Tiger conservation: An urgency in Odisha

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Despite repeated denials by the government, experts admit that the tiger population in Odisha is declining fast. The state which was home to nearly 200 wild tigers in the mid 1990s is believed to have less than half of that the number presently. But the state government continues to refute that strongly and claim that the number is much more than what the tiger census methods reveal.


The recent national level tiger census indicated the presence of the big cat in Satkosia Tiger Reserve in Angul district. The pug marks pointed out that there are at least 2 to 3 Royal Bengal tigers in the Satkosia forests, which was a still a good sign.


As per statistics in the past, the Mahanadi Wildlife Division and Similipal forests in Odisha always hosted the maximum number of tigers in state. Sunabeda sanctuary, where tiger counting has not been possible to carry out due the Maoist menace in the recent years, also hosts a good number of tigers. But of late, the exact number of wild cats in Sunabeda forests has been difficult to ascertain as the Maoists rule the roost in that locality, which is on the Chhattisgarh border.


Large-scale hunting, loss of green cover due to reasons like industrialization, urbanization, illegal timber smuggling and migration of tigers to forest areas in the neighboring states are believed to be the key reasons why the wild cat number keeps falling regularly, argues wild life experts.


But the issue which has bothered not only the environmentalists and wildlife activists, but also people in general is why the government has not taken drastic measures with sincerity so far to protect the wild animals like elephants and tigers in Odisha. While tusker deaths have become a regular event due to electrocution, poaching, deforestation and man-mammal conflict, the decline in tiger number is equally worrying.


It is worth mentioning that based on the counting of the wild cats by their pug marks, Odisha government in 2006 had claimed that there were 192 wild tigers in the state, including 101 in Similipal. But interestingly, the 2006 National Tiger Census found only 45 tigers in Odisha, which again sparked a lot of controversy as the state opposedthat.
The 2010 tiger census revealed that Odisha had only 32 tigers (baring Sunabeda sanctuary where counting was not done due to Maoist nuisance). But that figure was strongly protested not only by the state government, but even by wildlife activists, who claimed the number was much more than that.


The state government argued that only Similipal, Satakosia and Sunabeda are not the only three forest zones where tigers are found in state, but there are other habitats too, which must have been be taken into consideration. Contradicting the total number to be 32 in 2010, the state government claimed the tiger number would be at least 61 only in Similipal reserve forests. Hence, the total figure would be much more than than national census data, the state had countered.


It can be recalled that in 1973, Government of India launched a major wildlife conservation initiative ‘Project Tiger’ to save the Indian big cat from extinction. Similipal Tiger Reserve was one of the nine reserves chosen in the country to implement the project.


Apart from Similipal, Satkosia and Sunabeda forests and Mahanadi Wildlife Division, tigers are also found in Baisipalli, Debigarh, Athamalik, Bonai, Khurda forest divisions in Odisha, But if stringent measures are not taken with utmost sincerity to protect the big cat, then the apprehension of wildlife activists fear that tigers may become an extinct community in Odisha.


Hence, it is time the state government prepares a long term action plan and executes that with utmost sincerity and takes stern action against those who dare to harm the wild cat for what ever reasons. But that appears a distant dream at least at this juncture.