Ranchi, Aug. 30: Don’t bank on sighting the big cat at Palamau Tiger Reserve (PTR), too many problems are visible anyway.
This is the unspoken open secret of one of the nine original tiger reserves in India, set aside as a protected area in 1947 under the Indian Forests Act. This is also what the four-member team of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) hopes to change.
The high-level team that left Ranchi last week after a three-day evaluation and monitoring visit concluded that the time for criticism was up and they wanted politicians and bureaucrats, including forest officials, to be “on the same page” if the tiger reserve was to regain its former glory.
“Our report to government of India will focus on the road ahead for PTR,” P.K. Sen, renowned wildlife activist and Padmashri awardee, said while talking to The Telegraph at the forest guesthouse in Doranda a couple of hours before flying back to New Delhi on August 24.
A former director of the PTR during undivided Bihar, Sen happens to be the key official of the four-member team. The other three were former principal chief conservator of forests (Tamil Nadu) Venkat Rao, Union minister of environment and forests Jayanthi Natarajan’s nominee Prabhakaran and NTCA consultant J. Das.
Officially, Palamau has six tigers, including one male who is aged. Foresters have woken up to the reality of relocating a healthy tiger pair to mate in the reserve.
But more acute is the problem of manpower crunch. Sen, who said it was the single-most important challenge, added that its solution was surprisingly simple. “All the state government needs to do is fill the much-delayed vacancies now,” he said.
Astoundingly, there has been no forest recruitment since 1985. Jharkhand, born in 2000, has not come up with a recruitment plan. In Palamau, the situation is desperate. Of the 164 forest guard posts, only 34 exist. With no hires in the last 27 years, the average age of the guards is 58 years. These elderly men have a tough time discharging their hectic duties, which ideally also include keeping track of trespassers including Naxalites and poachers. And going by the rate of retirements taking place every month, in some two years no guard will exist in Palamau.
Other problems include delayed release of funds, short-sighted plans and simmering discontent due to an internal tussle between state forest department, secretariat and Palamau reserve authorities.
“First things first,” Sen stressed. “Recruitment of forest guards is essential. Time is ticking fast given the current situation. By 2015 there won’t be a single staff left,” he said.
Currently, 120 trackers or casual workers form the major workforce in PTR, but the number is still way too short to cover the entire reserve spread across 1,100sqkm. The forest department initiated camera trapping but that has not been very effective. More than 40 per cent of the area is uncovered due to scarcity of cameras.
“Casual workers are no solution for reserve. You can’t expect quality work from them. Good news is that PTR has excellent forests, grasslands and watering holes but it cannot be unmanned,” Sen said, but added that what was positive was that officials now seemed to venture into forest interiors.
The rapid shrinking prey base — say deer — for tigers and other carnivores was also a prime concern now. “We are told that 95 per cent of the prey base is cattle, which is shocking. No one can explain why,” Sen added.
But the veteran who has worked in Palamau stressed that if the state government managed to fill vacancies, then by 2015, PTR would regain its glory.
“All the other problems are linked with this issue. For example, we talk of fund delays. Even if funds come right on time here, will there be anyone to utilise it without manpower? I am an optimist and am hopeful that the state government realises this unseen menace before all the tigers disappear from PTR,” he signed off.