When a tiger died, so did the forest

So a tiger has died in Sariska. It is big news in the media and possibly will become a bigger issue in Parliament. Wildlife experts are giving quotes a dime a dozen and the forest department of Rajasthan and the National Tiger Conservation Authority are in damage control mode. The initial cause of death was said to be infighting. Now,

most people feel that the tiger had been poisoned. What is clear is that the first tiger that was translocated to the park from Ranthambhor in 2008 is no more. But when the hullabaloo has died down and this one tiger mourned and debated by one and all, it will be time to ask bigger and larger questions. Every animal’s life is precious and its loss must be introspected, but a more holistic prescription may be needed for Sariska.
Sariska was the worst nightmare-come-true for Indian wildlife with the extirpation of its tigers under the noses of Delhi’s tigerwallahs. 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 foul at the latter and their arguments went somewhat like this: it was a waste of public resources to airdrop individual tigers into Sariska since Sariska had no long-term viability and that this was part of a government whitewash. There was also the much-debated issue of genetics and the animals that were translocated. I, however, have a different perspective and tend to back such conservation experiments. Firstly, if done well, translocation is a perfectly legitimate conservation tool to reintroduce or restock an area that has been extirpated of its original population. Secondly, if the coming back of animals can save the habitat itself, what better demonstration can there be of the effect of flagships in conservation. And to me, the second reason was the more important one then, and in the midst of the current debacle the more important issue now. The question is not whether tigers will survive in Sariska. The question is will the tigers save Sariska.
First, what is it that we should be fighting to save? Sariska is a little gemstone representation of the Aravallis. 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. Sariska reminds us that Delhi’s remaining green is very much a part of India’s oldest mountain chain and clearing them for urbanisation projects or even rosebush strewn gardens are a criminal incursion into this unique ecosystem. But there is much in Sariska that you don’t find in the Mewat branch of the Delhi Aravallis. The hillsides, in this park, gleam cream from the flaking bark of the Indian frankincense. The flame of the forest burns not only red but also cream and white as rare races survive in the Sariska woodlands. It is also the only part of the western Aravallis that India legally protects.
But the mass appeal of Sariska was the tiger — for tourists, for conservationists, for bureaucrats and for politicians. Sariska was not known as the best representation of the Aravallis, it was instead known as the closest tiger reserve to Delhi. When, in 2005, it was revealed that Sariska had lost its last tigers, world spotlight was turned on the park. However tragically that spotlight came to be, it did shine and Sariska benefited as a park. Human relocations which were on the cards started in real earnest. The limestone lobby that was putting pressure on the political establishment to denotify the park itself was distanced to some extent. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the state forest department and the Wildlife Institute of India brought the first of five tigers back. The park was limping back to normalcy.
Today, the threat to Sariska is not that one tiger has died. The threat is in the state government planning to give more limestone licences on the periphery of the park under a rather absurd clause that habitat that falls less than 100 m is not to be considered a mountain and therefore does not constitute the Aravallis. The fact that minister of state for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh has written to the state chief minister is another sign of the quick acting Central ministry. The threat is also in the proposed opening of a posh hotel in the Kankwari fort, where Aurangzeb had once held Dara Shukoh captive, right in the core of the park. These will push back the small steps the park was taking in reinventing itself. I will go to the extent of venturing that it was the limestone interests and burgeoning fringe tourism that encouraged baiting and watching, that was as much behind the disappearance of the tiger from Sariska as poaching. Bringing these dual threats back to the periphery and the core of the park is a major threat.
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? Does the bare white flesh of the disrobed Sariska hold more lure than the verdant cloak of Boswellia and Grewia? Will the mountains in Rajasthan stop in the clouds and not descend to the earth in fear of being renamed a flatland? Will the sacrifices of the residents of Bhagani and others be only to have a different class of humanity settled in the core of Sariska? 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 a state that is the inspiration of the Incredible India campaign anything less is a sham. And from the state that is dubitably the keeper of India’s heritage nothing more can be expected than to keep its natural treasures within the safety of a fortress of sage policy.

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