The tigress’s crime was to wander too far from the man-made limits of the National Park, too close to human habitation. A senior official said she was feeding, probably looking for her cub. Other reports indicate that, aggravated by boisterous local youth and alarmed by a journalist trying to film her up close, she panicked and charged, knocking down the cameraman before running away. There were the usual assertions of her being a man-eater, but there is no evidence of this. We still do not know why no attempt was made to tranquilize and capture her. That this was her home, a place reserved for wildlife, does not seem to have factored in anyone’s thinking.
Kaziranga National Park map
Kaziranga National Park :: Google Satellite map
Driving in from Guwahati on the Assam Trunk Road, now NH37, Kaziranga appears without warning. The four-lane highway narrows and fields give way to grassland and forest on either side. The National Park is to the left, the north, but the forests on the other side of the road are dense too, occasionally giving way to tea estates. Just after 5 pm in December it’s already pitch dark, but buses and trucks still scream along the road, an ugly black gash through dense green. Every few hundred feet there are road signs warning of animal crossings; the text is too small to read. This is a wildlife corridor, but the signs seem tired, without hope. Frequent roadkills are inevitable. Anywhere else, they’d divert traffic away from here, shut this road at night. Here, as in our cities, wheels have right of way over feet.
“Commerce and development are also important,” says a senior forest officer in Guwahati when I call him. His tone is guarded. “It’s a difficult balancing act, but we have to manage. Somehow we do manage.” He will not admit the outrage he must feel about the tigress; wildlife conservation is not immune to politics either.
I’ve asked him for the number and name of the DFO here. I’d like to know more about the Park, and about this incident with the tigress. He gives me the number with some reluctance and advises caution. “You might be tempted to host him at your hotel,” he says. “Please don’t. My officers are under pressure from every quarter.” I get the message; I don’t call.
Over the next few days, visiting the park, we traverse NH37 several times. In daylight it’s hard to tell that we’re anywhere near a National Park. There are shops, tea estates, bungalows, fields; and the incessant traffic. We enter the Park, a few minutes off the main road, ride over a culvert, and it’s another world: a world of tall grass — could there be a tiger there? There’s that YouTube video, after all — wide shimmering lakes, enormous expanses of sky, dense old growth forest.
There is wildlife everywhere, big and small. Elephants of course, and rhinos, lots of them, magnificent creatures. One heaves itself up the embankment and stops between our vehicles. It turns and moves towards the second car. For a minute no one knows what’s about to happen. For one spectacular moment you believe your life now hovers between a fabulous extinction and a continued mundane existence. The rhino decides we aren’t worth the effort of a goring and, to general relief, lumbers off.
Kaziranga National Park :: That brief, spectacular moment More images
We bounce on into forests of tall trees through which the light breaks in unpredictable patterns. The underbrush is so dense it’s unnerving. The grasslands are vast, stretching to the horizon, plains of green and gold. The grass is over 10 feet high and it takes a knowing eye to see the back of a rhino or an elephant. It’s ideal camouflage for the tiger. You could spend days here and never tire of it.
Kaziranga is one of conservation’s great success stories (the official website is among the best I’ve seen). It holds 70% of the world’s population of the Indian one-horned rhino, over 2000 of them. It has one of the highest tiger densities anywhere. In one form or the other it has enjoyed protection since the early 1900s, when there were maybe a few dozen rhino here. Rhinos breed once every two years; the repopulation has been a long and slow process. Kaziranga was designated a National Park in 1974. By then, the rhino population had risen to several hundred. Ten years later, when it received UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the numbers had risen even further. It’s been a tiger reserve since 2006. Its area has been constantly expanded (it now covers over 850 square kilometres, eight times the size of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai; twice as large as Bandhavgarh. Since 1994, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation provides continuing support to Kaziranga (it is the sole funder of communications gear). With the Assam NGO, Aaranyak Society, the DSWF funds a camera-trapping program for the tiger. For many years, Kaziranga has had a zero-tolerance approach to poaching, with shoot-on-sight orders. Rangers speak of shooting poachers. Perhaps that is as it should be: poachers are not an endangered species.
Yet it is still a fragile land. Rimmed by the Brahmaputra to the north, east and west and the serpent of NH37 to the south it sits in an uneasy relationship with surrounding human settlements. Locals have opposed new initiatives, including its status as a tiger reserve. The Park staff, said to be uncommonly dedicated, are underpaid, overworked and badly equipped. A superb article in Outside Magazine in October 2011, Number One With A Bullet, says this:
Every guard I speak with mentions his pride in protecting Kaziranga’s animals. The guards have no money, no possessions, but they have a cause, an ordering principle for their lives. In Assam, where the economy has been wrecked by 30 years of insurgency, there are no other jobs anyway.
Like many of our parks and sanctuaries, Kaziranga too is a bounty beyond measure; and, like many of them too, it is very clearly under threat. Twice our driver stops and Manoj, our hawk-eyed guide who seems to know every blade of grass, hops off to pick up discarded plastic and foil packets. We pass other vehicles; there are men smoking in each despite the no-smoking signs. On another route, two heroes swagger down the path to relieve themselves. That they might be a few feet from a rhino or a tiger seems not to matter. For all their city-slickness — bright synthetic shirts and leather jackets — they’re animals too, intent on marking territory. Manoj tells their driver to get them back aboard, but there is weariness in his voice and sadness in his eyes. Evidence of damage is everywhere. On weekends and holidays, crowds crush into the park, driving away all wildlife and tourist vehicles cause jams on the narrow, steeply cambered dirt tracks. Inside the park, at a rest stop, faded markings show the steady decline of flood levels from 1996. Kaziranga’s many gains are slow, hard-won, calculable. The losses are not, and they are incremental, irreversible.
On a ride back out, I ask Manoj about the tigress who was killed. Has the officer been suspended, dismissed? He turns and shakes his head. “No sir,” he says. “They’re saying he is to be given an award. He saved human lives, you see.”
The youngest in our group, our nephew’s daughter, is not yet three. She’s been quiet on every ride, but later remembers the rhinos and the elephants. Will she come back, I wonder, many years from now? And when we’re done with these bravery awards, will we have left anything for her and her children but a dim memory of innocence?
On a cold December day this year, [a tigress was killed in Kaziranga]. She was [riddled with bullets from an AK-47]. The [autopsy] reported ten. There was confusion about who fired the weapon, [a forest guard or an Assam policeman]. An [enquiry] has been ordered.
: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1111206/jsp/northeast/story_14842971.jsp "'Straying tigress shot near Kaziranga', The Telegraph, 6 December 2011"
: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-12-07/flora-fauna/30485124_1_tigress-forest-guards-kohora-forest-range "'Kaziranga tigress took 15 bullets', Times of India, 7 December 2011"
: http://www.davidshepherd.org/news-events/news/update-from-kaziranga-on-tigress-shooting/ "Update from Kaziranga on tigress shooting : David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, 13 December 2011"
: http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-12-07/guwahati/30485104_1_tigress-forest-guards-kaziranga-national-park "'AK-47 bullets killed Kaziranga tigress: Autopsy', Times of India, 7 December 2011"
: http://janasanyogassam.nic.in/210.pdf "Inquiry into the killing of tigress near Kaziranga, Press Release No. 955, 6 December 2011"