Having failed to trace Jai, the tiger that vanished from Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary near Nagpur nearly eight months ago, Maharashtra's forest department is facing another challenge. A tigress has gone missing from Chaprala Wildlife Sanctuary in Gadchiroli.
The tigress was rescued from Brahmapuri and relocated to Chaprala on 4 November. It was fitted with a radio collar so that its movements could be monitored. Five days ago, however, the Forest Control Room "lost signal from the radio collar".
"It is true that the forest department has lost signal from the Ultra High Frequency, or UHF, radio collar fitted on the tigress, and they haven't been able to trace her so far. This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed on priority to ensure that the wild treasure of Maharashtra is saved," said a senior wildlife crime expert who did not want to be named.
The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Shree Bhagwan, confirmed this. "The collar stopped sending signals a few days ago. We are trying to find the tigress. I have got information from various people that the wild cat has moved to Alapalli division. It is also reported that she has made a kill in Alapalli, and is likely to settle there."
Although the forest officials insisted that the tigress was "safe", wildlife experts are circumspect.
One expert who did not want to be named pointed out that the various teams formed to trace the tigress are equipped with only UHF antennas for the task, and none have sighted the animal so far. "This is a classical example of the lackadaisical attitude of the forest department. They are not ready to learn from the embarrassment of the missing of Jai, the tiger that has been untraceable for eight months now. I am not sure if the tigress is safe, or if, God forbid, it would ever be traced," the expert said.
Shree Bhagwan though is adamant. "As far as the tigress is concerned, we rely on reports from our staff. They claim the wild cat is moving in Alapalli division. This, in a way, is good because the division will again have a tiger population if this tigress settles there."
Such "false assurances", the crime expert said, are typical of the forest officials. For a long time after Jai vanished, the expert pointed out, they refused to acknowledge that Maharashtra's most celebrated wild cat was missing, or even that this was a cause for concern.
"Instead of speeding up search operations, the officials maintained that Jai was very much within the sanctuary. Crucial time was thus lost and the result is there for everyone to see. Had they acted swiftly, the situation might have been different. I don't have much hope that Jai is still alive," the crime expert said.
Indeed, recent decisions taken by the state's forest department, tasked with the protection of wildlife, have been arbitrary, if not apathetic. For instance, despite the ever present threat of poaching, the department has discontinued the programme to fit tigers with radio collars being implemented by experts from the Wildlife Institute of India. That too without giving any explanation.