History is waiting to be repeated at the Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) as the big cat population is under serious threat in the absence of the crucial and mandatory “buffer zone”.

The declaration of the buffer zone, which is mandatory for a tiger reserve under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 (amended in 2006), is being delayed by the Madhya Pradesh government under pressure from a strong mining mafia, according to official sources.

A “buffer zone” is an area around a tiger reserve or national park which is semi-inclusive and allows limited human interference unlike the “core area” which is inviolate.

Delay in the notification of the buffer zone has meant illegal mining and poaching both going on unabated.

“The tiger cubs introduced in the reserve earlier are now growing up and frequently try to move out of the reserve. This makes them vulnerable to traps set up by poachers,” says R.S. Murthy, Field Director, Panna Tiger Reserve.

“Only recently, a tiger cub and a couple of Hyenas were caught in traps set by poachers. Last year, we saved a leopard from such a trap and sent it to the Van Vihar National park in Bhopal. But the park management alone cannot stop such incidents always and therefore the buffer zone is crucial in order to save the Panna tigers,” says Mr. Murthy.

In 2009, the PTR had suffered the ignominy of reporting zero tiger population, chiefly due to poaching.

Recently a confidential report prepared by the Field Director, PTR, highlighted the presence of a poacher-official nexus in the reserve (Poaching mafia-official nexus cause for decreasing numbers of big cats in Panna).

And while poaching continues to be the biggest threat to the newly introduced tiger population in the PTR, the highly influential local mining lobby is only adding to the problem.

Illegal mining of sandstone and flagstone is rampant in the forest areas in and around the Panna Tiger Reserve and is carried out through several means: mining outside and beyond the allotted area, improper use of the pit pass, extracting more than the sanctioned quantity and digging mines in protected and reserved forest areas.

The mining mafia involves a state minister in the ruling BJP government along with local strongmen and even a journalist with a national Hindi TV news channel, according to sources inside the forest department.

There has been a consistent lack of political will with regard to the notification of the buffer zone at the PTR.

“Madhya Pradesh's political leaders, including the CM, are more interested in protecting the mining interests than setting up the buffer zone for Panna,” says a forest official on the condition of anonymity.

In October 2010, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan announced to a large public gathering at Panna that “people are more important than tigers” and so “there will be no buffer zone for Panna”.

Mr. Chauhan recently “corrected” his stand in an official communication to the forest department and “allowed” for the demarcation of a buffer zone for the PTR.

“Negotiations are currently going on with the 72 villages in the PTR since the Hon'ble CM wants all parties to be consulted before the notification of the buffer zone,” Chief Wildlife Warden H.S. Pablat old The Hindu.

However, informed sources claim the real reason behind the delay is pressure from the mining lobby.