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NTCA and Rajasthan Forest Department at loggerheads over tiger Mirza's relocation

Akash Bisht | Updated on: 5 April 2018, 17:55 IST

Amid much fan fare, the Rajasthan government on Tuesday relocated a male tiger, popularly known as Mirza, from Bundi region near Ranthambore Tiger Reserve to an enclosure in Mukundara Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje went on to call it a historic moment that shall go in the annals of conservation wherein a new habitat is being developed for the national animal.

Despite being notified a tiger reserve in 2013, Mukundara had to wait for five long years before getting its first tiger. The reserve had no resident population of tigers and the state government decided to relocate three tigers – a male and two females – from Ranthambore to repopulate Mukundara to make it the third tiger reserve in the state.

However, in its attempt to repopulate the reserve, the state government has failed to adhere to the guidelines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) which had put a ban on relocating tigers to the reserve. The nodal authority for tiger conservation in India, NTCA's refusal and state government's decision has put them at loggerheads with each other. NTCA is even contemplating strict action against the state government which remains perturbed by these threats.

Sources have informed that what has led to this muscle-flexing by the state government is its financial might as far as funds for tiger reserves was concerned. NTCA provides funds to tiger reserves across the country and Rajasthan has surplus funds generated from tourism so even if NTCA puts a stop on funding, it would not have any impact whatsoever.

An NTCA official reminded how annihilation of entire tiger population from Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan and the cover up by the department led to the formation of NTCA and its guidelines. “By unilaterally taking decisions, the state is playing a very dangerous game which puts the well being of the state's tiger population in jeopardy,” he added.

Earlier, the state government had decided to relocate Mirza on 31 March but the process was delayed due to NTCA's disapproval. Despite assurances from senior forest officials, Rajasthan failed to respond to the multiple notifications sent by NTCA on various issues like security measures and collar id leading to the statutory body governing all tiger reserves imposing a ban on any relocation of tigers.

The NTCA has clear guidelines over relocation which include augmentation of prey base and protection and once satisfied with the response, it gives a go ahead. “ Several guidelines were not followed which is in clear violation of the Wildlife (Protection) Act. NTCA is the principal approver of any such relocation and the state government failed to meet several requirements. The relocation process was not satisfactory and we raised our objections and despite that they went ahead with it” said an NTCA official.

He went on to add that permission was sought for some other location to relocate the tiger and it was done somewhere else. “These are clear violations of our guidelines. It is clear that this was done under pressure from the tourism lobby that wishes to benefit financially from yet another tiger reserve in the state. If the tiger dies, who would take responsibility for it,” he asked. Moreover, NTCA had also raised concerns over the fencing of the 28 hectare enclosure in the Darrah Range of the reserve where the tiger has been shifted.

The forest department plans to release a tigress from RTR in the same enclosure before letting them out in the open. Not only NTCA, several civil society members have raised concerns over the safety and well-being of the tigers in this habitat.

Meanwhile, forest officials blame NTCA for creating guidelines that have no connect with the ground reality. “Some of these guidelines cannot be implemented on the ground. They are just frivolous.

Moreover, we were concerned about the safety of the tiger considering it had taken refuge in an area which has a population that is extremely hostile to tigers,” said one of them on the request of anonymity.

With nearly 67 tigers, which is well beyond RTR's carrying capacity, young tigers are known to venture out in search of new territories and this is what happened with Mirza. In order to establish his own territory, Mirza had ventured into Ramgarh Vishdhari Sanctuary in Bundi where he had been staying since November 2017.

“The tiger population of RTR has exploded in the last few years so we need to develop satellite population of tigers to keep them safe,” noted the official. According to him, most of the tigers that have ventured out of RTR in search of new territories have succumbed to poaching. Take the case of T-35 who had moved to Kota and was poisoned in 2016 or the famous tiger, Broken Tail, that died after being hit by a train in Darrah Wildlife Sanctuary in 2003. There are several such cases of other tigers dying when moving out of RTR.

It is for this reason that once Mirza's presence was noted in Vishdhari, a dedicated team from the forest department was tasked for constantly monitoring the animal. The team, with help of NGOs, had put camera traps which revealed presence of poachers informed one of the members of the team. What made matters worse was the team did not have the expertise of tracking the animal so immediate steps needed to be taken to save the animal.

Bundi has a history of being hostile towards forest department and wild animals. In the past, a poacher from the area died in the custody of forest department leading to massive protest and violence leading to destruction of several forest posts.

“Till 2008, no one from the department dared to venture into Vishdhari. The area is totally unsafe and people are very hostile so it was necessary to shift the tiger. Moreover, the state government was under tremendous pressure after the deaths of two tigers in Sariska and RTR.

Another death would have put the department under severe pressure and that is why it was decided to shift Mirza at the earliest,” said a forest official.

However, NTCA official rejected these arguments and claimed that if this was the case they should have either taken the animal back to RTR or given it protection in Vishdhari. Another forest official agreed that the entire thing was done in a haste considering there was substantial political pressure to relocate the tigers. It had been five years since Mukundara was declared a tiger reserve and it had no tigers.

Sources have informed that the state government had taken Union minister for Environment and Forests, Harsh Vardhan, in confidence during his visit to the state. Reports suggest that Rajasthan forest minister Gajendra Singh Khinwsar sought the Union minister's intervention and within a week of his return to Delhi, the tiger was translocated.

Another reason for the delay in translocating the animal was the presence of several villages the reserve is the delay in the relocation of villages from within the reserve. There are more than 10 villages in the reserve that still need to be relocated. If this is not done at the earliest, these villagers might pose danger to the animal.

Meanwhile, Catch tried reaching out to Chief Wild Life Warden (CWLW) GV Reddy, Field Directors of RTR and Mukundra but they did not respond, despite several phone calls.

First published: 5 April 2018, 17:55 IST