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How to drown a tiger

A radio-collared tiger roams in Panna   | Photo Credit: Jaipal Singh

In the heart of Panna Tiger Reserve, Girwar Singh, a young forest guard with the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, has been up the whole night. “The tigress was teaching her young cubs to hunt a chital and they were running around everywhere.” Singh is one of an army of foot soldiers following Panna’s most precious residents—11 radio-collared tigers—night and day through deep valleys and gorges. Singh is in charge of two tigers called T1 and P141. The periodic tic-tic sound of the radio collar sending out a signal to the antenna he holds above his head lets Singh know that the tiger is safe.

This young man has a ringside view of tiger conservation, tracking the big cat and learning more about its mysterious life. But his duties involve physical and mental stress: he cannot afford to ever lose track of his animals. Sometimes there is panic, if he can’t hear the sound, it means either the tiger has wandered off into a valley, or the radio collar is not working. He must then alert the senior officials and an arduous effort begins to bring in the wildlife veterinarian and tranquilise the 250-pound big cat to replace its radio collar.


Tracking tigers on foot is tedious; it’s also expensive. The State government has spent crores already in creating teams that monitor the big cats, training forest guards and moving villagers out, to turn the Panna story around. In 2009, Panna National Park made international headlines when it lost every single tiger to poaching, much the way Sariska had lost its tigers. The sordid tale of the disappearance of Panna’s tigers may not have even reached the public eye if it hadn’t been for scientist-turned-whistleblower Dr. Raghunandan Chundawat raising the alarm. Chundawat had been documenting the big cats in this part of Bundelkhand for over a decade. It was Chundawat who shot off letters to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and then to the Ministry of Environment & Forests to alert them that Panna was going the Sariska way, that soon there would be no tigers. A special investigation team constituted by the Madhya Pradesh government confirmed Chundawat’s worst fears: the team could not find evidence of even one tiger.

Today, Panna is slowly turning a new leaf. This year, thanks to the work of a battery of forest officials, scientists and NGOs, there is new hope for the tigers, eight years after their disappearance from the park. Since a reintroduction programme was begun, when individual tigers were brought in from neighbouring reserves such as Kanha and Bandhavgarh, Panna’s tiger population has steadily grown. The park today has as many as 23 adults and 14 cubs, according to the last study conducted by Wildlife Institute of India.

A view of the Ken river that is proposed to be linked to the Betwa river.

A view of the Ken river that is proposed to be linked to the Betwa river.   | Photo Credit: Joanna V. Gruisen


A brand new threat

But just as the tiger returns to Panna, the reserve itself is up against a brand new threat: the ₹18,000 crore Ken-Betwa river-linking project. If implemented, the Bundelkhand-based project will submerge prime forest spread over 4,000 hectares and destroy 11 lakh trees. The tiger reserve itself will be bifurcated by the dam, leaving even less forest space for the beleaguered tigers.

The proposal to link the Ken and Betwa rivers to provide water to the parched parts of Uttar Pradesh was made by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Now, both the Centre and the State government wants to revive the idea. The project envisages the construction of the Daudhan dam deep in the heart of tiger country, in the core of the reserve. Clearances are proceeding at breakneck speed, even though every committee set up by the government has advised against it.

This is disastrous news, given how hard it has been for Panna to recover. It certainly took more than just radio collars to bring back the majestic predator to these climes. And the hard work continues. Field Director Vivek Jain, who sits in a small building in Panna town, is affable and open to talking, unlike other Park Directors who are wary of the press. “I have been here only 14 months; a lot happened before I came in,” he admits candidly. “Our job is now more difficult. There are so many tigers, monitoring them becomes a challenge.” Male tigers typically move out in search of a mate. Jain shows a map on his computer that tracks the number of tigers moving out of the park , keeping his men on their toes.

To manage the tigers when they stray out is wildlife veterinarian Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who has the unique record of having tranquilised 55 tigers in the 17 years he has been here. “I was here when there were 32 tigers. I was here when the number went down to zero. And here I am now when there are 40,” says Gupta. He could well be on his way to setting a world record; his stories are the stuff of Discovery Channel documentaries. An average day in his life is spent darting tigers, operating on hyenas and releasing injured leopards and tigers back into the wild. He has also vaccinated 3,000 feral dogs within a one-kilometre radius of Panna National Park against rabies to protect tigers from the disease. Indeed, Gupta is your modern day Doctor Dolittle, conducting complicated surgeries under a tree.

Man vs beast

Gupta describes how a few years ago a tiger strayed out of Panna into a village nearby and was finally found in a flooded paddy field, making rescue operations formidable. “We had to tranquilise the tiger in an open field that had many wells. It was raining. The tiger could have fallen into any of the wells during the darting exercise. So we surrounded the tiger with tame elephants, then tranquilised him. By now, hundreds of people had gathered around and we had to call the police in. This had happened during Durga Puja and people thought the animal’s presence was auspicious and started throwing coins on the tranquilised tiger, even as we put her on a stretcher and carried her on to a tractor. Imagine, in this sea of people, if the tiger had woken up and attacked someone!”

Besides tracking radio-collared tigers, Panna’s protectors also have to preserve the forest, which is surrounded by a sea of humanity. At one time there were as many as nine villages inside the forest. Most of these have been relocated.Today, only three remain inside. Badhaun village was relocated in 2012, under an ambitious scheme introduced by the NTCA. The entire village is now situated near Panna town, not far from the forest department office. Mud-washed homes, painted in a cool blue, the settlement here could seem the prototype of a happy village—a feel-good story of people who voluntarily moved out to make way for the tiger. But relocating humans is fraught with problems; it’s never just about a physical relocation. Premilal, a middle-aged man from the Yadav community, says he misses life in the forest. “We lived inside Panna. My father, my grandfather were born there. I don’t know why we moved out. Yes, we have a home here, but we have nowhere to graze our cattle.”

Sitting next to him, 40-year-old Bhagirath from the Gond tribe says that life outside the forest is tougher. He shares the cold mathematics of relocation. “We got around ₹8.35 lakh as compensation. This house you see cost us around ₹50,000. Then we had to buy land for agriculture; that lies quite far from here. We purchased two bighas for ₹50,000.” They got money, but there are daily challenges. His wife Imarti complains about having to walk longer hours to collect firewood. She admits she sneaks into the national park, always under the constant fear of being caught by forest officials. “If I get caught, they will seize the firewood or any fodder I may have collected and just burn it.”

Submerging their lives

In spite of these problems, Bhagirath admits that accessibility is easier outside the forest, important in the case of a medical emergency or just to be able to send his young children to school. There are three villages still inside the national park.

It is ironic, therefore, that while Bhagirath and many families like his were moved out to make way for the tiger, a proposed multi-crore irrigation project is all set to submerge the same lands today. Worse still, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the Ken-Betwa river-linking project states that more than 5,000 people will have to move into labour camps to construct the dam.

The dam at Daudhan is proposed to be 77 metres high and 2,031 metres wide. A 221 km long canal will also be built to transfer the water from the Ken to the Betwa river basin to irrigate an estimated 6.35 lakh hectares of land in parched Bundelkhand.

Bhagirath and Imarti

Bhagirath and Imarti   | Photo Credit: Bahar Dutt


To link or not to link

The intentions may be noble, but river-linking, as has been pointed out by several environmentalists, is like playing with nature. Curiously, even as the EIA report outlines the huge social and environmental costs of the project, it goes on to praise the project, stating that “the high adverse impacts are to a great extent offset by the positive impacts of a large area getting the benefit of the command.”

But there are others who disagree. Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) has written an extensive critique of the EIA report, including the process by which information was shared with the public. In 2014, when the public hearing was conducted, Thakkar noted in the critique, “The public hearing process requires that the EIA and EMP (Environment Management Plan) plan be put up on the website of the Pollution Control Board a month before the actual public hearing. The full EIA and EMP were never put up on the MPPCB (Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board) website.”

He further observes, “The Ken Betwa Link project is a joint project between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh; about half of the benefits and downstream impacts in Ken and Betwa basins are to be faced by Uttar Pradesh, but the public hearings are not being conducted in UP at all; the proposed public hearing is only in MP..” Thakkar points out glaring mistakes in the EIA report. For instance, the report states in its executive summary that “none of the species of aquatic plants come either under rare or endangered or endemic or threatened categories”. In fact, scientific studies clearly show that the Ken has at least four endangered and nine vulnerable species.

Experts from the EIA Resource and Response Centre, who submitted their concerns to the Forest Advisory Committee, have argued that in fact the permissions given by the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife are outside their jurisdiction. The Standing Committee can only give permissions for projects that benefit wildlife. How can drowning the tiger’s habitat be of any benefit to wildlife?

Besides Thakkar, a number of other experts have written letters to the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment & Forests asking them to revisit the Terms of Reference on the basis of which the project has been given approval. Professor Brij Gopal, a geologist who has spent a lifetime studying the sediments, biodiversity and water quality of Ken, wrote a letter to the EAC on January 17, 2016 stating that “the proposal for K-B linking is based on the assumption than River Ken basin is water-surplus, which is not supported by any hydrological data, is erroneous, and farthest possible from the reality on the ground. The proposal is rooted in the desire to construct four projects in upper Betwa basin for growing rice and sugarcane in place of pulses and millets, while Panna district gets no water from the project.”

Could there have been other alternatives that could have been explored, given the huge financial, ecological and human cost of the project? Focusing on less water-intensive crops and reviving traditional water bodies like tanks and village ponds could have been ways to bring water to a dry region without having to destroy seven lakh trees or flood two sanctuaries. In spite of the caution raised by several water experts and wildlife biologists, it is clear that neither the Centre nor the State is in any mood to listen. In May last year, when the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife gave a go-ahead to the project, even the site inspection report had not been completed. Last month, the Forest Advisory Committee has given conditional clearance, if several concerns could be addressed such as reducing the height of the dam to save some of the wildlife habitats from being flooded.

Meanwhile, even as the deluge looms large, it’s business as usual at Panna. Hundreds of tourists throng the gates of the national park for a tiger sighting. Gupta, Panna’s Dr. Dolittle, loads his tranquiliser gun; Singh packs his lunch for a long day in the forest; and Bhagirath, the relocated villager, begins his daily hunt for firewood.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist currently working on a book for the Oxford University Press.

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 10:34:36 AM |

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