‘If they kill a single tiger, then I lose the battle and I don’t like to lose’
Akash Bisht Panna
The forest department and locals are always at loggerheads with each other over the use of forest land for agriculture and grazing purposes. Reportedly, the confrontation took an ugly turn when an influential landlord decided to grow mustard on forest land. Forest officials destroyed the crop. Locals say the outraged landlord called a ‘daaku’ (dacoit) and went on a mission to eliminate all the tigers of Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR).
“The daaku, a Baheliya (a community of wildlife hunters), along with others, killed most of the tigers. It all happened under the nose of a corrupt and lazy forest department that suppressed all facts and hid evidence about the cold-blooded killings in the reserve. Their brutal indifference led to this shame,” says a forest guard.
There were other gangs too who participated in this bloodbath and smuggled the highly valued tiger body parts to foreign destinations. Locals confide that before 2008 top forest officials and beat guards seldom ventured into the forest, functioned either from office or home, and slept in their comfort zones when it was time for patrolling.
The news of total elimination of tigers aroused massive outrage, forcing the authorities to take drastic steps and overhaul the entire Panna management. RS Murthy was called in as the Park Director for damage control – to resurrect another positive beginning. Under his exemplary, imaginative leadership, a special cell was conceived to fix accountability and probe the tiger carnage.
The team submitted its report to the government and hinted at massive irregularities by the forest department. It alleged that some forest officials were hand-in-glove with poachers for over a decade and concealed crucial evidence. “This is a clear-cut case of fence-eating-the-crop syndrome,” the report stated. Murthy’s claims were based on statements of independent witnesses, including forest department personnel and locals. He seized hidden records from different range offices that claimed presence of poachers deep inside the reserve.
“With staff’s omissions and commissions, the crime nexus is complete from the scene of crime (in PTR) to (big cartel poachers like) Sansarchand and his network in Delhi, including nomadic poaching communities, local tribes, influential people and middle-level traders like Mohammed Rise and Nawab Khan,” Murthy notes in the report.
Murthy then took on the task of repopulating the region with this “great predator that ruled these forests for centuries”. He shunted the dubious ones out of his staff and chose honest officers and lower level staff who understood the landscape and its politics. Under Murthy’s stringent gaze, PTR, after tiger relocation, has become a role model for tiger reserves across the country.
Unlike 2008 and before, the forests were well-protected and each tiger was monitored 24x7 by forest guards who work in harsh conditions. One guard, who tracked tigers using a GPS satellite, told Hardnews, “We collect data on tiger’s location, pulse, distance from our location, mating sounds, killings and minute details of tiger behaviour every hour.” Nearly 58 camera traps are installed across the reserve; there is an urgent need for 70 more for better monitoring of this vast, rocky landscape.
The forest department keeps a close tab on any suspicious movement within the reserve from 33 watch towers that are manned by two guards in every location night and day. The process of radio collaring cubs has begun and two cubs have been successfully collared. “Young tigers have the tendency of wandering out of the core areas and radio collars help in locating their position so that they don’t get killed,” says Assistant Director MP Tamrakar.
A team of workers has been employed to check on forest fires that ravage the forest if unchecked. Tamrakar, who is on the field round the clock, would himself rush to the spot. Several guards are alert to any fires that need to be put out, and special trucks with sprinklers will soon be introduced.
Even the conviction rate has gone up drastically; several poachers have been put in jail. “We were very weak in the legal aspect and local expertise wasn’t of much help either. However, with legal expertise, we have been successful in several convictions that are acting as deterrents for poachers,” says Murthy.
Despite the phenomenal success of PTR, the management is wary of certain elements that still pose a great challenge. Murthy isn’t ready to take any chances. “It’s easy to monitor tigers, but not these rogue elements. If they kill a single tiger, then I lose the battle and I don’t like to lose,” he says.
“I think, and often tell Murthy: he is completely mad, and we are partially mad. Indeed, you need mad people to deal with such a magnitude of challenges in such difficult circumstances,” says a forest official. “But let me assure you. The wild itself becomes a love affair. And its preservation, an addiction. That is why we will not give up.”