Mon, Mar 28, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Tigers go missing at Indian nature reserve

NO TRACE Reserve officials are at a loss to explain what happened to its dwindling tiger population in what has been called the biggest conservation scandal ever


Staff at the Sariska Tiger Reserve initially preferred not to publicize the fact that its tiger population had gone missing. Now the peculiar disappearance of the tigers is an international scandal.

This weekend India's government sent eight detectives from Delhi to investigate who is to blame for what it being described as the worst wildlife crisis in post-independence India.

The prime minister has launched a public commission to establish what went wrong and to ensure the catastrophe is not repeated in any other reserve. Animal protection organizations have expressed their horror.

For centuries maharajahs and the elite of the British Raj travelled to Sariska to hunt the tigers. When hunting became unfashionable and then illegal, the reserve began to attract eco-tourists.

But in recent years the population of this highly-endangered species has dwindled here; in 2003 there were an estimated 25-28, and just 16-18 last year; officials now think there are none. None of the staff has seen any trace of a tiger for five months -- no paw marks or trademark scratches on trees, no prey carcasses.

The problem echoes a national trend; most experts believe India's estimate of 3,000 native tigers is a huge exaggeration.

"It's probably the biggest conservation scandal in modern times," said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

Many possible causes has been cited, with local officials, regional ministers and wildlife experts naming their own scapegoats.

For some it is purely a question of incompetent management; for others it's the local administration, which failed to move the 28 noisy villages inside the 880 square-km reserve or divert a busy road used daily by thousands of trucks, cars and buses running through its center. Others blame the central government for inadequate funding.

Park officials suggest optimistically that perhaps the tigers have temporarily migrated elsewhere or the rain has washed away their tracks.

Some newspapers have evoked Sansar Chand -- a legendary godfather figure in India's taxidermy industry -- and claimed that he orchestrated a mass-scale poisoning of the tigers with the help of corrupt game wardens.

Braj Mohan Sharma, the park's deputy field director, denied the corruption charges and said the problem was largely down to the small, aging team of unarmed forest wardens.

"There's been no recruitment of frontline staff since 1986 -- there's haven't been the funds. The average age of the wardens is over 50; they have lived an unhealthy life and are not strong enough to catch the poachers," he said at his desk in the park's head office, a chaotic, paper-strewn room showing signs of profound administrative neglect.

"There are no armed guards -- they have about five guns between them," he said.

The flourishing hotel industry on the park's eastern fringes, which attracts booming tourism numbers, is also a factor, as is the thriving but primitive marble mining industry, using heavy explosives. Most implausibly perhaps, the presence of a temple inside the park, which welcomes thousands of worshippers every week, is accused of having fatally disturbed the animals.

Amid all this confusion, park officials stress that they await the results of the police investigation, adding that until the annual May animal census, no one can say for certain whether the alarm is well-founded.

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