NEW DELHI & NAMDHAPA (Arunachal Pradesh), Nov. 26. - In the greatest tragedy yet to hit India's tiger conservation project, the Namdapha reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, once boasting of 61 tigers, is thought to have been swept clean of the majestic beasts.
Officials in the wildlife department in Namdapha told The Statesman that, at best, a lone tiger survived in the vast reserve spread across 1,985 square kilometres. But even the only tiger that Namdapha now lays claim to has not been sighted by forest officials but reported as having been spotted by Chakma villagers.
The decline of Namdapha, though as disheartening, is factually more tragic than the story of Sariska. While the last census declared 22 tigers in Sariska, Namdapha gave a count of 61 big cats. Something graver and for a longer period has been going on in this reserve, neglected because of its geographical distance from the seat of power.
The field director of Namdapha Tiger Reserve, Dr LK Pait, said: "Some people say only one tiger is left but given the conditions of the park it is difficult to get pugmarks and poor visibility limits sightings. We would come to know about the real count only after a census is conducted in December."
Dr Pait blamed poor infrastructure and limited frontline staff for the difficulty in the upkeep of the reserve: "We are so understaffed that virtually each person on frontline duty has to cover an area of 65-70 square kilometres, which is much more than the national average of 15-20 square kilometres, and very difficult."
The main reason behind the Namdapha tragedy is said to be the people of the Lisu tribe, who have settled in the reserve and hunt the beasts. Originally from Myanmar, official records show that they migrated and set up base inside the tiger reserve in 1987. At present, there are 66 families in three different locations in and around Gandhigram, a village bordering Myanmar.
"They were once evicted but came back and burnt down some forest posts and camps in retaliation," said Dr Pait. "The government of Arunachal Pradesh is surveying the exact number of Lisus and working towards re-settling them outside the reserve, somewhere in Changlang district," he added.
Lower-rung officials confirmed that the Lisus had been poaching tigers without any let-up or hindrance. When arrested, they usually get out easily and become a perpetual threat to the officials who patrol the dense jungles. But it's not only Lisus living the life they know best who are to blame - staff members at the reserve have been accused of killing animals such as the barking deer and feasting on them.
Officials told The Statesman that the absence of definitive material evidence of tiger presence like tiger scat (excrement), alarm calls of the prey species and remains of tiger prey, is a dead giveaway that Namdapha is a tiger reserve on paper alone.
"There has been a systematic cleansing of tigers thanks to the apathy of the state and the indifference of the Centre," said a senior official and a former field director of the reserve. The tiger count had apparently fallen years back but the figures were fudged to show that the population curve was surging, he added.
Namdapha was the 15th entrant to the list of tiger reserves under Project Tiger. The unique biosphere reserve, which boasts of four species of big cats - tigers, leopards, snow leopards and clouded leopards - was established in 1983. In the 1984 census, the tiger population was enumerated at 43, which went up to 61 in 2001-02.