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, there are no tiger cubs sited or captured by camera traps. In short, the Tiger reserve is as well as bereft of all tigers. Palamau Tiger Reserve is 1014 sq kilometres 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 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 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 slops are steep in southern part and gentle in the northern part of the Reserve.
Palamau Tiger Reserve was constituted as a Tiger reserve in 1973 when Project Tiger programme was first instituted in the country. The tiger population was estimated to be 44 as per the census conducted in 1993.
The current state of affairs is a consequence of deteriorating ecosystem supported by overall apathy towards 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, lack of security that inhibits wildlife researchers and enthusiasts to come and spend time in the area, 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 of the country. Jharkhand is a state of political uncertainty, a land poorly governed, where miners hold their 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 the majority of the poor in this country, moving them out of starvation to a state of semi starvation, the tribal’s residing in dense forests are left behind. Their isolation from the rest of society only aggravated their condition. We left them alone on the premise that their unique lifestyle and culture requires 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 that is normally around twenty square kilometres has increased to seventy square kilometres. The animal moves from one part of the forest to the other, covering large distances every day, in search of food. Survival has taken priority over breeding.
While the tiger population is moving towards extinction a similar story is happen at the forest guard end too. As against the sanctioned strength of 96 people the current level of staff in Palamau is just 11. Average age of staff 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 as a result of steady ecosystem degradation the other due to official apathy.
It is not that the current state of affairs is not known to forest managers and other decision makers in the State or at the Centre. The managers of the forest, the forest department do not publically raise the red flag. Everyone wants to protect his chair, no 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 intent of the forester.
I am sure the National Tiger Conservation Authority at the Government of India level is too aware of the current state but except for a stray report in a newspaper, things continue to be the same. 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 a 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 and 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 the location of an animal.
Steps to reverse the degradation of the ecosystem need to be undertaken urgently. While the shortage of equipment can be easily overcome and generation of baseline data can be quickly accomplished the challenge lies in re-building the lost biodiversity of these forests. If concrete steps are not taken to reverse the rapidly degrading wildlife ecosystem in these forests, it is just a matter of time that herbivores, prey species and tiger will be 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, chicken 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. This will require collaboration with the key stakeholders- the tribal and the forest department on the one hand and on the other wildlife specialists, media and the State. I understand that the three villages located in the 714 sq kilometres of the extended core area are voluntarily willing to move out of the forest centre 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 voice and demand action from both the national and state governments.