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We need accountability on the Panna tigers genocide

June 14, 2010 14:54 IST
Appalling neglect for eight years has led to the shocking extinction of tigers at the Panna tiger reserve, animal rights activist Shehla Masood charges in this letter to Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh.

Mr Jairam Ramesh
Minister of State (Independent Charge), Ministry of Environment and Forests
New Delhi.

Dear Sir,

June 5, 2010 will be remembered as a black day.

The person who has been named as an offender in the Panna committee report headed by P K Sen is being promoted, supported and guarded in Madhya Pradesh. He is responsible for the vanishing of the Panna tiger genes from the world!

I would like to take you back to the year 2001.

From April 2001 to March 2009, different field directors have given priority to different things forgetting the basics of management of a tiger reserve. Security is the most important thing as the Panna tiger reserve is surrounded by large number of villages.

Rampant poaching and total denial for the past eight years have led to the extinction of tigers in Panna. The state government denied any crisis even as tigers were regularly being poached for eight years between 2002 and 2009, as an extensive report prepared by a Special Investigative Team set up by the ministry of environment and forests discovered.

The SIT was constituted to investigate the extinction of tigers from Panna which had at least 24 tigers till 2007.

The series of warnings by the environment ministry, the Wildlife Institute of India, independent scientists, activists and NGOs were deliberately ignored between 2002 and 2008 as Madhya Pradesh concentrated on 'tourism and welfare' and senior officials looked the other way, says the report.

The report says the team felt that Panna was a very special case because the management received so many cautions and warning letters from different agencies. It has been observed by the team that the government of Madhya Pradesh was always in a denial mode that there was crisis in Panna.

'The advisories/guidelines and red alerts on protection and monitoring protocols issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, time and again, were not followed in action and spirit. Even newspaper warnings were ignored,'the report says.

The Indian Express had reported in March this year that there were no tigers left in Panna, a report which the MP forest department denied.

You will be surprised to know that the team said that 'intelligence-gathering was never important' for the Panna tiger reserve and the failure was from the highest level.

For the investigation, field directors between 2002 and 2009 were questioned and MP police poaching records were accessed. For the same period, the report says, 'Senior officers of the rank of Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and chief wildlife warden and additional PCCF visited the reserve number of times.'

Nowhere in their tour report has it been mentioned that the reserve was facing problems which could be a cause of disappearance of the tiger. The principal secretary, forests, was least concerned about tigers in the reserve. The entire department in Bhopal was busy corresponding with scientists, individuals, NGOs denying facts even without verification.

This is a situation much worse than Sariska, P K Sen, former director, Project Tiger and a member of the team, mentioned to the media. In Sariska, the tigers were lost mostly over one year.

The Panna crisis is unprecedented as the negligence went on for eight whole years. In 2001, tiger scientist Raghu Chundawat said that a tiger he had collared was suddenly gone. His plea was dismissed by the state government. In fact, the whole administration campaigned against him and his funding although the truth is out now.

Madhya Pradesh has perfected the art of denial for a decade.

If the state could not handle the Panna reserve, the department should have acknowledged this. The way forward is simple. Unless you admit there is a problem, you can't find the solution. But the insensitive babus were not bothered and the politicians knew the tigers do not vote.

It is a national shame and disgrace! It is tragic and painful to read everyday negative stories about the world's largest cats, the tiger, in Indian forests. Tigers are not safe in so-called protected areas.

The sorry state of the shrinking numbers of tigers shows the apathy of the Indian government which cannot protect its citizens, leave alone its tigers. Also, please cancel the tiger as India's national animal as we are shamefully and disgustingly incapable of protecting the sanctity of its habitat.

I think the Centre should take this matter very seriously and use the intelligence agencies to identify the network of those trading in tiger skins. Some big names would be involved, but I am sure but the minister of environment and forests can pursue these cases to the end.

Sad Saga

July 2005

A poacher Mohammad Rais is nabbed at Chhatarpur, a town close to the Panna Tiger Reserve. In his statement to the police he admits to trading in the parts of eight tigers. He also said these mostly came from the Panna forests.

The Supreme Court asks for a fresh assessment using camera traps. It asks the MP forest department to conduct another assessment using camera traps. A census was conducted in early 2006.

May 2006

Another tigress with two cubs dies from poisoning during the census operation. Forensic report confirms poisoning.

October 2008

Recognising the Panna tiger population as 'alarmingly low', the Tiger Conservation Authority member secretary requests urgent action from the field director to improve protection and 'secure' the park; he further requests that camera traps be deployed 'at the earliest' with assistance of the Wildlife Institute of India.

December 2008

A brainstorming meeting is organised hurriedly at Khajuraho as the situation in Panna becomes desperate, with no signs of tigers in the park in October/November 2008.

January 2009

Third assessment by the Wildlife Institute of India. It is once again (for the third time) asked to assess the tiger population. Their interim report finds no camera captures of tigers in the reserve. A larger team is sent with 50 cameras distributed extensively. The final report is yet to be submitted.

March 2009

Two tigresses are moved to Panna. One tigress is brought at night by road from Bandhavgarh and one, amidst protests, is flown from Kanha. There is no longer a male left in the park.

The state authorities have now requested permission to translocate a male too. However, the ministry of environment and forests has asked to explain what has happened to all the males that were claimed to be still there.

April 2009

The ministry of environment and forests constitutes a Special Investigation Team to look into the disappearance of tigers in Panna. Interim investigations confirm that no tigers remain in Panna and this is made public.

The last tiger evidence -- pugmarks of the remaining male -- were seen in Panna in-mid January 2009.

The tigers of Panna are no more; even the management cannot make zero equal 35. The warnings were unheeded and the predictions were fulfilled -- Sariska II is with us.
A whopping sum of Rs 27.74 crore (Rs 277.4 million) was spent between 2007 and 2009 for tiger conservation at the Panna Tiger Reserve, but the big cat population declined and came to zero in the reserve by 2009. Where was this money spent?

The state forest department and wildlife authorities have several questions to answer. The burning question is: What action was taken regarding the violations of the Supreme Court's orders and the Wildlife Protection Act by the park management after the report submitted by the Supreme Court's central empowered committee?

The committee also found the management responsible for damaging the park's habitat and taking up large-scale construction activity without the Supreme Court's prior permission. It also took serious note of the general apathy of the senior officials.

Panna showed signs of Sariska, but the insensititive authorities never paid heed to the signals, letters, research. Finally, Panna lost all its tigers.

The current Madhya Pradesh chief secretary was principal secretary of the forests department; another official was sent on deputation to Delhi; the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Madhya Pradesh, was removed from his post. All three names are in the committee's report.

Today the same individuals are being promoted and enjoying benefits at public expense and at the cost of the tigers in Madhya Pradesh.

We need accountability on the Panna genocide.

Shehla Masood
Secretary
Udai Society

Shehla Masood