Saving the Palamau tigers has acquired a sense of emergency. The official head count of tigers in the Palamau Tiger Reserve is five, the camera trap pictures reveal only three, the average age of the extant tigers is between ten and twelve years, and there are no tiger cubs sited or captured by camera traps. In short, the Tiger reserve is empty of all tigers. Palamau Tiger Reserve is 1014 sq kilometers of prime sal forests and is part of the near continuous belt of forests spanning multiple states, starting in the East with West Bengal and to the West by Chattisgarh and UP.
Palamau Tiger Reserve lies in the western part of the Chotanagpur plateau in the Jharkhand state of India. The forest stretches from the edge of the Netarhat hill range in the south to the Auranga river in the north and from the Latehar-Sarju road in the east to the Madhya Pradesh border in the west. The forest of Palamau is the catchment of the river North Koel. Palamau is the land of the sal (Shorea robusta), Palas (Butea frondosa), and Mahua (Madhuca indica) and represents the biological riches of the dry and moist deciduous eastern peninsular forests. The tract is undulating, and the important hills are Murhu, Netarhat, Huluk, and Gulgul. Gulgul is the highest hill. Hill slopes are steep in the southern part and gentle in the northern part of the Reserve.
Palamau Tiger Reserve was constituted as a Tiger reserve in 1973 when the Project Tiger program was first instituted in the country. The tiger population was estimated to be 44 per the census conducted in 1993.
The current State of affairs is a consequence of a deteriorating ecosystem supported by overall apathy toward the State of wildlife in the State and the region. The Naxal movement that is still strong in the region, the near absence of tourism, the lack of security that inhibits wildlife researchers and enthusiasts from coming and spending time in the area, and the geographical location of the place are all additive factors to the current State of affairs of the Reserve. Indeed, Jharkhand is moving to acquire the dubious distinction of becoming the first tiger-free forest area in the country. Jharkhand is a state of political uncertainty, a poorly governed land where miners sway, and not too many city dwellers from the political metro of Delhi or the business metro of Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai like to visit.
The deterioration of the ecosystem has been happening over several decades, and it is only that things have to come to a head now. While development appeared to reach most of the poor in this country, moving them out of starvation to a state of semi-starvation, the tribes residing in dense forests are left behind. Their isolation from the rest of society only aggravated their condition. We left them alone because their unique lifestyle and culture require them to be respected. So, the tribal survived on what the forest gave. The only source of protein available to them came from the meat of the wild animals, the vitamins from forest fruits, the medicines from forest species, and their life revolved around the forests.
While the average age of an Indian is now over sixty-six years, the tribal rarely survives beyond fifty-five. At twenty-five, the tribal woman reaches middle age. As more and more forest land was opened up for mining, the total available forested area came down, and the natural balance between wildlife and the tribal got disturbed. Slowly the wildlife has been depleted, and the prey species dwindled to the point that the average tiger territory, normally around twenty square kilometers, has increased to seventy square kilometers. The animal moves from one part of the forest to the other, covering large distances daily, searching for food. Survival has taken priority over breeding.
While the tiger population is moving towards extinction, a similar story is happening at the forest guard end, as against the sanctioned strength of 96 people, the current staff level in Palamau is just 11. The average age of the team is 55 years. The tiger and the forest guard population are both becoming old, and the trend is the same- both are getting extinct, one due to steady ecosystem degradation and the other due to official apathy.
It is not that the current State of affairs is unknown to forest managers and other decision-makers in the State or at the Centre. The forest managers and the forest department do not publically raise the red flag. Everyone wants to protect his chair; no one wants to state the facts as they are, afraid of being made a scapegoat. Bringing development to the tribal was not part of their mandate, but in the government food chain, the pecking order of the forest departments is fairly low, and their scalp is easy to be taken. The intent to protect may be there, but survival has overtaken the purpose of the forester.
I am sure the National Tiger Conservation Authority at the Government of India level is too aware of the current State. Still, things continue to be the same except for a stray report in a newspaper. The first phase of tiger monitoring across the country took place in 2008. The results came out in 2010. The verdict on Jharkhand forests and Palamau Tiger reserve was “insufficient data, and therefore no inferences can be drawn.” The fourth national tiger monitoring is now due to be held in 2013. The result for Jharkhand again will be insufficient data, and no inferences can be drawn.
The reason for not procuring the requisite infrastructure for undertaking monitoring is a simple guess. Sufficient data captured and analyzed will bring out the inevitable result- it will put an official seal on the dire State of the tiger in the State. No one wants this to happen. The saving of the Palamau tiger is not a priority. Therefore, everyone drags their feet in essential procuring monitoring equipment. No one wants to bell the proverbial cat. The number of camera traps available in the park is 100 against the requirement of 565. Camera traps remotely record the movement of animals and are the best tool for wildlife census. This equipment has to be supported by Range finders and GPS that will help pinpoint an animal’s location.
Steps to reverse the degradation of the ecosystem need to be undertaken urgently and saving the Palamau tiger will have to acquire a greater degree of urgency. While the shortage of equipment can be easily overcome and the generation of baseline data can be quickly accomplished, the challenge lies in rebuilding the lost biodiversity of these forests. Suppose concrete steps are not taken to reverse these forests’ rapidly degrading wildlife ecosystem. In that case, it is just a matter of time that herbivores, prey species, and tigers are gone, and a new natural balance will emerge in which the leopard will be at the apex and elephants the major herbivore. The leopard is hardy and can survive on village dogs, cats, chickens, and goats. A new man-animal conflict will emerge in the area. Early warning signs of this happening have been visible for some time now.
A holistic approach to wildlife and ecological management will be required to save the Palamau tiger. This will require collaboration with the key stakeholders- the tribal and the forest department on the one hand and the other wildlife specialists, media, and the State. I understand that the three villages in the 714 sq kilometers of the extended core area are voluntarily willing to move out of the forest center to the fringe. Someone has to take the initiative to raise the decibel level and force the hand of decision-makers to act. Tiger conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts are urged to raise their voices and demand action from national and State governments.