Crouching in a dry stream bed, the tracker traces the faint footprint of a tiger in the ochre soil with his finger.
“This is from two nights ago. She came up from the water hole and went on that way,” Ramcharithar Uraon says, pointing into a dense forest of bamboo thickets and tapered sal trees in this park in eastern India.
The paw print, or pug mark, is the latest sign that park rangers have had of Rani, “the tigress of Betla,” named for the village in the Palamau reserve around which she ranges.
Trackers patrol 24 hours a day looking for signs of the big cats: a glimpse, paw tracks, droppings, remains of a kill. The clues are elusive — not just because of the stealth with which tigers creep through the mottled forest, but because India’s tigers are vanishing.
As many as 100,000 tigers are thought to have roamed India 100 years ago. Based on a 2001 census, officials estimate there are just 3,600 tigers left, but conservation activists believe there are far fewer.
The high profile villains are gangs of poachers that kill cats for their pelts and bones, which are used mostly in traditional Chinese medicine. A single tiger carcass can fetch up to $50,000.
The discovery last year that poachers had wiped out every tiger in Sariska, one of India’s premier tiger reserves, caused an outcry and demands for a beefing up of security in the parks.
From habitat to rebel issues
But the threats to the tiger are as varied and complex as the lands they roam: disappearing natural habitat shared with millions of people, a tiger tourism industry that has alienated villagers, a communist rebellion in a core swath of tiger lands and a conservation effort mired in bureaucracy.
“Sending in the commandos sounds very hip, but it isn’t the whole solution,” says Sunita Narain, an environmentalist asked to head the Tiger Task Force by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after the revelations about the Sariska fiasco.
“We need a more nuanced and carefully devised strategy,” Narain says, noting that Sariska already has more armed guards per square mile than any other reserve in India.
She says conservationists need to take into account the realities of India, a largely impoverished country of more than 1 billion people — some 800 million of whom must live on less than $2 a day.
In Ranthambhore, one of India’s best known tiger reserves, high-end hotels made some $5 million last year, Narain says. Almost none of that went to local people, feeding animosity that has allowed poachers to operate freely and kill dozens of tigers there in recent years, she says.
“We have to get away from tiger conservation for the rich, by the rich,” Narain says. “There has to be benefit sharing.”
No benefits to locals
Many tiger sanctuaries have people — often India’s poorest — living inside them.
Palamau is a stark illustration. It is home to nearly 200 villages inhabited by 100,000 Adivasis, indigenous tribesmen at the bottom of the complex Indian social ladder.
While India’s cities are burgeoning into global technology hubs, these communities bear only faint traces of modernity.
In Betla, goats and donkeys wander in and out of low, windowless mud huts with drooping shingled roofs. Huts have no electricity or running water, and the only contact with the outside world comes from three public telephones in the dusty village center.
Residents of Betla and the other villages eke out an existence through subsistence farming — supplemented by what they gather from the forest.
Some 30 tons of firewood and 60 tons of animal fodder are collected each day in the reserve, says P.K. Gupta, a senior forest officer at Palamau. Chunks of forest have been leveled for grazing, and mines encroach — sometimes legally, sometimes not — onto the sanctuary’s mineral-rich land, he adds.
“The human pressure on the park is very high,” Gupta says.
Thousands killed in fighting
Human conflict also takes a toll. Decades of poverty have fueled resentment and made the area a hotbed for communist rebels whose quarter-century insurgency has killed more than 7,000 people across India.
From 1990 to 2004, nine of Palamau’s park workers were killed by militants, who considered all government representatives targets. Others were kidnapped or robbed and their headquarters was torched.
Many rangers fled, leaving the tigers with no guardians. The park’s tiger population plunged from an estimated 62 in 1984 to 35.
There haven’t been any fatal attacks on wardens in two years, but the reserve still has only half its allotted 130 ranger jobs filled, although that is partly due to bureaucratic obstacles to hiring new people.
Yet Palamau provides a glimmer of hope. The decline in tiger numbers halted and signs of five cubs were spotted the past two years, indicators that stress on the animals has eased. Using digitized images of pug marks to identify cats, rangers estimate there are at least 38 tigers now.
The success has a lot to do with Narain’s theory that threats to tigers will be reduced if local people are shown they can benefit from conservation.
At Palamau, park workers began projects to improve villagers’ lives and reduce their dependence on the forest.
Solar-powered lamps and energy-efficient pressure cookers were handed out, to reduce the need for firewood. Compensation was increased for land, houses and livestock destroyed by wild animals, to lessen pressures to kill animals to protect property.
A fund also was established to provide villagers with small loans to open shops or businesses and workshops were set up to teach skills like handicraft manufacturing, beekeeping and fish farming.
“We were cut off from the people. These projects brought us together,” says the park’s manager, A.N. Prasad.
With an improvement in relations with the villages, park officials have been able to take a tougher stance on those who violate conservation rules. Since 2003, officials have imprisoned 37 people for felling trees, illicit grazing and poaching deer.
For Uraon, the Adavasi tracker, the program means a job in the forests where he was raised. His community is doing better now, he says.
But others resent the forest officials.
“They are forcing development on us,” says Shashibhusan Pathak, an Adivasi activist who argues that local people could better conserve forest and wildlife without government interference.
Despite evidence of increased tiger numbers in the remote park, the animals are elusive. For most visitors, the closest thing is an old stuffed head of a tiger killed 20 years ago by irate villagers and mounted on the wall of the information center.
But that will be gone soon, Gupta says. “It doesn’t give the right conservation message.”