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Rajasthan: Policy Document on Tiger Population Needed

Territorial fights cause increased mortality among the tigers in Ranthambore, and the state government is now planning on translocation of the big cats here.

Success might sometimes come with its own set of problems. This appears to be happening with the tiger conservation programme in Rajasthan, where the Ranthambore National Park now has over 70 tigers in an area spanning 1,400 sq km. The total tiger population in the state – including the ones in Sariska too – is now estimated to exceed 100. Territorial fights cause increased mortality among the big cats, and the state government is planning on translocation of tigers. Among the areas where the tigers could be moved is the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, home to a rich variety of wildlife.

A healthy leopard population co-exists with striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), jungle cat, sambhar, nilgai and sloth bear at Kumbhalgarh. The plan was to notify the sanctuary as a tiger reserve and expand it to include the 500 sq km Todgarh Raoli Wildlife Sanctuary. However, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has pointed to the lack of a prey base, the absence of contiguous forests, and other problems.

This region locally referred to as Godwad, lies between the Aravalli mountains and the expanse of the Thar desert in south-central Rajasthan. It is home to tribal groups like the Bhil, Meena and Garasia, and non-tribal populations of the nomadic Raika pastoralists, who herd camels, sheep and goats.

The last tigers in this area were spotted more than 50 years ago. There are currently 24 villages within the boundary of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, according to a report prepared by NGO Kalpavriksh. If tigers are introduced, villagers will face eviction. The NCTA proposes urgent action for “incentivized voluntary” relocation of people. The livelihood of small farmers and herders, whose grazing grounds have traditionally extended into the protected areas, will be hit.

Stone quarrying near the sanctuary has already affected the striped hyena, whose den is in the rough boulders of the Aravalli range. These nocturnal animals have been affected by the destruction of natural rock formations. “The striped hyena needs to be conserved, and it would be best to treat this sanctuary as a reserve for this threatened species,” says GV Reddy, who retired as chief wildlife warden of Rajasthan.

The failure of tiger translocation to Mukundra Tiger Reserve, once the hunting grounds of the Maharajah of Kota, is still too fresh to be forgotten. In July-August 2020, four tigers were moved to this reserve in a bid to lessen the pressure of the tiger population at Ranthambore and Sariska reserves. Just months later, all but one of these tigers died.

Unlike Mukundra, which served as a corridor for tigers moving out of the Ranthambore Tiger Sanctuary, Kumbhalgarh does not have contiguous forest areas into which an expanding tiger population could disperse.

Plans to introduce the tiger in Kumbhalgarh saw real estate developers excited, and large, luxurious resorts mushroomed on the edges of the sanctuary. The Rajasthan tourism policy of 2020 also provides for expanding tourist accommodation infrastructure. On January 18, 2022, the Rajasthan High Court stayed all construction within a one-km radius of the border of Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. Petitioner Rituraj Singh Rathore pointed out that the expansion of construction and the carving of private parcels of land in this area had left the forest department with a shrinking area.

Even though NTCA has listed deficiencies that need to be corrected before the area becomes viable for a tiger population, the plan for a tiger reserve has not been abandoned. A “Herbivore Enrichment Centre” was set up on forest land, with funds from the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) to augment prey density. About ten nilgai and a few chinkara from the rescue centre at Jodhpur have been moved to this centre, and these will be released into the forest. At the enrichment centre, the animals were seen huddled together in the cold, happy to have foreheads petted by visitors.

The state government lacks a clear policy on the management of its tiger reserves, and no document offers insights on plans to deal with the increased population of tigers. Until a proper enunciation of this problem is made, real estate developers will continue to push unrealistic plans for the introduction of animals that could boost tourist revenue without concern for the broader ecosystem, cheating gullible investors.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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