The website of the Panna Tiger Reserve greets you with the pug marks of a tiger on its homepage. It carries a nice news ticker about one of the many recent awards it got from the Ministry of Tourism of the Government of India for being the best maintained and tourist-friendly national parks of the country. With over 90 staff managing the Tiger Reserve and being on the tourism circuit, Panna is a fairly small park among the National Parks in the country. A park like Namdapha in remote North-east India has eleven field staff to manage nearly 2000 sq. km of difficult terrain. Even as the project tiger website proclaims 60 tigers in Namdapha Tiger Reserve, India's largest Tiger Reserve, others who have actually worked there have their reservations. A recent paper in fact uses extensive camera-trapping data to estimate a maximum of TWO tigers in this park! But, it is easy to overlook news from such rarely and difficult-to-visit parks such as Namdapha. That is not the case with Panna though. It has been one of the sought after places to see tigers in the country. One would have thought it must be easier to manage a 500 sq. km well connected park in Madhya Pradesh with over seventy field staff and a smattering of IFS officers with sustained tourist presence and some radio-collared tigers. One is obviously wrong!
Last month, the media reported what has been doing rounds in wildlife circles and local villages near Panna Tiger Reserve; that the tiger whose marks the website bears, are not found in the park anymore. Following a survey conducted in December 2008 by the Wildlife Institute of India and several reports in March about the possibility of Panna doing a Sariska, the National Tiger Conservation Authority sent a team to investigate what the State Government had been attributing to natural deaths of tigers (not appearing unnatural to them that scores of tigers could be dying naturally!). All this even while the State Government denied all possibilities of tiger being locally extinct in Panna. It was only in June this year that the tigerlessness of Panna was officialised.
Day before yesterday, an article in the Pioneer enlightened us about the reason for the tiger deaths in Panna - Radio collaring! A report by the Wildlife Crime Bureau attributed the tiger deaths in Panna to radio collaring, the article said. It found that 80 per cent of tigers killed in Panna have met their deadly fate at the hands of poachers after they were radio collared, glossing over the fact that we could know about their fates ONLY because they were radio-collared. The article said that that the report termed itself "interesting". Definitely, I must say - very interesting that the report makes a scapegoat of science. Radio tracking of wildlife is widely used for scientific studies, management and conservation of several species across the world - from birds to camels and from turtles to tigers, of course. In fact, critical questions on behaviour and ecology of large mammals are evident only through such methods. Tracking tigers by radio collaring has given us an understanding on important questions such as home ranges of tigers, carrying capacity of tigers in the continuously shrinking tiger reserves, causes of mortality and dealing with the reasons and consequences of conflict with people, especially so with elephants. These answers are exactly what a wildlife manager of a tiger reserve 'should' be looking for. And recent conservation literature from India has started answering such questions. While it is legitimate to further investigate the type of collars used and safety of tranquilizers used, it is quite an illogical conclusion that the WCB report seems to be coming to. Obviously, each and every tiger was not radio-collared. Shouldn't scientists with experience in radio collaring have been involved in this exercise? Was there a thorough analysis on the equipment and data of radio-collaring in Panna and elsewhere done by the WCB? Of course, not. Irresponsibly declaring radio-collaring as a reason in a report belittles the report as well as the huge body of scientific literature about this technique worldwide.One only wonders if the intention of the report is to investigate the crime or blame the ones detecting and reporting the crime!
Two issues come to my mind as I read the developments at Panna, the lack of an information culture and poor scientific temper in State institutions. Take for example the case of infant mortality reporting in the health sector. It's all a number game - blaming infant deaths on first line health workers results in under-reporting of infant deaths. Who would report infant deaths or tiger numbers truthfully it if retribution rather than help is what you receive from above? The net result of this is that the information reported through the public health system is so poor that if we were to rely purely on health centre data, we would have infant mortality rates of USA or UK! Similar is the case with the tiger numbers - if the usual reaction to smaller tiger numbers reported by scientists outside the system or from watchers on the field is going to be retribution, then we shall always have tiger numbers of the 18th century! Such an attitude in the bureaucracy destroys the innate nature of the field staff to truthfully report information and act on them. Instead, routine institutional data focuses merely on portraying a sense of status-quot or sometimes improvements rather than providing actionable information that should then feed back into management. The other issue of lack of scientific temper is quite evident in the WCB report, which has the audacity to term itself, 'interesting' while drawing vicarious temporal associations between tiger deaths and radio-collaring. Let's face the facts -
Fact 1: Panna lost its tigers - not on the day when the Minister accepted it, but over months (or perhaps years) of poaching.
Fact 2: Radio-collaring as a technique for conservation and management with well-established safety guidelines is widely accepted.
Viewing the tiger extinction in Panna as yet another isolated event with simple reasons like an errant forest guard or radio collaring rather than understanding the socio-political, economic and biological reasons is the most illogical thing to do. For a tiger to survive in Panna like in most of India's tiger reserves is the result of a complex inter-play between protection, human-animal conflict, irresponsible tourism, poverty and access to eduction, employment and health care in the villages around and not the least of all, political will. Transferring forest officers, suspending guards and blaming radio-collaring are non-solutions. Responsible tourism and conservation research in additon to bringing in revenue, awareness and greater understanding of conservation are also a way of having more eyes and ears in the forests. As long as we continue to produce poor quality data within the Government, it is only logical for the Government – be it health or forest, to encourage applied research and act quickly on the issues that the scientific community brings up. Unfortunately, the forest department is much more closed to science and research than any other department today. Permissions to work in protected areas on important conservation activities is rarely based on the merit of the proposal but on whether it will report poor tiger numbers or dwindling of habitat. And where researchers have been candid with their findings, they have only been faced with cancellation of permits! I am still waiting for the day when a young forest officer in a protected area is empowered enough to publicly discuss issues in his park and network strongly with the scientific community, rather than play hide-and-seek with numbers till there is no other option. We saw this with Sariska and now with Panna. And these are the parks we know about due to the reporting in media, not because they came up in any Government report where we should ideally have been reading about them.