The Sariska reserve had lost all its tigers to poaching 10 years ago Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

October 2015 could well called a great resurrection for India’s Sariska Tiger Reserve (STR), which had lost all its tigers to poaching 10 years ago. When the reserve — spread across 881 square kilometres in eastern Rajasthan — reopened last month after the three-month monsoon break, tourists thronged STR for a sighting of the Royal Bengal Tiger, making it the best season the reserve has seen in the last five years.

In just four days, more than 2,000 tourists had visited the park. By the end of month, more Indian tourists than the total numbers of visitors in 2014 had visited the reserve.

Tigers were reintroduced into Sariska in 2008 when a pair was relocated from the Ranthambore National Park (RNP), about 180 kilometres away in Sawai Madhopur district. The pair was named ST1 and ST2 (tigers in Ranthambore are named T1, T2 and so on; S was prefixed to T to indicate Sariska). In 2009, another pair — male ST4 and female ST3 — was brought in.

A tigress, ST5, was brought in 2010, but the same year in November, ST1 was found dead in the jungle. Forest officials had initially claimed that the big cat died in a territorial fight, but it was later found that the tiger had been poisoned by villagers whose cattle it had killed in the months preceding its death.

Relocation of villages in the critical tiger habitat had not picked up pace till then, so the tigers faced a constant threat to their life from people in the Sariska core area.

After this setback to the species revival plan, good news rang in the sanctuary in 2012 when ST2 gave birth to a litter of two cubs, both females. Another male tiger, ST6, was translocated from RNP in 2011 to make up for ST1’s loss. In January 2013, two more females, ST9 and ST10, were brought in from RNP. In 2014, ST2 had another litter of two cubs and ST10 also bred two cubs.

At present, there are 13 tigers in the reserve — four cubs, two males and seven females. The four cubs — two males and two females — will disperse in the next five or six months.

“The addition of six tigers locally has sent out a positive message and also ensured good sighting, resulting in an increase in the tourist footfall over the years, this year being the best,” says STR field director R.S. Shekhawat. The reserve management, he adds, is now mulling opening new tourism routes in the buffer areas.

“The carrying capacity of STR is fixed at 35 vehicles — 15 canters (one canter carries 20 persons) and 20 Gypsies (one Gypsy carries six persons) — but the demand from tourists is more, so we are thinking of opening new routes now. The Seliserh and Bala Quila areas of the park have good tourism potential,” he says.

The high inflow of tourist has brought a smile to the hoteliers, guides and vehicle owners at Sariska. “This year has been one of the best in seasonal openings in many years. The hotels around the reserve are full and some tourists had to return due to non-availability of accommodation,” said Niranjan Singh, a guide.

Sariska gets a lot of tourists from Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) areas due to good road connectivity. It is a two-hours drive from Jaipur and a little more than three hours from Delhi.

However, the tiger reserve has also got negative press for “unusually” slow multiplication of the big cat population. In a May 2015 report, “Mail Today” quoted former field director K.L. Saini blaming miscarriages in Sariska tigresses for this. The main cause of miscarriage and non-breeding was the radio collar put around the tigress’s necks, he told the newspaper.

Sunayan Sharma, who was the deputy forest officer (DFO) at the reserve when the reintroduction programme was taken up in 2008, agrees with Saini. “I have always held that radio collars should be removed from the reintroduced tigers as soon as they are settled in their new homes. Of course, radio signals make it easier for the foresters to monitor the predator but I feel the traditional way of monitoring through pug mark trails is better — it takes foresters into the forest and they are more likely to check illegal activities,” he says.

The Sariska management denies this. “We agree breeding here hasn’t been normal after the reintroduction programme. The reason is not radio collars but lack of inviolate space. Large-scale human interference in the tiger habitat is the biggest reason,” says Shekhawat.

There are 29 villages in the critical tiger habitat of the reserve and only three of them — Bhagani, Umri and Rotkyala — have been completely relocated out of the forest while six are in the process of relocation. There are 950 families in the nine villages, and about 650 of them have been relocated or are in the process of relocation. After the remaining families are moved out, the forest will have around 400 square kilometres of inviolate space for tigers. The rest of the villages, however, haven’t been taken up yet.

The village relocation programme began in 2008 for people living in tiger habitats as per the guidelines by National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) under the centrally sponsored Project Tiger. The package included financial assistance as well as relocation and rehabilitation of villages from tiger reserves under the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy (NRRP) 2007.

But village relocation programme has been slow in Sariska due to lack of funds. However, the government has tried to reduce human pressure from the periphery by providing LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) connections on subsidy to save the forest, a move aimed at reducing the villagers’ dependence on the forest for firewood.

The programme began in 2012-13 with 1,000 connections. The government allocated Rs18 million (Dh998,008) for the subsidy. In 2013-2014, Rs8 million were allocated and 5,000 connections were provided but no connections were given in 2014-15. However, in the rest of 2015 so far, with a fund of Rs8 million, 5,000 more connections have been given to people in 100 villages situated on the periphery of the tiger reserve.

The programme is a hit with the villagers. Ram Sukhi of Dharampura village under the Akbarpur forest range says, “I don’t need to walk 5-8 kilometres every day to collect firewood from the forest. LPG has made life easy — I devote more time to rearing cattle now.”

The department gives a subsidy of Rs1,800 on each gas connection, and solicits, in return, a written commitment that the villager would not cut trees and will help the department in preventing forest- and wildlife-related offences.

According to the chairman of Prithvipura eco-development committee Mahesh Naruka, the programme has seen a considerable improvement in the green cover. “It has also improved our relationship with the villagers and there’s been a significant reduction in felling of green trees for firewood,” Shekhawat adds.

Sharma says Sariska has better tourism potential than Ranthambore for many reasons. “It has more diversity, both in flora and fauna, than Ranthambore and has more natural beauty. Ranthambore lies at the junction of the Vindhyan and Aravalli formations while Sariska has more hills and valleys. It is an ancient forest in the Aravallis, which is the world’s second oldest mountain range. It also has the world’s highest Sambhar population,” he says.

Sharma’s recent book, “The Sariska Tiger Reserve Roars Again”, talks about Sariska’s historical, archaeological and mythological importance. “I have tried to bring out the rich cultural heritage of Sariska in my book to show why Sariska has more reasons than just tigers to draw tourists.”

Rakesh Kumar is a writer based in Jaipur, India.


About Sariska

Total area: 881sq km

1978: Declared as tiger reserve

1982: Declared as national park 


Summer: 6.30am-10.30am & 2.30pm to 4.30pm

Winter: 7am-11am & 1pm to 5pm 

Village relocation progress

Total number of villages: 29

Relocated: 3

Under process: 6

Total number of families: 2,533

Families relocated: 607 (until October 2015)