There is trouble in Rajasthan's tiger paradise, Ranthambhore. Tiger sightings have shrunk in the reserve, familiar faces are no longer visible giving rise to the concern: Where have the tigers gone?According to sources, till May 2004 over 20 tigers were sighted in the tourism zone, but when the park opened for visitors after the monsoon season only a dozen of these could be spotted.
A conservationist based at Ranthambhore lists the missing big cats: Broken Tail, easily recognised because of his stunted tail, has not been sighted for a year; Chips and Nick-Ear who starred in a BBC film, Danger in Tiger Paradise have gone missing; Kachida tigress once frequently encountered also appears to have disappeared, along with the male usually spotted at Lahpur. Even Tiger Watch, a Ranthambhore-based NGO, has warned that no less than ten of the tigers commonly sighted since 1999 are not being seen now.
Being India's most celebrated tiger reserve, Ranthambhore tigers are under close scrutiny. Allegations of poaching are rampant but cannot be ascertained given the lack of evidence. At the same time, mismanagement and lack of protection accorded to the park have made it vulnerable to poachers and other disturbances.
There are also reports that Moghiya's or tribal hunters have been entering the park illegally. Sambhar and cheetal meat is easily available in the markets nearby. However, park officials seem blissfully unaware of the potential crisis. GS Bhardwaj, deputy director of the park, claims, "Tiger sightings are less in winters, and a good monsoon has dispelled the need for tigers to concentrate near water holes or lakes. They are dispersed in the forest."
Park authorities hardly adhere to the directive given by Project Tiger in June 2002. The directive urges stringent protection measures including extensive foot patrolling, strict supervision and surprise checks by officers, joint raids with local police etc.
"A park and its tigers cannot be protected unless the management is out in the field patrolling everyday. Field surveillance in Ranthambhore is minimal. The park is bound to degenerate" says a senior official working with the Ministry of Environment and Forests. There are also reports of bush meat - sambhar and wild boar meat - being available in the markets in nearby villages like Uliana, Khandar, Kundera and Sanwata. Fishing within the park is common and an informal survey estimates that atleast 800 head loads of wood is being removed from the forest everyday. Grazing of cattle in the core area is habitual and intensive. Some believe that such intense disturbance, coupled with tourism pressure could also have driven the tigers to lesser-disturbed areas.
Director, Project Tiger Dr Rajesh Gopal, who recently toured Ranthambhore and Sariska, has directed an intensive search and frontline monitoring of wildlife in both protected areas. "This needs to be done on an urgent basis to ascertain the situation and arrive at a solution" he asserts. Sariska is already facing a tiger crisis, just one tiger has been sighted on January 29 since the reserve opened in July 2004. Ranthambhore is the last remaining stronghold of tigers in Rajasthan, a state once proud of its wildlife heritage. But, for how long, is anybody's guess!