It’s happened again. Tigers wiped out of another National Park in India. Panna National Park now joins Sariska National Park in having ‘lost’ all its tigers. But Panna is different from Sariska in the sense that the warning bells were sounded from 2002 onwards and completely disregarded for 7 years by the State Forest Department in charge of the Park. If there is one word that encapsulates the loss of Panna’s striped felines, it is ‘Denial’ with a capital ‘D’. In India, ‘when the going gets tough, those in charge get denying’. Woe betide the wildlife warden who dares state that the tigers in his park are vanishing under his watch. Admission of failure is non-existent in Government circles and whistleblowers face severe consequences. The Forest Department has complete control over India’s Protected Areas and restricted access ensures lack of accountability. Hell, even the Forest Department does not know what is happening within their Parks.

The officer cadres of the Department usually have no background or interest in wildlife and only join for the ‘prestige’ and ‘salary for life’ offered by Indian Forest Service. Most of them view their training at the Wildlife Institute of India as a punishment and are not too pleased at being posted away from their native place, far from cities. They end up spending most of their time pushing paper instead of being in the field. The lower rungs of the Forest Department; rangers, foresters, forest guards and forest watchers bear the real burden of running the Park. They are poorly paid, ill equipped and lack motivation. The Forest Department seldom has the support of local communities as many of the Parks were designated without public consultation and claims were not settled.

The poaching game has changed and become more professional and organised. An intricate network of poachers, transporters and middlemen has made the big fish even more difficult to catch. Only lately have poachers and middlemen been prosecuted by the law after seizures of wildlife products. The Forest Department has no intelligence gathering mechanism in place on the ground and the recently created Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and National Tiger Conservation Authority only react to events in an investigative role. Poachers are still using snares and gin traps to catch tigers and have not yet acquired automatic weapons like in Africa. However, an armed rebel militia called Maoists or Naxalites could be a major potential threat if they take up poaching to finance their struggle.

Habitat loss has meant that tigers in India are being confined to small forest islands and inbreeding depression will soon be a major problem. But organised poaching and an unaccountable Forest Department could hasten the process manifold.

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