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Against all odds

Against all odds
It’s all smiles for the forest department of Rajasthan...The experiment which started years back is turning into a success story now. 

The Sariska Tiger Reserve, the country’s first tiger reserve to lose all its tigers, has turned the tables on sceptics and nay-sayers. To all those who were arguing that the tiger cannot survive here, the Sariska tigers have finally emerged victorious.

 In a landmark development, which will impact tiger re-introduction plans all over India, a tigress – ST-9 – has given birth to a cub.

As I got the news, I called my friend and field director of Sariska, R S Shekawat, to confirm the news and I cannot express his happiness over the news. Shekhawat told me the pugmarks of a cub had raised our hopes about its arrival but we were waiting for camera trap pictures to confirm the news.

 It is likely that there have been more cubs but forest department has sighted only one. This is a development which wildlife and tiger experts and I have been eagerly waiting for years.

And there is a special reason behind this wait. Of course it is special as it is another feather on Sariksa’s cap but there is another extraordinary reason.

 I must tell my readers here that this particular tigress is relocated here from Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and this very tigress had lost its mother in her younger days. 

Those who have read my earlier stories might have read my article titled, A Tiger’s Heart, in which I have mentioned the ups and downs, ST-9 and her sister faced as young motherless cubs.

The fate of the two cubs would have been sealed after the death of their mother but these two cubs had something special in their destiny, something which has never been observed in the wild before and something which shocked the tiger lovers… Their Father, Tiger T-25 of Ranthambore, emerged out of the blue and did all what a mother Tigress does to train cubs to survive in the wild. The credit of survival of ST-9 and her sister goes to T-25 only.

It was sometime in 2005 when the roar of the tiger stopped reverberating altogether in Sariska. I remember, when a national daily broke the story on page one, my heart sank. For decades, this small but picturesque expanse had been giving me immense pleasure. 

How can I forget that memorable afternoon when, on a flat patch of grassland between Kali Ghati and Pandupol, I saw a large herd of spotted deer following a tigress. Oblivious to the cheetals, the tigress was giving out a low roar but the spotted deer following her were giving off their alarm calls in unison. It was the only scene of its kind, which I have not witnessed anywhere else.

Sariska was bereft of all its tigers. It was the first national park in the country to lose all its tigers, Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh was to follow suit some time later. Since then, a debate erupted over Sariska’s rightful place in the history of India’s tiger conservation.

Four years later, the Indian government embarked on an ambitious plan. It was decided to relocate tigers from Ranthambore, another national park in Rajasthan. It was felt that since both Sariska and Ranthambore national parks shared a somewhat similar terrain, the tigers from the latter would accept Sariska as their new home. 

The first to be trans-located to Sariska was a male tiger. He was followed by two females, and thereafter a male and a female. The five were brought in over a period of two years. 

In November 2010, tragedy struck Sariska yet again when one of the relocated male tigers, ST1, died…It was apparently poisoned by the villagers after it attacked their cattle. Soon, another male tiger was brought to Sariska – T7, who had strayed from Ranthambore to Bharatpur.

Yet, things were far from clear in Sariska. And one really did not have any idea about the eventual fate of these five tigers.

There were tangible reasons why nobody was willing to place a bet on the future of relocated tigers. If not the most, Sariska happens to be one of the most disturbed tiger reserves in the country. 

A tigress should certainly think twice before bringing her offspring to be raised here. Two state highways pass through Sariska Tiger Reserve. One of these connects Alwar with the Delhi-Jaipur national highway.

And then there is a historic and immensely popular temple in the heart of the national park. It’s the famous Pandupol temple which, according to legend, goes back to the times of the Pandavas.

A revered place, no doubt, but the temple attracts tens of thousands of devotees and visitors every month. Every Tuesday and Saturday is a “temple day” in Sariska. 

On these two days, entry to the temple is free and by a conservative estimate, some 4,000 vehicles reach Pandupol every Tuesday and Saturday. In contrast, only 40 vehicles are allowed in Ranthambore per day.

Till recently, as many as 28 villages were situated inside Sariska. So far, only three have been relocated outside the park. But like all good things… all bad things too, come to an end… The tiger is a hardy survivor and against all odds it has managed to adapt the environment it has been destined to. 

Tigress ST2 has given birth to two tiger cubs in year 2012; she was among the five members brought here from Ranthambore in year 2008, as the first phase of relocation.
 
In July 2012, a camera-trap picture from Kali Ghati area of Sariska, showed the tigress with one cub. This was certainly a big development, which changed the face and fate of this beleaguered national park.

For four long years, not only the forest staff of Rajasthan but officials from the Wildlife Institute of India and National Tiger Conservation Authority remained a worried lot.

 They went through enormous pressure. Relocating a tiger is one thing. But the important and the only litmus test of the experiment’s success lies in a tigress producing the litter.

 Only then can it be conclusively said that the tigress has adapted to her new surrounding and is ready to start life afresh.

For four years, various theories were floated as to the absence of cubs in Sariska. Probably it was the general disturbance of the terrain which made the tigress shy of giving birth. Whatever the reasons, these have been decisively proved wrong by ST2 and her cubs. 

The forest authorities, aided by scientists from Wildlife Institute of India, went about saving the Sariska tigers in a war-like fashion. Five teams were deployed in Sariska to ensure that the tigers remain out of harm’s way. 

All the Sariska tigers are radio-collared and the teams monitor the tigers day and night. It’s a 24x7 operation which continues to this day. But I must say that in the end, nothing succeeds like success. The arrival of the cubs has indeed given new lease of life to Sariska.

(For already published stories and films on wildlife by the writer, which have run on National 
Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan (India), please log on to www.rahejagroup.org).    
Navin M Raheja

Navin M Raheja

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