Indian Tiger Reserve To Lose Head, Status

By Joshua Newton

NEW DELHI, India, May 26, 2003 (ENS) – One of India’s best known tiger reserves at Bandipur in the southern state of Karnataka is facing an uncertain future following a government order to abolish the post of field director. The order issued in the first week of April has yet to be implemented. India's other 26 tiger reserves will continue to have the post of field director.

The state government officials said the decision follows a move by the central government to stop paying the salary of the field director of Bandipur from its coffers. “We have received the order, but the government is yet to implement it. Currently I’m in the office. But I don’t know how long I will be around,” says R.S. Suresh, field director of Bandipur Tiger Reserve and conservator of wildlife in Karnataka.

Once the order is implemented, the tiger reserve will be turned over to the additional control of district forest officers for the adjoining Chamarajnagar and Kodagu forest circles. “Expertise of a field director is necessary to preserve a tiger reserve,” says a senior official of the Karnataka Forest Department. “If you hand over the job to territorial officers as just another additional job, conservation of the tigers is practically over,” he said.

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A tiger in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (Photo courtesy Ministry of Environment and Forests)
The tiger population in Bandipur was 10 in 1972, 54 in 1983, and 50 according to 1989 estimates. The last census in December 2002 found 82 tigers here.

Bandipur National Park, a beautiful forest reserve occupies a special place in India’s efforts towards natural conservation. It was created in the 1930s from the local Maharaja Voodiyar’s hunting lands, and named Venugopal Wildlife Park.

Bandipur Park was expanded in 1941 to adjoin the Nagarhole National Park in its north and Wynad and Madumulai Sanctuaries in its southern border. The entire area now constitutes the vast Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, one of India's most extensive tracts of protected forest. It has been a designated tiger reserve since 1973.

Project Tiger was launched by the government of India on April 1, 1973, the result of a nationwide effort to halt the steep decline in India's tiger population. The project aimed to minimize human intrusion into tiger habitats and to halt the diversion of wildlife habitat for other uses.

Now with 27 tiger reserves, along with a network of protected areas across the country, the Indian government says proudly on its Project Tiger website that the project is "one of the single largest conservation efforts of a government anywhere in the world."

But critics say the abolition of the post of field director at Bandipur erodes the Project Tiger Scheme. As the Project Tiger guidelines specify that reserves must be under the exclusive control of the field director, the Bandipur reserve could also lose funding from the Project Tiger office.

To date, Project Tiger has had some success in restoring India's tiger population. Nine tiger reserves were set up in 1973-74 with the pooled resources of the central and state governments. Staff and equipment were added, field operations for protection and habitat development started, viable alternatives were given to people living in and near the reserves.

In the 10 years that followed, the number of tigers went up from 268 to 854.

With the inclusion of four more reserves in 1982-83, the population increased to 978 tigers.

A tiger census held in 1997 said India had 1,498 tigers in its 27 reserves, although environmentalists say this figure is exaggerated.

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Tigers are a big tourist attraction to Bandipur National Park (Photo courtesy India Travelite)
Other staff exists at the Bandipur National Park. Apart from the field director, the administrative set up in Bandipur includes a deputy, assistant conservator, six park rangers, 17 foresters, 86 park guards and seven park watchers.

“Not that forest officials cannot take care of reserves," Suresh says. "But the conservation of a tiger habitat needs expert hands. Only an expert field director can give the reserve a proper focus."

Sources at the Karnataka Forest Department said a focused tiger preservation approach is necessary as the area is prone to fires and the threat of smuggling and poaching.

Statistics support their argument. In 1998, 44 tigers were killed in India. Next year, this number grew to 81. And in the last two years, a total of 115 tigers are known to have been killed in the country.

Bandipur has had a long history of protection. In the early 20th century, the former maharajas of Mysore realized its value as a wildlife preserve. Several Reserve Forest Blocks over an area of 9,000 hectares were declared a Game Sanctuary in 1931, under the Mysore Game and Forest Regulations of that same year. A 600 hectare sanctum sanctorum in the park called Bandipur Wildlife Park was left completely untouched by forestry operations, although logging continued in the rest of the area.

The objective of Project Tiger is “to ensure maintenance of a viable population of tiger in India and to preserve for all time, areas of biological importance as a national heritage for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people.”

But according to environmentalists, India’s tiger reserves, national parks and sanctuaries are fast losing their status as protected areas. Economic liberalization, they point out, has opened all areas to development, and tiger habitats across India are being encroached upon and polluted by industrial firms.