We all know NGOs can never match the scale of government operation, funds or manpower. But NGOs can help with information, expertise and passion. But the government agencies have to be ready to benefit from such help. There has to be mutual trust and honesty for this. In 1991 I was the Director of Sariska however my heart was in Ranthambhore. I kept visiting Ranthambhore regularly and had an uneasy feeling about the Tigers here. I shared my apprehension with the local officers but no one was willing to listen. Around this time one of my most trusted Tiger tracker, Badiyalal was found dead near the railway track in mysterious circumstance. It was then that I decided to investigate further and I was horrified to find that poaching was on the increase. My information network provided information about a fresh skin being taken on the train. I passed this on to Shri Mohan Singhji Bhati the then Superintendent of Police and the poacher was caught. The 2nd Tiger crisis was born. For the 1 st time a hunting tribe called the Mogiya Tribe was identified to be active around Ranthambhore. In 2002 and 2004 once again I started to feel uneasy about Tiger numbers inside the park. Fortunately Tiger Watch was doing some research and monitoring activity inside the park during this time. We submitted a confidential report to the then Chief Wildlife Warden about at least 18 Tigers not being seen and urged him to look into the matter.
Instead of taking our report seriously he stopped our research inside the park and a senior official in Ranthambhore issued a statement in the press that in 5 year's time Tigers in Ranthambhore would go missing because of tourism. It was a sad repetition of the past where once again those entrusted with the Tiger's protection were covering up the truth in the hope that the controversy would die down. Ranthambhore was not alone in this cover up. Officials in the only other Tiger Park in Rajasthan were hiding the truth as well. It was only the alert media that finally lead to the declaration that the only other Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan did not have any Tigers left. This was a matter of National Shame. Subsequent to this the media took up the matter of Ranthambhore as well and suddenly Ranthambhore's Tiger crisis came to the forefront. In a short span of two years Ranthambhore had lost half of its Tigers. The intense media pressure forced the state government to set up a Task Force to find the truth. The task force did a thorough job and issued a red alert eventually halting the decline of Tigers. In its report it admitted to Ranthambhore having lost 21 Tigers. However, once again the task force failed to hold anyone accountable. Here let me congratulate Dr Rajesh Gopal and the National Tiger Conservation Authority for the courage and honesty to accept that tiger numbers have come down from about 4000 to less than 1500. We need to accept the truth and only then we can work ahead. But what Dr Gopal and NTCA are trying to do at the Centre is not liked by many states who are still in the old mindset of denial. We heard how several states tried to force the NTCA to declare jacked up tiger numbers for their forests. This attitude is the biggest problem. Tiger Watch was not convinced that things were all under control.
Although the Task Force submitted a very good report little changed for the Tiger and local officials continued to be in denial and once again every effort was being put to blame everything on tourism. Not satisfied by the way things were going Tiger Watch increased the intensity of its effort to get to the bottom of the poaching scandal. Tiger Watch implemented a large-scale undercover operation. The Rajasthan Police took active part in this and without them it would never have succeeded. Tiger Watch was shocked to find out that five gangs of poachers were working full time without any fear in and around Ranthambhore. Even more shocking was the fact that they were operating within the heart of the core are of the park.
One poacher when quizzed about whether gun shots could be heard and if any one came to investigate told Tiger Watch on camera that never did anyone even try to investigate. The poachers went with the police and tiger watch team and showed them spots in the heart of the park where they had killed Tigers without anyone noticing.
It was proved beyond any doubt that official apathy had allowed poaching to go on unhindered and had this gone on for just one more year Ranthambhore would have lost all its Tigers and Rajasthan would have joined the many tigerless States of India. In Ranthambhore, Tiger Watch has done excellent work with the police department in getting several poachers arrested. The list is too long. But the experience with the forest department has not been always so good. Sometimes, when we have a good range officer available, who is dedicated and reacts fast to our leads, we have done great work together. Otherwise, many forest officers are more interested in suppressing our leads - they fear arrest of a poacher and his confession would bring them bad publicity. At the same time, I must say that NGOs also have to be accountable and dedicated. Many NGOs need a tiger crisis, so to say, to keep their funds flowing. I have heard instances of planting skins for fake seizures by certain NGOs. Some forest officials also fear so-called NGOs conspiracies - NGOs plotting with the media to defame forest department. But NGOs go to forest officers first. Only when forest dept tries to silence NGO's voice, they are forced to go to the press. On last count the on going Tiger Watch investigated has resulted in the arrest of 39 poachers who had been active inside Ranthambhore.
Ranthambhore is a very good example of how local NGO's working together to help local people and documenting the Tiger status inside the park provided the only information regarding the status in Ranthambhore. It has also highlighted the government apathy at recognizing this strength and participating jointly to make the conservation effort even stronger. On the contrary the local forest officials have done nothing except alienate the local NGO's and the local people. Local NGO's like Prakratik Society have worked tirelessly to involve local people in conservation by introducing innovative and integrated projects that aim at not only improving the life of local people but also reducing the pressure on the limited natural resources. Its health care program not only provides world class health care but has been instrumental in reducing the local population growth by nearly 10% in the past two decades. Alternate energy programs, wood for wood programs, breed improvement through artificial insemination, non formal environment education etc. all help to reduce local dependence on the natural resources. The legal cell provided much needed legal support to help convict poachers and its success is not matched by any other place in India.
MOST IMPORTANTLY THE WORK OF PRAKRATIK SOCIETY HAS HELPED GENERATE TREMENDOUS GOOD WILL IN THE LOCAL COMMUNITY FOR THE TIGER BECOMING AN IMPORTANT FACTOR IN THE INFORMATION NETWORK OF THE ANTIPOACHING PROGRAM RUN BY TIGER WATCH.
While all this has been happening the recent intervention on behalf of Tiger Watch to embrace the Mogiya Tribes and to help integrate them into the main stream through an effort to help educate their children and find alternate source of income for their families so that they can give up poaching for good has helped pave the path for what could finally become the most important long term solution for the Tiger in Ranthambhore.
Effective enforcement is possible only when NGOs or governments do not have anything to hide. If a tiger is poached here today we must accept it and try to arrest the poacher before he kills another. But if we want to save our skin by denying the first poaching incident, the poacher will continue to kill more. That is how we lost most of our tigers. And if we still don't show the courage to face the truth, we will lose them all. Without the Tiger India would lose all credibility in the world regarding its ability to save its diminishing environment.
- Fateh Singh Rathore
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