Here, I recount the story of four irreverent tigers from Ranthambhore, brought to Sariska, and the expectations of the state machinery for resultant tourism and tales. The big cats though, were reluctant, imperious, and just, well, tigers. This piece first appeared in the Indian Express.
A cracked road, winding through lush forest, bracketed by zealous home guards. This is the introduction to Sariska tiger reserve, one of the two spots in the Aravallis where tigers still roar.
Or are expected to. Last week, state highway Sariska-Tehla, the same road that bisects the tiger reserve, was pounded with traffic: Union environment and forests minister, Rajasthan’s forests minister, an army of vets, biologists, data loggers and students from the Wildlife Institute of India, forest guards, home guards, TV cameras and curious locals. As cars with VIP lights screeched at the potholes, a canter truck rolled in, with a 250-kg container secured to it with ropes. From the the 5-feet-11-inch-long container’s 25-millimetre-large holes, peeped out a tiger.
The truck, labelled ‘Udan Dasta’ (flying squad), was halted and the tyre changed, delaying the transfer of the 170-kg male tiger from Ranthambhore to Sariska. But the broken road lets in on Sariska’s new story.
‘Re-building the Future’ read boards at state-run hotels around the reserve. The ‘future’ comprises satellite-collared young tigers from Ranthambhore, being brought in to populate Sariska. The ‘future’ is also the future of tourism here: for Sariska is unique. The verdant undulating forests here are some of the oldest preserved versions of the Aravallis, which is said to have once held dinosaurs. At the heart of Sariska is Pandupole, a jungle temple whose crags the Pandavas marked forever. According to legend, Bhim had split the rocks here, in his legendary fight with Hanuman. Tourists flock to the reserve on Tuesdays and Fridays, for their fix of ‘jungle-safari’ and holy visit. Yet tourism dropped to an all-time low after 2004, after the tigers here were poached to extinction. Now, the state is desperate to build a new brand of tourism, on the basis of the new tigers.
But while tourism here owes its existence to tigers, the inverse is certainly not true. Scientists here pride themselves on breaking fresh ground: this is the first time ever, when not only a population of tigers is being artificially created in the wild, but is also being mapped, studied, logged and photographed, as the tigers stride over the New Land. Since 2008, when the first tigers were brought in, 115 kills and 103 specimens of scat have been picked up and analysed.
And therein comes the highway. The National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Supreme Court have banned heavy traffic on it, and asked for the usage of a bypass road. But that hasn’t happened. The forest department doesn’t want a silken road which people can zip through. Thus, the road has been allowed to fall into disrepair. “We can let nature take its course. That will automatically deter the tourists,” says a senior park officer.
Slowing them down, if not deterring them, is crucial. Scores of animals have been turned to roadkill here, even as the tourists wait for the new tigers to parade themselves. Despite the attention (or because of it?), one male and two female tigers, residents since 2008-09, have not yet bred.
In the state-run Tiger Den and forest guest house, shiny pictures of the comely tiger pair(s) look out from the walls, their black satellite collars jutting out. For the first time, there is a new computer and an internet connection at the Tiger Den.
“We are keen people recognise Sariska again,” says Rajasthan forest minister Ram Lal Jat. He admits the conservation initiative of making the bypass operational has not taken off. “These things are difficult to do. People in the town of Thanagazi did not want the bypass. Now we have decided to build a bypass for the bypass.” In simple words, a new seven-kilometre stretch will be made to link the unused bypass to Thanagazi, so the townspeople can benefit from interstate traffic. This is a new approach to the old solution of the bypass road, which is several years old, has survived a general election, but still hasn’t taken off.
“With a second male tiger being brought in, we hope that cubs will be born. It is not possible to do conservation work without tigers,” Jat says.
That’s hard to believe when you visit Sariska Palace, 120 acres of a palace/hunting lodge built by the Maharaja of Alwar on the fringes of Sariska, now a hotel. No collared tiger shots here. Most photos, some mildewed, all gilt-edged, show shot and skinned tigers, ‘explorers’ with their feet nudging a tiger’s bullet-ridden dead body, with stuffed tigers grinning from glass cases for company. Here, the dead tiger trophy seems more elevated than saving real tigers. Yet, for all its arrogance, this place too owes its commerce to real tigers in the real forest. The young stewards who work here logged a fall in tourists in the past few years. “People will spend money to stay here to see the tiger in Sariska,” says a worker.
It would be cheesy to say that the future of Sariska rests on tigers, whose love stories have been meticulously watched and spoken about. But it is all but true. “Once the tigress litters, we will have another population of the same unique genetic stock as Ranthambhore,” says chief wildlife warden R Mehrotra. But what of the journey to that point? “CP1 spends seven days each with CP2 and CP3,” says field director KK Garg. That’s the succinct account of how Core Party 1, the first male tiger, divides his mating time with the two tigresses. The nomenclature reflects how closely the tigers are followed: the ‘core parties’ originally were parties formed to minutely study the tigers.
The information flood and GPS maps haven’t prepared anyone for the tiger’s individuality. The first three tigers charged out of their one-hectare enclosures, where they were first lodged, as soon as their gates were opened.
The teams watching the fourth tiger were expecting the same, also announcing how the male tiger was likely to get into a bloody territorial confrontation with the first male. But when the gates of his enclosure were opened, the second male stayed inside, imperiously lapping up water, striding, taking his time; almost two days. On data sheets, he had become CP4, but he wasn’t acting like the other CPs.
You cannot predict the tigers’ next move. Give them their space, don’t expect their devotion to plans made for them. Sariska’s story is in need of the same lessons.
Photograph Copyright: Neha Sinha