BANDHAVGAR AND PANNA, India — One sunny afternoon in March, officers of the Madhya Pradesh forest department crept up on a majestic Bengal tiger relaxing in the Bandhavgar National Park and shot it with a tranquilizer dart.
The tigress was then loaded into a truck and driven 150 miles — a trip of eight hours or so on India's rough roads — to the Panna Tiger Reserve.
The move was billed as one of the most modern and proactive steps that India's forest department has taken to protect the country's fast disappearing tigers.
But leading conservationists here say the truck might as well have driven the tranquilized beast all the way to China — the final destination of almost all the tigers that are killed by poachers. The Panna Reserve is no great place for tigers: Poachers abound, researchers claim the management there is inept, and the park has lost about 40 tigers the past five years.
Relocations like these aren't inherently disastrous. Wildlife scientists recognize that moving individual animals can be essential to protecting the population. Some experts from the commercial wildlife industry — like Les Carlisle, a conservation manager — think they will have to play an integral part in India's future conservation plans.
“Unless India changes from a passive management system where they sit and record what happens to an active management system where they try and intervene and prevent local extinctions and reintroduce species,” Carlisle said, “I don't believe the future of the tiger is great at all.”
But according to independent wildlife scientists who have studied Panna carefully, that's precisely the problem. Because neither the park management in Panna, nor anything about the way it is run has been changed, there is little reason to hope that the relocated tigress — or any of the others the forest department has committed to moving into Panna — will last much longer.
"Not a single tiger is left in Panna and it is imperative that the reasons for disappearance of tigers in the reserve are identified, and the causes of the tragic decline eliminated, before the re-introduction of any tigers from Bandhavgarh or Kanha," a panel of eight independent tiger experts wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month.
The signatories are still incensed. “This whole sorry incident has proved without doubt that what we need is a dedicated, trained wildlife service,” said Belinda Wright, a former National Geographic photographer who now leads the Wildlife Protection Society of India. “This is playing with fire. Without taking the advice of tiger experts with decades of experience, they [the forest department officers] are just basically doing their own thing.”
It's not news that the tiger is critically endangered around the world. The majestic cat's numbers have declined to only about 3,500, from upwards of 40,000 at the beginning of the century, with subspecies such as the South China Tiger and Sumatran Tiger facing imminent extinction, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
But in recent years, the situation has been revealed to be much more dire than previously believed — in large part due to an apparent crisis plaguing India's “Project Tiger.”
For its last tiger census, India adopted a new way of estimating the surviving population. Instead of a simple method that extrapolated numbers from counting tiger tracks, the new census used satellite remote sensing, geographic information system, and global positioning system technology — in combination with camera trapping and other techniques — to estimate tiger and prey populations.
The results were stunning: Instead of the 3,600 tigers estimated to be living in India's forests in 2002, the more sophisticated census found there are really only about 1,400. In other words, either half of India's tigers (and a quarter of the world's total) were killed over the past five years, or they had never existed anywhere but on paper to begin with.
The unvoiced question became: Was Project Tiger, hailed as one of the world's most successful wildlife conservation programs since it was founded by Indira Gandhi in 1972, just an exercise in inventing numbers?
At first, according to researcher, Raghunandan Chundawat, the program worked. “From 1995 to 2002, in six years, we saw one of the finest recovery of tiger populations in Panna. It was one of the most successful stories in tiger conservation in the last three or four decades,” Chundawat said.
Why did it work? “It was partly due to the management at that time, and partly due to our presence. The guy who was [in charge] there [during those years] provided all the necessary support, and we were providing all the breeding tigers with radio collars and monitored them. We looked at every kill. When you have radio collars and you're watching the tiger 24 hours [a day] you provide a kind of security that's not possible any other way.”
The result was a survival rate of 90 percent for cubs, and, eventually, about seven tigers per square kilometer in the area.
Then, Chundawat alleges, a disaster happened. “In 2001, we had a change in the [park] management,” he said. “They started curtailing our activities, so we were not able to monitor the tigers 24 hours a day the way we should have. We lost a couple of tigers because of that, and when we raised the issue with the management, instead of working with us to determine why these tiger deaths happened and working it out, they canceled our permission [to work in the park altogether.]”
Chundawat was banned from the park for nearly a year, he said, during which time Panna lost more than 20 tigers, and the carnage continued in the absence of the intensive surveillance that his research project provided. But the official numbers — based on the same old method of counting tiger tracks — didn't change.
H.S. Pabla, chief conservator of forests for Madhya Pradesh, makes light of these charges. “There was a depletion in tiger numbers, but the reason was there was no breeding,” he said. “If there are no young ones coming from the bottom then the population is likely to go extinct. So naturally the only solution was to somehow start breeding in that area. We noticed there were some males there, but no females, so the hope was that if we brought in some females that they would start breeding.”
As far as independent tiger experts are concerned, that decision to relocate female tigers from Bandhavgarh to Panna is the proverbial smoking gun. As late as April 2008, the chief wildlife warden claimed in an article in Sanctuary Magazine that Panna had between 20 and 32 tigers and promised, “I would like to assure the world that the tiger density in the park has never been better.”
A month later his department wrote to the national authorities asking for permission to relocate two females. “In a month's time, how can this happen?” Chundawat said. “Now, I believe they have also written a letter to request the transfer of a male tiger. We lost females, we lost males, so what is left there?”
And with the authorities focused on hiding the problem, rather than fixing it, there is little hope that anything will change. “Panna has lost up to 40 tigers,” Wright said. “They've vanished into thin air. Until that is investigated and the reason for their disappearance is addressed, it is pointless to move tigers there. It's downright irresponsible.”