SUNDARI’S SQUEAL IN SEVEN MILES OF SMILES!

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By Bibhuti Pati

Sundari : Money Mania, Victim of flawed plan and failed implementation?

The sylvan story of Sundari and squirearchy is really saccharine, its scansion and its scream. In the shrubbery, the stag see stripling Sundari’s striptease scene. In the name of tiger project and tiger conversations some stinker and slog NTAC and Odisha’s Forest Department officials’ shyster and slapdash decision is a mere shrubs’ skulduggery only for squander. Both officials segregated to Sundari from her mother and family and created a solitary including somatic squirm life for slink Sundari. Now Satakoshia slams and shrike against the staid and stalk of Sundari but Satakoshia is not ready to understand the sprightly sigh of Sundari. For the blunder of NTCA’s now all the sufferings of swat and slander only Sundari carries on her shoulder and shed tears all alone. In this condition Satakoshia’s is not ready to shun his shrill against Sundari. Sundari’s smoulders and squalls vanish in seven miles of smiles. Finally Sundari’s squeals captivated on the sill of seven miles of smiles!

The first inter-state tiger relocation in India, that was supposed to be a milestone in the management of tiger population in India, has gone all wrong for sure. But the million dollar question that is being asked is whether it was a flawed idea from the beginning or a failed implementation? At present, it seems that it is both and much more than what meets the eyes or are being reported.

Satkoshia Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the bio-diversity rich forests of Odisha and a major tourist attraction for its pristine beauty, the Satkoshia Gorge on river Mahanadi and diverse wildlife population.  It was accorded the status of a Tiger Conservation Project in the year 2007 on the basis of the declaration by the Forest Department that Satkoshia Reserve is home to 12 tigers, but not much was done on this front. With this backdrop and the presumed suitability of the habitat for the tigers, it was decided to relocate the tigers from other areas here. Satkoshia is one of the three tiger reserves in the state of Odisha. Similipal is the first tiger project of the state, though the final notification is yet to be done due to various issues.

As per the plan the first tiger from Kanha Reserve Forest was brought on 22nd June this year, acclimatized in a special enclosure for 16 days and finally released to the forest on 7th July. Similarly a tigress from Bandhavgarh National Park was released to the wild on 17 August. People residing within the sanctuary have been living in a state of fear much before the tigers arrived on the scene.  They had been protesting it and demanding with the district administration for the withdrawal of the tigers. The first tiger that was released to the wild did not create much of a problem. But the second one named Sundari has created havoc in the area. Within a week of its release it started attacking the cattles and the goats. But the villagers within the sanctuary lost their patience when Sundari allegedly attacked and killed a women of Hatibari village namely Kailashi Sai on 12th September, 2018. They blocked the road to Satkoshia with the corpse of Kailashi Sai and later burnt the infrastructure and equipments of the forest department worth crores of rupees. This time too they demanded for the withdrawal of the tigress. The administration promised action but, did the obvious. After five weeks of this incidence, the tigress has claimed another life, this time of a farmer of Tainsi village on 21st October. And it has flared the public anger beyond limit. The district administration and the forest officials are trying hard to bring the situation under control, but in vein as the administration has lost it credibility among the people due to failed promises. And now both the local forest dwellers as well as Sundari have a threat to their lives from each other, if government does not take any concreted steps.

A flawed plan?

Relocation of the tigers in Satkoshia is a part of the joint project of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and Wildlife Institute of India (WII) Dehradun. The plan involves transfer of six tigers from various reserves across Madhya Pradesh to Odisha. As part of the plan, a three year old tiger from Kanha National Park was relocated in Satkoshia Tiger reserve. This tiger has been named as Kanha. This was followed by a tigress from Bandhavgarh National Park (originally named as T-412, later renamed as Sundari) was sent to Satkoshia. There was a lot of hype about the whole relocation. ‘The tigers have been transported to Raigoda’. ‘They are being acclimatized in the specially prepared enclosure’. ‘The tiger/tigress has performed its first hunting’ etc were covered extensively in the mass media. The local media was all ga ga about the whole process and there were daily updates on their movements. In this euphoria, the voices of the scared forest dwellers in Satkoshia were not audible. And the efficacy of such an initiative was never questioned. Only after Sundari, the tigress started killing the bovine animals in the villages first and then human beings, the locals were up in arms against Sundari, the forest department and its officials and the local administration. The local forest department offices were ransacked and set on fire. After the second casualty the National highway connecting Cuttack to Sambalpur also was blocked for quite long, vehicles were burnt and government assets vandalized.  Of late, now a plethora of questions are being raised on the whole relocation process.

Was Satkoshia the right location?

Was Satkoshia the right place for the relocation of six tigers from Madhya Pradesh? Those in the know, of tigers, their habitats and behavior, say this was not the right location. First it was proposed by famous tiger conservationist S. Ray Choudhury to have a tiger project here way back in 1978. Then the habitat was quite suitable for the tigers. But then, tigers were not important for the decision makers in the department and also the government as there was other lucrative sources of earning from Satkoshia. Good quantity of timber was harvested from this forest and also bamboo forests were leased out to various paper mills and contractors. So the government as well as the higher officials of the department opposed this move and it was stalled. Had this project been implemented at that time, it would not have led to such conflicting situations and by this time it would have been a well recognized tourist destination in Odisha.

By 2007 the situation of Satkoshia had changed substantially. Timber was not harvested anymore and the bamboo also lost its sheen. Now the department was looking for funds. That is the time when the government claimed that there are 12 tigers in Satkoshia. And the proposal for the tiger project was mooted. And many in the know say that this had nothing to do with the tiger conservation, but with the central grant.

The case of the missing tigers

The State government had declared in the year 2007 that the tiger population in the sanctuary was 12. But in the year 2017 the same state government declared that there is only one tiger left in the reserve. One tiger was seen loitering around Nandankanan, the premier zoological park in Odisha that has a sizable population of tigers in captivity. It even entered the zoological park to mingle with a tigress there. It was captivated for some time and later on released in the Similipal Tiger Reserve. Now it leaves us with ten tigers not accounted for. The forest department is not in a position to explain about the missing case of 10 tigers. Were they hunted? Have they migrated to other adjacent areas? Or they simply did not exist even in 2007? In the absence of corroborating facts, the third suspicion gathers momentum. Some of the forest officials, involved with the tiger conservation, with the condition of anonymity have confided that the figures of tiger census were manipulated deliberately by the forest department. The lure of huge funds allocated for tiger conservation was the driving force for such a blatant lie by the higher ups in the Forest Department. And these officials have emphatically alleged that the whole effort of relocation of tigers in the sanctuary, despite it not being particularly suitable at present for relocation of the tigers, is being done for the lure of central grant only and the benefits accruing out of it.

Biswajit Mohanty says, “Satkosia lost 10 tigers in 10 years despite crores of funds being spent on protection. No accountability was fixed, yet Odisha forest departments want to get new tigers. The logic is not easy to appreciate. The landscape is human dominated and not suitable for tigers anymore. How can the forest department prevent entry of 50, 000 cattle every day? How can they stop people of 102 villages in the Tiger Reserve from entry”?

The case of the missing tigers has a bearing on the present situation. Suresh Chandra Mishra, Retired PCCF (Wildlife) and a well known wildlife expert in Odisha points out “without going out into the reasons for the 10 tigers missing, taking up the tiger project is a blunder. There could be many reasons for the absence of these tigers. It could be due to the death of the tigers due to disease and old age. And there are also quite a few hunters active here and there is also a history of the local people poisoning the tigers through application of pesticides in the carcasses. Before planning for the new tigers at least these aspects should have been looked into in detail, so that the safety and survival of the new tigers could be ensured.”

A recipe for conflict

Is Satakoshia an ideal location? There are 102 villages within the core and buffer zone of the proposed tiger reserve. Thousands of villagers depend on the forest for their day to day needs and also for their livelihood. Their agricultural fields are also located within the forest or very close to the forest. Apart from the human population, there is also a 35,000 to 40,000 strong cattle population that grazes in the forest area. Now that the tiger population has reduced (for whatever reasons) substantially, it seems to be no more as suitable a habitat as it sued to be say four decades back.  The local people who know the forest in and out say that there are not enough prey animals for the tigers in Satkoshia forests.

Sundari not the right choice

Conservation experts say that it is not only the lack of company or compatibility with the male counterpart that has driven the tigress to the villages in the buffer zone. Suresh Chandra Mishra The problem is with the hunting instinct and feeding habit of Sundari. Whatever could be gathered from the series of incidences, it strongly indicates that the tigress does not have the maturity of a grown up big cat. The first human casualty of Sundari was a woman of Hatibari village. Even the local people found it difficult to believe that she was attacked by the tigress for food as the tell tale signs were missing. It even had not eaten the women. Normally tigers devour a large portion of their prey and store the rest for later use. Sundari has not gathered the skill of identifying its prey. It is not able to make out what are its needs. So it is attacking animals and man indiscriminately. This proves that Sundari does not have the signs of a matured tigress.

Sundari was living with her mother in the buffer zone or the tourism zone of Bandhavgarh sanctuary along with its siblings. Suresh Chandra Mishra expressed his dismay that, “a cub barely 27 months old who does not even know hunting was cruelly separated from its family and habitat and transported such a huge distance. Then it was radio collared and released into the wild. This kind of cruelty meted out to Sundari by the NTCA and Odisha Forest Department is nothing sort of a crime.” This is corroborated by the observations in the Raigoda enclosure. There live pigs were released into the enclosure as prey for Sundari, but it was not able to hunt them. That is why it was provided with chopped meat as food.  Mr. Mishra also said that possibly Sundari has been coming closer to the human habitations because of its immaturity and its history of living closer to the human being in Bandhavgarh.

The environment in Bandhavgarh was quite different. There was a strong presence of human population in the area. Mridul Pathak, a Bandhavgrh based wildlife photographer, narrates the behavior of Sundari there. “Sundari was the most camera friendly feline of its kind in the whole of Bandhavgarh. Unlike others, it was every photographer’s delight. She would even climb small trees to amuse the tourists and photographers.”

Many conservationists feel that at an age of 27 months she was still dependant on her mother and did not know hunting properly as it is not easy for a feline of her age. Because of her age and lack of maturity Sundari is not looking for wild prey, not creating its own territory or even not looking for male mate. It may be her acquaintance with humans and lack of ability to hunt wild prey it has been imperative for her to move towards the habitations. And both the cattles and human have fallen prey to her.

Blame it on Sundari’s breed?

Historically it has been established that the tigers of Bandhavgarh are used to eating humans and cattles. There are many instances, where the forest department of MP and the Administration has paid huge amounts as compensation to the family of the deceased. People say that human hunting is in the DNA of the Bandhavgarh breed of the tigers. If there is an iota of truth in this, then it will be a really a huge problem to manage Sundari once it is a fully grown up tiger.

Flawed implementation and People not taken into confidence

Before releasing the tigers into the wilderness the forest department should have taken the villagers into confidence and should have forewarned them about the potential dangers and taken precautionary measures. No such initiatives were taken by the forest department. Either the forest department was overwhelmed with the relocation efforts or it was too adamant to inform the forest dwelling communities, which is nothing new.

The release of the first tiger Kanha into the wilderness went off without much hiccup. This might have made the forest department authorities more complacent. But the tiger Kanha was a different case as it was a three year old tiger and was well versed with hunting wild animals because of its age and prior experience. So it was self dependant from the beginning, feeding itself on hunted wild animals and creating its own territory within the reserve. It hardly had any encounter with human beings. May be, this made the forest department complacent and it did not take enough precautions before releasing Sundari.

Both Kanha and Sundari were kept in Raigoda in special enclosures as they had been conceived as a matching pair. Ideally they should have been released simultaneously. But, Kanha arrived earlier and after a week or so Sundari was transported to the sanctuary in a special vehicle in the company of 30 odd forest officials and wildlife experts. While both these big cats were not released at one go, it was expected that these two tigers will provide company to each other. But that did not happen, much to the delight of the media persons who were able to spin romantic stories about the tigers. Thus goes the media stories that tiger Kanha has found a tigress may be the last tiger present there) to give her company and that is why Sundari  felt unattended to and moved farther into the periphery area. One does not know how far these stories are right. But Suresh Mishra says, may be due to the attack by the local tigress in the forest Sundari has not been able to create its own territory and that has driven her to the buffer areas nearer to the human settlements

Radio Collaring

It has been widely publicized that Sundari has been Radio collared. But the general question making the rounds is why this could not be used to track the tigers and forewarn the villagers about the presence of the tigress in the vicinity? Lala A. K. Singh alleges “the concerned authorities responsible for radio transmission data are not sharing any information. Whether the radio collar system is working or not is also a big question. If it is working, then they should at least provide information about what Sundari is eating. Till date other that three preys (out of this two human beings) there is no other information available on the other preys. As there is no information on the animal hunted, whether there is prey for the tigress or not could not be known.

Ill equipped, insensitive team

The capacities of the Odisha forest department as well as the team working on it do not seem to be properly equipped or capacitated. After Sundari killed the women, a team had come from WII to tranquilize it. But it could not accomplish it on the pretext of not having the trained elephants. After the recent incidence, two experts from OUAT and Nandankanan have been entrusted with this job of tranquilization, where as they do not have any prior experience of it. And it already has been reported that they have failed in their first attempt. And also it seems that those in the helm of affairs do not have a sound understanding of the animal behavior and the ways to manage the relocation.

The implementation is being done without enough prior preparation. The forest dwelling communities were not taken into confidence. Radio collaring did not provide any inputs for the management of the tigress or despite the information the department was not able to use the information for management. And finally, the OFD and the district administration do not carry the confidence of the local population due to insensitive handling of the situation. The act of trying to hush of the death of the women as death by some other animal has enraged the local population.

 Sundari is not a man eater

Suresh Chandra Mishra emphatically has said “Sundari is not a man eater. It is having chance encounter with human beings and the resultant killings because it is immature, has prior experience of human contact and failure of the forest department in educating the local population. The tigers hunt in the noon and during the dusk. All the incidences have taken place during that time period only. The forest department should aware the forest communities to avoid such times to go out alone to the forest or its periphery. Again, the tracking information also could be used to warn the population and directional driving it to the core area.” Lala A.K. Singh also echoes the same opinion “Sundari is not a man eater at all. It is roaming about Hatibari area, to the north of Raigoda. May be it is not successful in creating its territory. Whether it has enough pray or not also is not known. So rather than keeping the things delayed, the forest department should start working objectively. Now Odisha forest department is answering for the experiment being conducted by the NTCA. Without any bias or emotional attachment or compromise with the NTCA Odisha Forest Department should take an objective view. Releasing a cub, not experiences in hunting, into the wilderness and experimenting is a cruelty to the animal. Now the forest department should stop experimenting and keep it captive at Raigoda enclosure. Else the life of Sundari will be at risk and the forest department will be not able to provide it security. And its security is of paramount importance.”

Suresh Chandra Mishra also is equally concerned about the security of Sundari. “The local people are simple, peaceful and god-fearing. But, when it is an either or situation for their lives or that of the tigress, they also kill the tigress by poisoning or other means. There is past history to this effect. The forest department and the local administration should handle people more carefully, as without their cooperation the tigers could not exist in the reserve. Even if Sundari is tranquilized and kept in captivity, finally it has to be released to the wilderness.”

The experiment that was envisaged to be a mile stone has proved itself to be ill planned, poorly implemented and horribly gone wrong. Now the lives of Sundari and the local population are under great danger. Urgent steps should be taken to secure Sundari, and hence local people, without any delay. Else it will be triumph of greed over prudent behavior to the prized big cat.

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