Are Sariska's tigers, symbols of a phenomenal conservation effort, safe in the raging wildfire?

Sariska Tiger Reserve
A Royal Bengal tigress shifted from Ranthambore National Park to Sariska Tiger Reserve. File/PTI

A raging wildfire has engulfed over 10 sq km of Rajasthan's Sariska Tiger Reserve and attempts to douse the flames are on since Sunday. The reports of the fire in the sanctuary, which houses 27 tigers and several other animal species, is a cause of concern as the forest is a key region in the history of the country's conservation efforts.

“The huge ongoing fire in the Sariska reserve, which is a success story in the revival of its tiger population, is a matter of great concern. The Alwar district administration has rightly sent an SOS to Indian Air Force. Hope it is brought under control very soon!,” Congress MP and former Union minister Jairam Ramesh said in a tweet on Tuesday night as flames engulfed Sariska's flora and fauna.

The concern of Ramesh, who is known for his commitment to the cause of the environment, was a reminder of an extraordinary government project that revived the tiger population of the reserve to some flourishing numbers from naught.

The Sariska story of tiger conservation

Situated in Rajasthan's Alwar district and a part of the Aravalli Range, Sariska was declared a wildlife reserve in 1955. It was later declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1958 and became a part of the 'Project Tiger' as Sariska Tiger Reserve in 1979. Project Tiger is run by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

Sariska sent alarming news to the world in 2004-05 that all of its tiger population had disappeared. Poachers were the main villains of this wildlife story.

A March 2005 report by the Wildlife Institute of India said there were no tigers left in Sariska, whereas an official census conducted in 2004 had indicated the reserve housed 16 to 18 tigers.

The governments at the state and Centre (The first Manmohan Singh-led UPA regime) were forced to act immediately following an uproar from conservationists from around the globe. In 2005, the Rajasthan government, in cooperation with the Centre and Wildlife Institute of India, planned the re-introduction of tigers to Sariska and also the relocation of villages.

The IAF carries out Bambi Bucket operation to douse the fire that broke out in Sariska Tiger Reserve.

“The continued efforts to re-establish the lost glory of Sariska resulted in the world’s first tiger reintroduction plan in 2008,” Hemant Singh, an Indian Forest Service officer who has worked in Sariska, recollects in a 2020 article in Mongabay.

Veteran conservationist and former chairman of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board V S Vijayan said the tiger reintroduction project at Sariska was a huge inspiration to conservationists across the country.

So, what did the government do to revive the big cat population in the forests? In short, tigers were translocated into a new habitat.

On June 28, 2008, the first male tiger was airlifted from Ranthambhore National Park in the Sawai Madhopur district in an Indian Air Force MI 17 and was translocated and released in a one-hectare enclosure built at Nayapani. He was joined by his partner on July 4, 2008.

The reintroduction programme at Sariska was not initially successful. The first reintroduced male tiger was poisoned to death, allegedly after feeding on a poisoned cattle carcass. Relocated tigresses were also not breeding.

The first sign of success came after a long wait of four years as a tigress named ST-2 was spotted with two cubs in July 2012. Even then, the other two tigresses showed no sign of reproduction.

Enter the Binas

The officials behind Sariska's revival project were in no mood to give up. In January 2013, two orphaned female tigers -- ST-9 and ST-10 -- were brought from Ranthambore to Sariska. They were once known as Bina-I and Bina-II.

Defying doubts over their chances of survival in the new habitat, the two female tigers acclimatised soon and increased their population over the years.

Ranthambore National Park
In this picture taken 29 January 2004, a tiger yawns in Ranthambore National Park Rajasthan. File/AFP

“Initial stocking and supplementation of the population were between 2008 to 2013 where 8 individuals (5 females and 3 males) were brought to Sariska. One more individual was brought in the year 2019. In the last 12 years, 16 cubs were born in Sariska; out of those, 12 are still surviving. Thus, the recruitment rate is one individual per year. Seven individuals have died or missing so the mortality rate is 0.58, and the recruitment rate is higher than the mortality. Population Viability Analysis (PVA) done by scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India predicts this can sustain tiger survival in the long run by the creation of more inviolate spaces and active monitoring,” Singh writes in his 2020 article.

Earlier this month, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot announced the number of tigers in Sariska Tiger Reserve has increased to 27.

Officials have said no tiger is stuck in the areas affected by the current wildfire and their movement was being monitored. That's some good news, at least for now.

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