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Is India’s Project Tiger going off script? Big cat deaths from Corbett to Pench to Kanha

Barely two months into 2023, India has lost 37 tigers. On 26 February, the deaths of three tigers in Maharashtra, Kerala and Uttarakhand were recorded by the NTCA.

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The post-mortem of the dead female tiger just got over and the veterinarian had terrible news for the senior forest officers at Corbett Tiger Reserve Uttarakhand.

“The tiger’s liver was badly damaged. I have not seen such a case in my entire life. The tigress was killed so badly. This is not normal,” the veterinarian was heard saying over the telephone. The female tiger was found dead in the same spot where it had mauled and killed a woman, in Almora earlier in February.

The forest officers, who had just returned from touring the jungle, didn’t say a word but the tension in the room rose a notch. It’s too much of a coincidence that a tiger would turn up dead just three days after the attack.

Finally, the veterinarian spoke up.

“Sir, we have to do something to save the tigers. The forest is becoming a bush. Conflict between humans and tigers has to be reduced,” he said.

The timing couldn’t have been worse.

2023 is a landmark year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to make a slew of announcements in April, said the officials, to mark 50 years of Project Tiger. Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud is expected to visit the reserve next month.  Also, the delegation of G20 will be visiting from 25 to 28 March, an official confirmed.

Project Tiger has been hailed as a resounding success—the number of these big cats in the wild almost doubled from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,967 as per the last tiger census in 2018. With India being home to around two-thirds of the world’s tigers, this feat becomes all the more impressive. Details of the 2022 National Tiger Census are expected to be released this year.

But the repopulating story has been going off script for the last five years. The tigers are dying. Barely two months into 2023, and already 37 tigers have been reported dead. On 26 February, the deaths of three tigers, in Maharashtra, Kerala and Uttarakhand, were recorded in the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) database. This year, nine tigers died in Madhya Pradesh alone, while Maharashtra recorded the second highest tiger deaths (8), followed by six in Uttarakhand.

But a senior NTCA official ThePrint spoke to said there was nothing to be alarmed about. “This is a natural cycle. Genetics, aggression and ecological factors play a role in tiger mortality.”

Last year, 121 tigers were reported dead, and in 2021, the death toll was even higher at 127. Forest officials as well as researchers and scientists in government-run research institutes that ThePrint spoke to explained that with the rising tiger population, deaths will also increase because of natural causes and animal conflict. Radio-collars is another reason experts cite.

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has expedited the probe into the reason for such a high death toll. Every tiger death has to be investigated thoroughly, including the one that died in Almora.

Loss of habitat, genetic isolation, disease, territorial fights, rail accidents, poaching fuelled by a thriving smuggling operation to China have all had a part to play in hastening the demise of the already endangered species.

Officials across parks are often accused of obfuscating details by pointing to natural deaths and big cats straying from the safety of the reserves. Lost, not dead, is what they seem to imply. But there’s no hiding from the fate of the female tiger that was killed in Uttarakhand.

The post-mortem report for the Almora tiger’s death will soon be submitted to Bareilly’s IVRI Deemed University and Dehradun’s Wildlife India Institute. The report is still lying with the IVRI. Post-mortem reports come to them from all over the country due to which they take 15 to 20 days before they are issued.

The government cannot afford to be lax. Huge funds have been poured into saving the tiger—it’s a matter of national pride and projection. In its 50th year, Project Tiger alone was awarded Rs 331 crore, while the MoEFCC saw its allocation increase by 24 per cent from the previous year.

“Several thousand crores have been spent on tiger conservation. In this context, the price of each tiger in this country is in crores. The number of tigers should have been 7,000 by now,” said Rajeev Mehta, former honorary wildlife warden of Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand.

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Manipulating death data

There’s no mistaking Mehta’s fascination with tigers. The walls of his study in his Haridwar house are covered with framed photos of tigers; the chair he’s sitting on has a tiger print upholstery; a small sculpture of the big cat stands on a side drawer; and piles of reference books are scattered across the table.

“Forest departments manipulate post-mortem reports to hide the death of tigers killed by poaching and poisoning to avoid their responsibilities,” alleged Mehta. In the past, he has accused top forest officials at Corbett Tiger Reserve of covering up poaching deaths.

“Many times, people from the forest department are also part of the post-mortem team, due to which there is no transparency,” he alleges, sitting on a tiger print chair. A post-mortem team usually includes forest officials, veterinarian, NGO members, journalists.

According to The Times of India, in 2016, Mehta had a hand in exposing how Corbett officials failed to crack down on a poaching incident in 2016. Five tiger skins and 130 kg of tiger bones—believed to belong to the big cats in the Reserve —were recovered from a gang of poachers.

“Poachers sometimes poison buffaloes, and when the tiger hunts them, it dies of poison. To avoid accountability, forest department officials sometimes show such cases as natural in the post-mortem reports,” Mehta told ThePrint. “They try to avoid it by showing the death as animal conflict.”

The NCTA, which documents all data related to the big cats on its website, said these allegations were baseless.

“We have guidelines for the post-mortem team, everyone has to follow that protocol. The post-mortem team consists of people from different organisations such as NGOs,” said Kaushik Banerjee, scientist at the National Tiger Conservation Authority.

The most common reason cited for big cat deaths by forest officials is animal conflict. Of the 1,062 deaths between 2011-2022, more than half, 53.2 per cent, occurred within tiger reserves, and 35.22 per cent or 374 tigers died outside the boundary of the reserves.

“As the number of tigers increases, the conflict between them will also increase and it is a completely natural process,” said Rajneesh Kumar, Forest Deputy Director, Pench Tiger Reserve.

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India’s Tiger State

The word ‘natural’ pops up quite often in official explanations for tiger deaths, especially in Madhya Pradesh, which wears its tag of ‘Tiger State’ proudly. But it has also reported the highest number of deaths in India, accounting for 34 tiger deaths in 2022 and 41 the previous year.

“Madhya Pradesh has the highest population of tigers in the country. Due to this, their death toll is also naturally high. Territorial fighting between tigers cannot be avoided as it is a natural process for them,” former dean of the Wildlife Institute of India Dr. YV Jhala told ThePrint.

From Bandhavgarh to Pench to Kanha, the state is home to some of the largest, oldest and most popular tiger reserves in India. People travel from all over the world to catch a glimpse the majestic animal in all its striped glory.

Former director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s India Programme,  K. Ullas Karanth argued that the high mortality rate is “natural”.

“When there are more tigers, and more cubs surviving to juvenile stage, and overall tiger densities are higher, there will be more deaths reported. Very few deaths are reported in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, North Eastern hill states because there are so few tigers left and so little reproduction,” he said.

But the argument doesn’t hold for Karnataka.

As per the last All India Tiger Estimation census, Madhya Pradesh had 526 tigers followed by Karnataka with 524. Yet, when it comes to mortality rate between 2011 and 2022, Karnataka reported only 150 tiger deaths compared to MP (270).

Male tigers need a home range of 60-150 square kms, and females anywhere between 20– 60 square km. But space is limited. Reserves are becoming increasingly isolated, corridors for tigers to roam are shrinking, which in turn affects the genetic diversity. If tigers can’t roam, small populations in reserves won’t be demographically viable in the long run, warned Aditya Joshi, head of conservation research at the Wildlife Conservation Trust, in a report in Nature magazine.

A study conducted by Dr. Prayag Madhukar Dhakate, Chief Conservator of Forests (Western Circle) and Shah M. Belal (scientist), Uttarakhand Forest Department, found that from 1990 to 2015, forest cover in the buffer of Corbett Tiger Reserve declined from 55 to 43 per cent. At the same time, human settlements increased from four to nine per cent and agricultural area increased from about 26 to 31 per cent.

In Corbett Tiger Reserve, Ramnagar, Forest Department officials are engaged in preparations for CJI DY Chandrachud’s visit. “We have 24-hour duty. We have to ensure the safety of the safari, protection of the animals and the safety of the local people all at the same time,” a harried forest department official at the Dhikala division, who did not wish to be identified told ThePrint.

Recently, the Supreme Court banned any kind of construction in the core area of tiger reserves, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

“When land encroachments are made in the tiger range, and roads, safari and resorts are built, then the land of tigers will decrease. This will automatically increase the conflict between the two tigers. To reduce this, the government should shift tigers to other reserves,” Bhopal-based wildlife activist Ajay Dubey told ThePrint. Dubey is a Wildlife conservationist based out of Bhopal and a petitioner in a case seeking direction to implement the recommendations proposed by the NTCA.

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The killer collars?

After “natural” causes and conflict, malfunctioning and defunct radio collars were thrown up as a reason for tiger deaths. Tigers from the Sundarbans in West Bengal to Tadoba Reserve in Maharashtra have succumbed to ‘radio-collar infections’ over the last few years. Apart from infections, there’s also a view held by experts that collars hinder movement and can be hacked by poachers to locate tigers.

Forest officials in Corbett, too, have their theories.

“Tigers suffer a lot from the rays coming out of radio collars. They are unable to mate due to its weight. Also, they face problems in breeding with it,” said a forest department official of the Dhikala division of the Corbett Reserve on condition of anonymity.

But scientists argue that radio collars have been successful in conservation efforts.  K. Ramesh, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India calls it a “ray of hope” that gives accurate information about a tiger’s roaming patterns and position. “It has bridged the gap between humans and our understanding of tigers,” he said.

Dubey, however, questioned the quality of equipment that the government is investing in. He cited an instance where forest officials recorded a tiger’s death a month after it took place despite it being fitted with a radio collar. “They spend crores of rupees on technology but they are not working properly. What is the use of such technology?”

But the so-called collar deaths are a small number when compared to wildlife that fall prey to poachers.

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Guards down

Mehta and Dubey described forest officials as ‘tourist managers’ who are not equipped to deal with poachers. Forest guards are outnumbered and under-equipped to deal with poachers who are often armed and part of well-organised syndicates.

“We are short of staff. Forest guards do not get their salaries on time. If this is addressed, then we will be able to do tiger conservation properly,” a forest official from Corbett told ThePrint. Forest guards do not have the authority to fire at poachers without permission from the NTCA.

While arming forest guards may not be the answer, the Supreme Court, too, has weighed in on this. In 2021, an SC bench suggested that the Enforcement Directorate should be roped in to tackle crimes against wildlife. “It should have a separate wildlife wing,” said the bench.

So far in 2023, nine tigers have died in Madhya Pradesh, and at least two in the hands of poachers, one at Pench and the other at Panna Tiger Reserve. In both cases, they fell prey to deadly electric wire traps.

But for all the limitations and setbacks, Jhala commended MP’s forest officials and guards.

“They have done a great job of stopping poaching and this has been possible only through maximum resources and patrolling, although the concern of smuggling still remains as there is a big market for tiger body parts in China. Poachers sell tiger body parts there for Rs 2 to 2.5 lakh,” Dr Jhala said.

Demand for tiger parts makes poaching all the more lucrative. Historically, illegal trade thrives in China where bones, claws, etc are used in traditional medicine. But a 2022 study found that the US was equally culpable. Tiger parts trafficked into the US illegally could well account for almost half of illegal tiger trade in the recent past.

In 2009-2010, the NTCA advised states with high tiger populations to recruit and train special police personnel to patrol the forests to protect tigers. After this, Special Tiger Protection Forces were formed in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Odisha and Assam, but not Madhya Pradesh.

“If local people are included in STPF, then it will be easier to stop poaching cases, but the forest department rarely takes the help of locals,” Dubey said.

But that’s easier said than done. More often than not, there’s resentment among villagers, something that plays out across protected areas in India. In Ramnagar, the relationship between forest guards and local residents has soured, especially since the death of the woman.

“We are not allowed to enter Corbett Tiger Reserve. It is designed only for safari purposes,” said a resident in Ramnagar, who did not wish to be named. He and others are demanding that they be included in the conservation plan.

Dr Jhala has a more fatalistic explanation for why tigers are dying. He sounds stained over the phone, having just returned from surveying a reserve in Uttarakhand.

“Tigers don’t come drinking Amrit (pious water that makes one immortal). The one who is born has to die one day,” he said.

(Edited by Anjali Thomas and Anurag Chaubey)

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