THE MYSTERIOUS `DISAPPEARANCE' of tigers from Sariska, a forest zone dedicated to the magnificent cat, represents a new low in the campaign to save the highly endangered species. There is official acknowledgment of the missing tigers, and a recommendation has been made to declare an emergency in neighbouring Ranthambore to avert a similar catastrophe. The campaign to save the country's tigers has been led by successive Prime Ministers starting with Indira Gandhi who was personally concerned about the fate of Panthera tigris — which had been reduced from 40,000 individuals in the early part of the 20th century to 1,827 in 1972. There are an estimated 3,700 tigers in the wild today. India's leaders determined in 1973 that special protection to the tiger would ensure the safety of all other species in the surviving forests of the country. Project Tiger, launched that year, was subsequently expanded to cover 27 sites. It is ironical that the tiger is now impossible to find in Sariska (which, by an official count, had 24 two years ago) and reportedly also in Simlipal, although both the sites enjoy a protected status. It is wholly appropriate that the Centre has decided to pursue the issue with the Rajasthan Government to determine whether Sariska's tigers have been wiped out by poaching for body parts, bad science, habitat destruction, population pressure, a poorly equipped forest service, or a combination of these factors. Early evidence strongly suggests that poachers have been having a free run.

The management plan being followed by Project Tiger at various sites is based on a `core-buffer' strategy. This means the core area is kept free of all human activity while the buffer allows conservation-oriented land use. It is the aim of the project to expand both core and buffer zones to form more viable conservation sites, with greater ranges that can support higher tiger populations. A popular movement supports plans to acquire private property around the protected areas and extend their boundaries but not much headway seems to have been made in this respect. The present emergency, which should be extended to all parks, sanctuaries and forests, is an opportune moment to assess the outcomes of Project Tiger initiatives and to audit the implementation in various States of its recommendations. These include programmes relating to poaching, securing the livelihood of forest-dependant communities, and curbs on activities such as road building in protected areas.

Along with support from the public and the judiciary to protect forests, the Environment Ministry and the Indian Forest Service need more modern science and a well-equipped wildlife force. The Indian Forest Service has been greatly weakened by a shortage of trained manpower to protect forests; it has in addition unwisely diversified into forest-based economic activities that go against the grain of conservation. A strong focus on wildlife science is absent in most State forest bureaucracies. The way forward will be for the Environment Ministry to start a new chapter of collaboration with universities, credentialled research and conservation institutions, and individual scientists. Officialdom needs to move away from a state of denial when confronted with serious conservation issues as in Sariska. The Ministry must create an enabling environment for the application of modern scientific tools to research. Currently there is an unexplained suspicion of camera traps and associated statistical models as a means of assessing tiger populations, though traditional methodologies have not proved to be superior. The cause of conservation will be better served by a transparent policy that welcomes genuine scientific endeavour, provides liberal research assistance, and sets store by rigorous evaluation.

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