Maharashtra’s tigers are under unprecedented threat from poachers this year. Of the previous five years, the first six months of 2012 alone have been the worst for tigers in the state as, official records accessed by DNA show, the largest number of deaths caused by poaching have been recorded during this period.
As per data recorded by the state forest department, the numbers of tiger deaths caused by poaching have been falling and rising since 2007, with intermittent periods of lull, but the rise has been sharp in the past six months. There was one death each in 2007 and 2011, none in 2008 and 2010, and two in 2009. For the period between January and June 2012, however, the number of deaths due to poaching is three.
These figures are apart from the “natural” and “accidental” deaths, which are much higher. The total death toll since 2007 was recorded thus: one in 2007, three in 2008, 10 in 2009, four in 2010, five in 2011 and eight till July 2012.
Nitin Desai, Central India director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), believes poaching is only going to increase as the increased demand for tiger parts is making the killers more aggressive this year. Maharashtra, with its improved tiger count, is an easy target, he believes. “The increasing demand is making poachers take unusual steps this year in their desperation to increase supply. Breaking away from their tradition, they are now moving about even during the monsoons,” said Desai.
A veteran wildlife activist from Nagpur, who requested anonymity, alleged that the one case of “accidental” death of a tiger at Lohara is suspicious and points to the larger trend of data-fudging across the country. “A closer look at some of the tiger deaths shows that the circumstances reported are very suspect. The Lohara case was reported as an accidental death due to the tiger getting hit by a vehicle. However, the hind leg of the tiger did have unusual injury marks which were probably not investigated sufficiently,” said the activist.
The Tigernet, an online directory of tiger and other wildlife deaths which serves as an official database of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), data seems to add weight to this activist’s claims. The database has not classified at least four tiger deaths and thus, considering the NTCA boss Rajesh Gopal’s advisory which said all deaths should be classified as poaching-related unless proven otherwise, the possibility of numbers concerning poaching-related deaths shooting up cannot entirely be ruled out.
A senior forest department official said, “Increased numbers of tigers outside the limits of these reserves also increases the possibility of poaching.” Under severe political pressure following the deaths, the state administration has declared several measures to improve protection for the tigers. Recently, Maharashtra forests minister Patangrao Kadam wrote a detailed reply to a question in the state assembly concerning measures being taken by the administration.
Some of the measures he listed include bringing the buffer zone of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve under the unified command of the Field Director, filling up all 53 posts of forest guards in the reserve,adding five more vehicles for patrolling and five tankers to increase water supply.