, the reserve was a conservation success story until mismanagement took its toll, he said.
More than that, around 85% posts are vacant at the reserve, show data compiled by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, against an average of around 40% vacancies in such protected sanctuaries across the country because of paucity of funds.
Unlike its counterparts, Palamu does not have a special tiger protection force, though it sits in the middle of a Maoist stronghold. Its remote interiors, where shootouts between rebels and security forces spring up all the time, have remained unprotected and out of bounds for forest officials.
The state government is to be partly blamed for the pushing the tigers of Palamu to the brink of extinction, ground-level workers alleged. They said the government has been annually granting extension to a temporary project establishment allocation, thereby drastically delaying time-bound execution of projects at the reserve since 1973.
“Besides the annual extension system, the recent cut in central assistance from 100% to 60% on non-recurring expenditure will adversely impact operations here,” said Arun Singh Rawat, the reserve’s field director.
Officials admitted the indifference reflects in the fast-declining number of tigers — over 90% since 2003 — as the reserve remained ignored and was running on an ad hoc funding system 43 years since its inception.
At a recent meeting between Union forest minister Prakash Javadekar and Jharkhand chief minister Raghuvar Das in Delhi, the member secretary of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, BS Bonal, pointed out the drawbacks of the temporary system for Palamu.
Javadekar apparently asked Das to act quickly to ensure better management of the tiger reserve.
But forest officials remained skeptical. “Nobody in the state’s higher echelons is concerned about Palamu,” one of them said.