As you reach the core area bordering the tourism zone at Dhikala in Corbett Tiger Reserve, the road is lined with hotels, some under construction, and on the other side, are yards of plastic garbage. An unprepossessing sight, as the lush forests make way for the grasslands and the river inside.
The oldest national park in Asia, Corbett Tiger Reserve covers 521 square km. Along with the Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary and reserve forestareas, the Reserve spreadsover 1288.31 square km.
Corbett Field Director R. K. Mishra says no incident of tiger poaching has been detected since 2000-2001 and there is always a threat. In May, during combing operations, four traps were found by forest staff, and a Haryana trail led to the arrest of three suspected poachers. The Reserve has 214 tigers and there are at least 42 big cats in the forests outside. In 2010, a tiger which killed six people, including five women from Sunderkhal village, near the Reserve, was shot dead by a policeman who pumped over 60 bullets from an AK 47 into it. The carcass was then paraded on an elephant so that people could satisfy themselves that the “man-eater” was, in fact, dead.
More recently four tiger cubs were charred to death in a fire in the Terai forest range near Hempur.
Tiger deaths all over the country this year went up to an alarming figure of 48 till June. Even if all deaths are not due to poaching, this is a high number, S. P. Yadav, Deputy Inspector-General, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), said at a media briefing by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi last week.
Last year 56 tigers died due to various reasons. In 2010, 52 died, 24 of them due to poaching. The NTCA has now declared that all deaths will be treated as poaching unless proved otherwise.
The hot spots seem to be Tadoba in Maharashtra and Palamau in Jharkhand. The situation in Maharashtra is grim this year with seven tigers dying, all in Chandrapur district around the Tadoba Tiger Reserve. Four of the deaths occurred due to poaching, says Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) S.W.H. Naqvi. Last year, five tigers died, one due to poaching. The recent ‘shoot at sight' orders to curb poaching came after the seventh instance. However, Mr. Naqvi clarifies, forest guards have the power to shoot a poacher only in self-defence after due warning.
In three separate cases from January to May, one dead tiger had its paws cut off, another was killed by a trap and in the other instance, 10 body parts were found in Chandrapur.
Despite their protected status and the creation of special reserves, tigers continue to remain vulnerable to threats thanks to the huge market for the body parts of the animal, Mr. Yadav says. While the last census in 2010 was reassuring with reports of 1,706 tigers in the country and the creation of a Special Tiger Protection Force (STPC) in 13 reserves, many STPCs are still to get off the ground except in Karnataka. Of the annual budget of Rs. 200 crore for tiger protection, the bulk goes for anti-poaching operations which now include sophisticated electronic or E eye surveillance in one part of Corbett National Park, which has towers with thermal imaging cameras.
The main hurdle is lack of good intelligence on poaching, officials say. M.K.S. Pasha of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, says at least 43 tigers were killed annually in the decade ended 2010. There are 41 tiger reserves in 17 States, of which 25 have a notified buffer zone, according to NTCA member-secretary Rajesh Gopal. With a total of 760 villages and 48,500 families living in the core areas of these reserves, conflict is inevitable and till now only 105 villages have been relocated.
Adding to the complication of conservation are the unknown number of tigers outside the reserves. The last census in 2010 estimated that 30 per cent of tigers were living outside protected areas. For instance; in Maharashtra, Mr Naqvi says, there are 90-100 tigers outside the Tadoba Reserve, which has a population of 40, says Mr. Naqvi. The four tiger reserves in the State —Tadoba, Pench, Melghat and Sahyadri — have a total population of 169 as per the last census but it could be higher.
Conservation of tigers and the issues involved were examined by a Tiger Task Force (TTF) in 2005 but some of its recommendations are yet to be implemented. A crucial point is inclusive conservation, according to CSE Director-General Sunita Narain and TTF member Sunita Narain. When tigers disappeared from Sariska in Rajasthan, TTF called for institutional strengthening of protection, a sophisticated counting mechanism and faster conviction of poachers. It has a nuanced position on relocation of villages inside the parks. People need not be the enemy of the tiger and they could become protectors of the park as well.
There is need to change the conservation paradigm to benefit local communities, says Ms. Narain, apart from managing tourism which could be a double-edged sword.
Shrinking habitats, poor relocation policies and continuing threats to tigers must force a re-look at the issue of core area tourism. Inviolate spaces need to be created and an approach that will not look at people as antagonistic to tiger conservation should be developed.