| Hard to find
Betla (Palamau), Jan. 30: Jameel, a casual forest worker, says tigers are like god. It is sheer luck if you get to see one in Palamau Tiger Reserve (PTR), he adds.
Jameel has made an innocent but striking admission about the number of tigers in the reserve. Like god, tigers are also invisible in PTR, one of the nine tiger reserves in the country. There has been an increase in the number of visitors, though.
The forest department maintains a register of tiger spotting. Visitors who have spotted tigers while taking elephant rides inside Betla National Park, a part of the reserve, make a note in the register.
The last time a big cat was sighted here was on April 29, 2006, when two tourists from Germany reported it. Before that, Chatra MP Dhirendra Agrawal had seen a tiger on April 9. In all, big cats were sighted only twice in 2006.
The dossier the forest officials have been maintaining since 1993 reveals more startling facts.
In 1994, 96 tourists spotted tigers. But the number of sightings dwindled sharply and reached 12 in 1996, one in 2001 and four in 2002. Interestingly, tourists have not had a glimpse of a big cat in 2003. In 2004 one was sighted and in 2005 three were seen.
Range officer Amarnath Bhagat said the dossier version is more accurate. “We maintain the register, which has comments from tourists, as our version is invariably not believed,” he said.
The precise number of tigers in PTR has always been a matter of dispute. Since the first census — which was in 1934 — the population of tigers has shown a steady decline. In 1972, their numbers dwindled to 17. However, after the forest was declared a sanctuary in 1973, there was an increase in the population of the big cats, reaching 55 in 1989. The 1991 census estimates the tiger population as 54. The 2005 animal census puts the number at 38.
However, tiger trackers put the figure at seven.
Explaining the dispute in numbers, Bhagat said PTR is spread over 1,026 sq km and Betla National Park, a part of PTR, is just 226 sq km. “Tourists visit the park area. There is a tigress or two there,” he said.
Tourists do not venture to the rest of the areas because of the fear of extremists.
“We assess the number of tigers on the basis of the pugmarks that our tiger trackers find,” said the range officer.
The forest department has employed about 120 tiger trackers.
But the rarity in sighting tigers has not brought down the number of visitors to the national park. In fact, footfall in the park has registered a sharp increase in 2006.
According to records, around 20,000 domestic and 98 foreign tourists came to the park in 2006. In 2005, there were 50 foreign and 16,672 domestic tourists. In 2004, the number was five, added Bhagat.