A tiger has died in Sariska – a national reserve in India. Most likely the tiger was poisoned. Every animal’s life is important but this tiger was unique. He was the first tiger translocated to Sariska in 2008 after the last tiger in the reserve was killed by poachers in 2004. So, now, this animal, which was the first new hope for a renewed tiger population at Sariska, is no more. As we mourn this one tiger, leaders of 13 tiger range states are gathering in St. Petersburg, Russia to consider broader questions about how to ensure the survival of the entire tiger species, which is moving quickly towards extinction.
For now, though, let us consider some of the broader questions about this one special tiger in this one special habitat. Sariska was the worst nightmare-come-true for Indian wildlife with the extirpation of its tigers under the noses of Delhi’s tiger wallahs. Sariska was also the hope of the conservation world with the renewed focus it created on the tiger in India and the innovative reintroduction of tigers into the park. Several conservationists and journalists cried argued that it was a waste of public resources to airlift individual tigers into Sariska, that Sariska had no long term viability and that this was part of a government white wash. There was also the much debated issue about genetics and the animals that were translocated.
I have however a different perspective and tend to back such conservation experiments. Firstly, if well done translocation is a perfectly legitimate conservation tool to reintroduce or restock an area that has lost its original population. Secondly, if the return of animals can save the habitat itself, what better demonstration can there be of the effect of flagship species in conservation. Perhaps the most important question is not, whether tigers will survive in Sariska. It is: will the tigers save Sariska.
So what is it that we should be fighting to save? Sariska encompasses a pristine western section of the Aravallis, India’s oldest mountain chain. Its lightly dappled Anogeissis pendulosa and Prosopis spicigera forests mimic the leopard in its play of light and shade. The Acacias, yellow topped, white topped and cream topped colour the middle story. The thorny ber and karaunda that northern Indians know as pickles and the fragrant Adhatoda that we know through its cough syrup extract Glycodin, form the under story.
Today, the threat to Sariska is not that one tiger has died. The threat is in the state government planning to give more limestone licenses on the periphery of the park under a rather absurd clause that habitat that is less than 100 m high is not to be considered a mountain and therefore does not constitute the Aravallis, which is the core of the reserve.
Twenty four years ago, I spent several nights at Kalighati photographing the tiger amongst the many denizens of the park. I have seen the only dholes in the history of the park, a two-year wonder that emerged from its shadows and dissolved back equally mysteriously. I have watched langurs swing languorously at Pandupole before they were renamed the eastern grey langur by taxonomists. Will the chalk in the hills be more of a lure for the state government than this priceless little remnant of our oldest mountain heritage? It is not too late now for the state to have its tourism and wildlife sectors to work in tandem or for it to keep off its mining lobby from around the protected area network of Rajasthan. For the state that is dubitably the keeper of India’s heritage – and one of the world’s last pockets of protected habitat for wild tigers – nothing more can be expected than to keep its natural treasures within the safety of a fortress of sage policy.