Bangalore: Even as the Supreme Court's order to ban tourism in core areas of tiger reserves is being hailed by wildlife conservationists, disconcerting news trickles down from Madumalai and Bandipur tiger reserves that hard-core poachers are still at large in the forests of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
Close on the heels of ten notorious poachers being arrested from the BR Temple tiger reserve, a poacher was arrested deep inside the Madumalai tiger reserve (Tamil Nadu) on Monday. The anti-poaching camp stumbled upon the accused (Rohith Singh) in the core area between Masinagudi and Sirgur ranges, some 20 km from Kodanadu, where Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha is staying presently.
"Our ATC found him with snares and knives inside the core area, which is nearly 15km away from any human habitation. Rohith (25) is from Marwal Chatra district which is on the Chhattisgarh and Bihar border. We have started combing operations and are hopeful of making more arrests," said a forest official from Tamil Nadu.
There is reason to be worried as one poacher had been arrested in the Muthanga wildlife sanctuary, near the tri-junction (where the borders of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala intersect) last week. Two more poachers were arrested near the Moolehole Range (Bandipur tiger reserve) around the same time.
"We apprehended a person near the tri-junction. Except for an identity card, which indicated he is native of Oddisha, he wasn't carrying any equipment. We interrogated him and sent him to jail," said V V Sunil, Deputy Conservator of Forests (Muthanga Wildlife sanctuary).
It is worrisome that two poachers from Bihar were arrested in the Moolehole range, Bandipur, where a tiger had died mysteriously on May 31, 2012. Though the Karnataka forest department attributed the death to a territorial fight with another male, an inexplicable deep injury to the skull had put the Doubting Thomases at unease. Last week's arrest of two poachers has augmented their suspicion.
There is a growing fear that the tiger, whose carcass was discovered on a river bed, could have possibly succumbed to a bullet. "No tiger, however big or powerful it may be, could have caused such an injury to the skull. It could have died either by the impact of speeding vehicle (there is high traffic density in Bandipur-Waynaad road) or by a bullet wound," argue wildlife conservationists.
The doubt stems from the fact that two tigers had died in three days last December in the Kalkere rnge, abetting the Mollehole range.
It was around the time when the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had put the southern tiger states on high alert as it had specific intelligence reports that a group of 40 to 50 poachers had boarded a train bound towards Karnataka.
Ironically, while one robust tiger, in its prime (see photo), had been ascribed to have succumbed to the pangs of hunger, the other, reportedly discovered with a jaw-trap, had been clandestinely buried without its death being brought to the notice of the higher authorities.
The field director project tiger, B J Hosmath, had been accused by conservationists and the media of burying the carcass to avoid the wrath of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. Intriguingly, Hosmath continues to be in the same position despite completing his tenure as FDPT.
With stories emerging from within the forest ranks that the tiger with the jaw trap had indeed been found in the Kalkere range, the then Chief Wildlife Warden (B K Singh) had dispelled the news saying it was "imagination of a fertile mind."
Though wildlife conservationists had insisted that a group of people, moving around in a van in the vicinity of Bandipur tiger reserve, were selling monitor lizards, the Karnataka forest department did not take them seriously. There are reports that the police escorted and released them near the Tamil Nadu border.
Now it is becoming increasingly evident (with the arrests) that poachers have had a field day in the tiger reserves of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. They could not only have killed tigers, they could have poached leopards as well.
Conservationists fear the poachers who have been operational in the periphery of tiger reserves in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu since December 2012 could have possibly killed a dozen tigers and traded their pelts and bones to agents in New Delhi and Nepal.
It was fortunate that no tiger had fallen prey when six jaw traps were discovered last month in the BRT tiger reserve in Karnataka. If the forest officials continue to slumber, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka could lose more of its critically endangered tigers.
(Joseph Hoover is a Bangalore based journalist, photographer and wildlife expert)