The Big Cats of Sariska need a young and nimble brigade to save them. What we have instead is a greying force, writes Bahar Dutt.
Sariska was earlier the hunting reserve of the royal Alwar family of Rajasthan. Its proximity to Delhi and Jaipur makes it the most visited park in India today. Best time to visit is between October and June
It’s a national park that grabbed the world’s headlines. Because of the wipe-out of all its tigers, Sariska in Rajasthan became a blot in the history of conservation in India. But the tiger is back. In September 2008, the Indian Air Force airlifted two tigers from the Ranthambore National Park to be translocated to Sariska. Since then, a virtual army of foot-soldiers and wildlife scientists are tracking two radio-collared tigers to make sure nothing goes wrong.
Till now no media team was allowed inside this heavily barricaded park. Operation Big Cat is in full swing. Three hundred men patrol the park — every visitor is frisked, and the area where the tigers have been released is cordoned off to make sure they adjust to their new home. As the only media team allowed inside to track the tigers on foot, we witnessed first-hand the mammoth effort undertaken to protect these tigers and to meet the men engaged in a task, till now, virtually impossible.
The terrain of Sariska is rugged. It’s also indicative of the terrain the tiger walks on. Both the tigers have been fitted with radio collars sending out signals to a satellite, which then sends the data that is monitored daily by scientists at the Wildlife Institute of India, top officials of the Rajasthan Forest Department and the National Tiger Conservation Authority in New Delhi.
On the ground, two teams are physically tracking the tigers day and night. But they have to be constantly alert. The two animals still new to this forest could stray into human habitation or outside the boundaries of the park, making them vulnerable to poachers.
Post-monsoon, this 840-square-km park is thick with undergrowth. On the day we join the tracking team, it’s the male tiger that is causing stress. In Ranthambore, his territory overlapped with many other males. Here, in Sariska with no other tiger in the park, he’s truly king.
The tiger has been moving across different terrains, sometimes in a valley — at which point the signal from the radio collar gets lost and sends the tracking team into complete panic — sometimes on top of a hill, making the tracking physically arduous. By mid-day, the tiger trail takes on the nature of a comic film sequence: the officers climb trees, they hide behind bushes, they whisper into their wireless sets. They then lead us up a hill in the forest as we slip and slide away in the monsoon mud in search of the elusive animal with our cameras and heavy equipment on our backs, sweating profusely.
We see pugmarks of the male on a sandy bank, an indicator that he was here recently. There are other indicators to guide us. The steady ‘click-click’ sound of his radio collar tells us the animal is 50 metres ahead of us. The radio collars reveal valuable nuggets of information for the scientists that will give them an idea of the home range of the tigers, their behavioural and breeding patterns. On an average, a male tiger territory can extend from 60 to 100 sq kms, a female’s up to 20 sq kms.
It’s the female tiger who is easier to track. She has recently killed a nilgai (blue bull) and is confined to a smaller area in the forest. And up ahead in the distance, through thick bushes, we can see the tiger’s tail. Even seeing her from so far is reward enough. Tracking these big cats in the thick forest is like uncovering a secret. And to be walking virtually on the heels of this mighty animal that has inspired folklore, caught national and international attention, is an honour.The soldiers of Sariska
The story of Sariska is perhaps as much about the tigers as it is about the men who protect them. Frontline staff in charge of protecting some of our most endangered animals across the country are all above the age of 50, most of them physically unfit for the job. In the case of Sariska, in fact, the National Tiger Conservation Authority had to ask specifically for young people to be deployed. If the tigers of India have to be saved, it’s this frontline fleet of green soldiers that needs a revamp.
Across the world many experiments have been undertaken to restock endangered wild populations. The golden tamarins, a small primate species, have been bred in captivity and released in the wild in the Amazon forests. But with newly released animals, the chances of losing them are always high. On an average, one out of every three animals survives. That’s why Sariska needs more tigers and quickly. There are plans to translocate more tigers from Ranthambore to Sariska.
In the meantime, the green army of Sariska soldiers on. Hopefully, Sariska will become a conservation success story. Just a mere three hours drive from New Delhi, a wily mongoose digs up its last shoots, a monitor lizard squats lazily in the sun, a sambar deer dashes past our jeep. The entire forest is reverberating only with one truth: the king of the jungle is back. And everyone is on his toes.
Bahar Dutt is environment editor, CNN-IBN