Calcutta, May 11: Where have all the tigers gone'
To Bhutan, it seems, thanks to militants.
Forest officials in north Bengal say most of the big cats in the Buxa Tiger Reserve in Jalpaiguri district have left the sanctuary and gone to jungles in adjoining Bhutan because of militant activities.
The explanation, from the reserve’s field director, L.G. Lepcha, to Rajesh Gopal, director (Project Tiger), followed a query from the Prime Minister’s Office, which received a letter from an animal lover that tigers could no longer be seen in the Alipurduar sanctuary.
“The entire core area of the reserve is having human settlements and thousands of cows are grazing in those areas and surprisingly not a single attack is being made by the so-called tigers on the cattle and humans,” Amarendra Sarkar wrote in his April 30 letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of the ruling coalition.
“The authorities concerned are continuously giving false census figures,” the Jalpaiguri resident said.
“Their main aim is to misappropriate government money in the name of tiger conservation,” Sarkar added.
Prodded by the PMO, Gopal yesterday wanted to know from Lepcha the “factual information by return fax”.
Lepcha today communicated to Gopal that most of the 27 Royal Bengal tigers in Buxa have abandoned the sanctuary and left for forests in Bhutan.
“We identified 27 Royal Bengal tigers in the tiger reserve during the last census held in February this year. But most of these 27 tigers have left Buxa and gone to the jungles of adjoining Bhutan as militants are very active in some pockets of the jungle. I have sent in my reply to the director (Project Tiger),” Lepcha told The Telegraph from Alipurduar.
A joint combing operation was conducted in Buxa last year by the Indian and Bhutan armies to flush out militants who had taken shelter in the jungles of the tiger reserve. Army and police officials still conduct raids in search of militants in the jungles. According to forest officials, all these have disturbed the tigers in Buxa.
Lepcha said the tiger population in Buxa has come down to 27 this year from the 30 counted in 2002. The three missing tigers, officials said, could either have died or wandered off to the forests of Bhutan.
Asked about Sarkar’s observation that census figures were false and forest officials misappropriate government money in the name of tiger conservation, Lepcha said the allegations were “baseless”.
The Centre provides Rs 7 crore every year to the tiger reserve to maintain the 761 sq. km forest area supposed to be home to about 150 leopards besides the 27 Royal Bengal tigers. But tourists visiting Buxa have often complained to forest officials that they have not seen a single tiger.
State forest minister Jogesh Barman bristled at the suggestion that the tiger reserve had been emptied of its regal residents. “I have also never seen a tiger in Buxa. But that does not mean there is no tiger in the reserve forest,” he said.
“Many people visit the Sunderbans every year to see tigers. But how many of them have seen tigers' It does not mean there are no tigers in the Sunderbans.”
Barman, however, did not rule out that tigers from Buxa may have crossed over to the jungles of Bhutan and Nepal.