Central team slams MP for missing tigers but year ago, it sang praises
Milind Ghatwai Posted online: Sunday , Jun 28, 2009 at 0250 hrs
Bhopal : A Special Investigative Team (SIT) set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests submitted a damning report early this week saying the Panna Tiger Reserve lost most of its big cats to poaching and blamed Madhya Pradesh government authorities for “being in denial” and failing to see the impending disaster despite repeated warnings.
However, just a year ago, P K Sen, who headed the SIT, submitted a glowing report to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) praising those manning the park as motivated, dedicated and knowledgeable and applauding the support from state officials.
That report put the tiger count at seven — and possibly two more — and observed that there were no incidents of poaching in the recent past. The latest report says there may be no tigers left.
Sen, the former director of Project Tiger, along with Secretary General and CEO of WWF-India Ravi Singh, visited Panna on January 8-10, 2008, for an appraisal of the “Status of Tiger Population” in the reserve.
“The field director and his staff appeared to be quite motivated and, therefore, their continuity is a must. Even if the field director is promoted, he should be allowed to stay in the park for a considerable period as he has been able to motivate the subordinate staff to a large extent. The staff appears to be quite dedicated, knowledgeable about the terrain and enthusiastic in their work,” was the first recommendation made in the six-page report, a copy of which is with The Sunday Express.
“The highest authorities in the state appear to be supporting the field director in his initiative. The proposed new areas to be included as a buffer of the park should be notified as early as possible,” was the second recommendation.
Sen went on to applaud the park management for a series of steps including setting up 71 patrol camps each managed by a forest guard; 33 wireless-set-equipped Nigrani (vigil) camps for round-the-clock vigil at strategic locations that cover 95 per cent of the area; rehabilitation of 13 villages outside the park; rehabilitation of 91 children of Baheliya and Pardhi tribes — traditionally engaged in poaching — by admitting them in two schools.
However, in his new report, Sen makes an about turn to blame the park management and top state officials in Bhopal, including the Principal Secretary (Forests). This despite the fact that between the first report and the latest one, the top brass of the state Forest Department has remained virtually unchanged.
H S Pabla, who was Assistant Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) in 2008, is now PCCF (Wildlife) while P G Gangopadhyay who was PCCF (Wildlife) is now PCCF. IAS officer Prashant Mehta was Principal Secretary (Forests) in 2008 and is now Additional Chief Secretary (Forests).
Panna, however, has seen three directors during the same period. During the team’s visit in 2008 it was G Krishnamurty followed by L K Chaudhary and now R S Murthy.
Sen’s 2008 report, based on pugmarks, suggested the presence of seven tigers, mostly males, in the areas seen by the team members and maybe two semi-adult tigers. The observation came with a rider: “It must be noted that the team has relied mostly upon pugmarks on PIPs (pugmark impression pads). Other evidences recorded are of a kill, scats and alarm calls. Tigers have been sighted by tourists and staff in the beginning of January, therefore any absence of tiger from the Reserve is not correct.”
The report recommended that verification of the population/presence of tigers be done by camera-trapping. “There is a need to bring out more information regarding the reserve and specifically of tigers in the public sphere. This will also underline the good work that has been observed in the Panna Tiger Reserve,” Sen’s report said.
The team covered four ranges and found the maximum numbers of pugmarks in the Madla range. On the first day (January 8) of their visit, the team-members saw 30 pugmarks; 50 on the second day, and 10 the last day. The team admitted to seeing over 150 pugmarks but after analyzing them suggested the presence of only seven tigers and the possibility of two sub-adults.
When asked to explain this turnaround, Sen said: “There are differences in the two reports because the mandate was different. Moreover, the team hardly spent two days in 2008. The SIT’s investigations extended over three months.”
Asked what this difference in mandate was, Sen said: “This time the mandate was to specifically find what went wrong in Panna unlike the last time when the brief was general.”
He claimed that in 2008 the team was never “cent per cent sure” about the presence of tigers because the analysis was based on pugmarks, an outdated system. “That’s why we suggested camera trapping to confirm the exact number of tigers and the male-female ratio,” he said.
As for his earlier comment that there was no evidence of poaching, Sen said that was “general comment.”
He said the blame lies with the senior officers based in Bhopal because they failed to act in time. “They failed to effectively monitor what was going on in the park.”
“Even we want to figure out what went wrong and that’s why we have set up an expert committee,” said PCCF Pabla. “Either the committee was not serious then (2008) or its latest report amounts to witch-hunting by talking about fixing accountability,” he said.
“We are not disputing the latest report but we don’t want to jump the gun. There could have been mortality — either by poaching or natural deaths or migration. It could be a combination of several factors. It’s a systemic failure that suggests failure of the present conservation strategy,” he said.
Two tigresses were translocated to Panna, one each from Bandhavgarh and Kanha in March, but there was no mating because the lone male tiger, which forest authorities claimed was there, disappeared.
Now the NTCA has cleared a proposal to shift two tigers and two tigresses to the reserve, preparations for which have already begun.