Ranger Ranger: Resurrecting Paper Tigers at Sariska
A crescent moon lights up a rickety jeep as it swirls around a dark forest, the wind whistling tunes of a cursed queen and her kingdom. It is past midnight. Ghostly shambles of rock fortresses loom by, an icy presence veiling the only humans visible to a jackal’s eye.
Janeshwar Singh, a strappy young officer in uniform, looks up in the rearview mirror to address his entourage.
Singh, 34, is the ‘Ranger Saab’ in charge of the Ajabgarh range in Sariska (STR). Well nestled in the Aravalli hills, covering an area of about 1200 square kilometers that transforms from scrubland to deep valleys and dry deciduous forests, Sariska in Alwar, Rajasthan, is a haven for the big cat. But that has not always been the case.
In 2004, 16-18 tigers were recorded on paper by the Rajasthan forest department. However, there were strong reports that not only were there no tigers to be seen but also there was no evidence of their presence such as pug marks, scat or scratches on trees.
In 2005, forest officials and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) declared an "emergency tiger census" in Sariska and the Central Bureau of Investigation, India's intelligence agency, conducted a probe into what had turned into an international scandal. After a two-month investigation, they finally declared that Sariska did not have any tigers left. Several poaching cases were filed and Sansar Chand, considered India’s deadliest tiger trafficker, was tailed and arrested in New Delhi.
While many blamed the debacle on bad and corrupt administration, some forest officials stated that it was a consequence of low numbers of ground staff that were ageing, ill-equipped and poorly trained.
Fast forward to 2017, and Sariska looks to be in better shape. Eight tigers were reintroduced from Ranthambore to Sariska between 2008 and 2012. Now, the park boasts of 14 big cats. Most of them have been radio-collared so that they can be monitored more effectively via their GPS locations.
For Singh, a change in management and mindset has played an equally important role in flipping STR’s fate.
“We are making sure we close the loop on our tracking and intelligence. Every guard has to log data sheets, pugmarks, direct sightings and other evidence through a wireless system on a regular basis. In Ajabgarh, there is a proper roster of night patrols scheduled for different beats.”
On one such night patrol, Ranger Saab motions for the jeep to halt near a waterhole known for its rosetted reflections. Springing up from his seat, Singh walks with panther precision, tracing a cluster of pug prints belonging to a female leopard and her two cubs.
Ajabgarh, a buffer zone to Sariska’s core region, is known for its thriving leopard population. Back when tiger and panther poaching was rampant, Ajabgarh was merely an extension of the Tehla range, a sensitive area in STR.
“Since it was 30-35 kilometers away from range headquarters, there was very little patrolling happening,” Singh says. “Hence, poachers were very active.”
Sariska's Most Wanted
Ajabgarh, spanning 165 square kilometers in area, got notified as a separate range in 2013, and Singh took charge in 2015. As a range officer, one of his first orders of business was to study all the poaching cases that were logged twelve years ago. He made a list of all the wanted criminals and suspects specific to his range, and then began aggressively cracking down on them.
On September 20 this year, acting on a tipoff, Singh and his team cornered accused poacher Gyarsa, son of Nathuram Bavaria, who had been absconding after allegedly shooting a tiger for its skin in Ajabgarh in 2003. The forest officials raided the temporary shelter of the Bavarias at Jaganathpura junction and arrested Gyarsa along with another suspect Prabhulal Bavaria, Gyarsa’s brother.
Gyarsa confessed to his crime, stating that the four poachers took the skin and bones of the tiger, throwing the meat in the bushes. His name is now scratched off Singh’s lengthy wanted list that he saves as his phone’s screensaver. “I still have a long way to go,” he says.
Ask if he is scared of being on the poachers’ hit list and pat comes the reply, “You cannot think of all the risks when you go out to do your job on the field. I’m always sure of my strategy when I confront these criminals. I try to go with my team. It is not a rush or a show of adrenalin, it is tactic.”
What aids him in successful conviction, he says, is a robust team of informants and organised legal paperwork. Singh’s record office is immaculate, a stark contrast to the overwhelmingly chaotic file room at Sariska’s main headquarters. His folders are numbered by chargesheets, each set comprising of evidence, FIR copies, crime scene drawings, confessional statements, medical records and other required documents.
Singh, who belts out sections under the Wildlife (Protection) Act without pausing for a breath, has made twelve arrests in Ajabgarh this year alone.
A Roar in the Village
Singh and his team gear up for the rolling winter with extra tracking measures as poaching attempts are known to spike during the foggy months. “It is important to keep an eye on the villages so that the poachers don’t use them as entry points to threaten wildlife,” he says.
But poaching isn’t the only threat to Sariska’s big cats. In 2010, tiger ST-1 that was relocated from Ranthambore was poisoned by agitated villagers for killing their cattle. They powdered the buffalo’s carcass using organophosphate, a lethal insecticide. In a separate incident in March this year, villagers set a leopard on fire at Madhogarh village in STR, after they found that it had killed a man and eaten parts of his body.
For the safety of the animals and the communities living in Sariska, village relocation and rehabilitation has been high on the priority list of the forest department. However, only three of the 29 villages inside STR have been completely relocated since 2008, indicating the complex and strained relationship between forest officials and the villagers who languish in extreme poverty and are extremely dependent on forest resources for survival.
A long, winding drive to a village called Lodge in Talvriksh range helps explain the conflict. Anxious men, women and children huddle in a group as they see the jeep approaching, eager to tell their story to a willing ear.
“During the winter months, tigress ST-10 passes by the village frequently,” says Jagram Gurjar, who works as a tiger tracker in STR and lives with his family in Lodge. “The people are naturally scared. Just a few days ago, since it is mating season, two males ST-4 and ST-13 let out a call from two different mountain tops, and then the tigress ST-10 roared back. Everyone was just petrified.”
Gurjar stays awake at night to ensure the safety of his community. “But we can definitely do with some more assistance,” he says.
To build communication between the villagers and forest officials, field director Dr. Gobind Sagar Bharadwaj addressed a joint gathering during Wildlife Week in October this year. “If the locals are endangered, the tiger is endangered,” he said. “For them to work as our eyes and ears on the ground, we must pay heed to their worries.”
To avoid any further poisoning incidents, the forest department now pays compensation every time a tiger hunts a domestic animal. However, vengeful killing like in case of the panther in March still rings as a major concern.
A Wish Upon A Tiger
Ranger Saab’s only wish now is to see a tiger or tigress thrive in his range of Ajabgarh. Since their vanishing act twelve years ago, the range has not been a territory for Sariska’s striped cats.
“There are untouched sections of dense forest where a tigress could breed undisturbed, without any human interference,” he says. “Once she marks her area here, a tiger will follow.”
However, there still is work to be done before a tiger claims Ajabgarh. Due to lack of water points, prey density in the range is comparatively low.
“The herbivores like the spotted deer and sambar will migrate to places that have plenty of water,” says Debaprasad Sengupta, a Wildlife Institute of India researcher who works on the monitoring of reintroduced tigers in STR. “Sariska did not receive much rainfall this year. Hence, natural water sources in Ajabgarh have dried up. Once we set up water points and the herbivores migrate, the tiger is likely to stay.”
Plus, to monitor the movement of tigers, panthers and other wildlife in buffer zones, Singh is setting up tracks in forest lands that have been reclaimed after mining activities were banned around STR by the Supreme Court.
“But peaceful coexistence between man and animal is crucial. Hence, I am building tracks or pathways in these thick patches for patrolling purposes.”
Singh’s efforts are slowly beginning to bear fruit. On Diwali this year, for the first time since the reintroduction of tigers in Sariska, camera traps spotted a subadult male tiger ST-15 strolling through the hills of Ajabgarh till Bhangarh before making a return to its core habitat.
The cat’s fleeting presence in his domain lights up hope within Ranger Saab. One day, Ajabgarh will become more than just a short, sweet escape. One day, it will be a tiger’s conquest.
“The stars on my shoulder will turn into stripes, and Ajabgarh will roar again.”