Two years ago there was a furore when the Rajasthan government suspended eight forest officials for failing to protect tigers in Sariska National Park.
These officials were found to be hand-in-glove with poachers who smuggled out tiger bones and skins to the Chinese market through Tibet. A headcount of tigers ordered by the state government sent shock waves amongst animal lovers -- Sariska had no tigers left.
"Yes, it is true that there are no more tigers now in Sariska," admitted Laxinarin Dave, Rajasthan's forest and environment minister in an interview to rediff.com at his residence in Jaipur.
Wildlife expert Valmik Thapar, however, disagrees with the claim. He was quoted in a BBC write-up saying that there has been no tigers in Sariska since October 2004.
Dave debunks the claim. "The good news is that, in recent years, 14 tiger cubs have been born in Ranthambore National Park. They are all in good condition. With their births, the number of tigers in Ranthambore has gone up to 40. Sariska had 45 tigers in 1988 and the next year, the number dropped to just 19 because of heavy poaching during Congress rule in the state. We first plan to move tigresses and then tigers to Sariska."
But there are no explanations as to how the tiger vanished completely from Sariska National Park.
In May 2005, the Rajasthan police registered an FIR against Sansar Chand, a notorious poacher; it also named Jeevandas Kalbeliya and Surta Kalbeliya who are now cooling their heels in jail. Meanwhile, the Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh police are looking out for their accomplices.
Chand, his wife and his son -- residents of Delhi's Sadar Bazar area -- have all been booked for poaching of tigers and other animals in many sanctuaries.
Alarmed by the situation, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje dashed off a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh giving details of the report that a fact-finding committee set up by the state government had sent to her after a visit to China.
"We set up a fact-finding commission to look into the problems in protected areas, with specific reference to Sariska Tiger Reserve. Belinda Wright, executive director, Wildlife Protection Society of India, visited certain parts of China," she wrote to Dr Singh and asked him to take up necessary steps so that Central and state authorities work together "effectively and take all such necessary dipomatic steps as are warranted and sensitise the international community."
Copies of Wright's findings were atached with her letter, wherein it was mentioned that Chinese authorities had seized 31 tiger skins of Indian origin along with 581 leopard skins and 778 otter skins.
According to forest officials who have been connected with Project Tiger at one point or the other, the number of tigers in the late 1980s was close to 5,000 and it declined to 3,500 when the last headcount was done some years ago.
"Conservationists say the number of tigers in India has dropped alarmingly in recent years, and that forest officials in many game reserves have been covering up the problem," a Rajasthan forest official admitted.
While investigating the cases of tiger poaching, Rajasthan police arrested some Tibetans who were found selling tiger skin.
Raje decided to approach His Holiness the Dalai Lama and request him to issue an appeal to his disciples about the importance of wildlife conservation.
The Dalai Lama then took up the cause of wildlife conversation and asked his followers to show compassion to animals.
However, according to Dave, the state government will have to take drastic steps to protect wildlife in its national parks if it wants to continue to attract foreign as well as Indian tourists to watch flora and fauna.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- while chairing the first ever meeting of National Wildlife Board on March 17, 2005, -- was shocked and outraged when told that there were no tigers in the Rajasthan's national parks barring Ranthambore.
Dr Singh immediately decided to set up a Tiger Task Force to deal with India's tiger crisis and also asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to prepare a comprehensive report on the poaching of tigers by those who sell tiger skin in the international market to make a quick buck.
The state government instituted a high powered committee headed by V P Singh, member of Parliament from Bhilwara, to make their recommendations.
"The committee has presented its report entitled Recovery Plan for Tigers in Sariska Tiger Reserve. We have increased night vigil and raised the number of men patrolling on foot. One hundred and fifty home guards will assist the forest wardens and Rajasthan Armed Constabulary in patrolling. We have decided not to allow tourists from July 1 to September 30, which is the monsoon period.
We have increased raids on poachers. We have undertaken the repairing of all weather roads for quick accessibility in case of emergency. A research hut at Kalighati is being renovated with full equipment and manpower to track the radio collared animals. We are improving the living conditions for the animals before moving them to Sariska," R N Mehtrotra chief wildlife warden told rediff.com.
But if you ask him when the tigers could be seen in Sariska, he is vague. "We are simultaneously working on the project," he said.
But according to a government report, five tigers would be first brought from Ranthambore and left near Nayapani area of Sariska Tiger Reserve and subsequently, batches of tigers in twos or threes would be transferred in Sariska every three years.