Text by Paul Kvinta
Last week wildlife officials in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh finally confessed to something that they'd known for some time--Panna Tiger Reserve has been completely poached out of tigers.
Panna is one of India's more notable and popular tiger refuges, and five years ago there were an estimate 35-40 cats there. Now there are zero. This meltdown is an exact replay of what happened in 2005 in Sariska Tiger Reserve in the neighboring state of Rajasthan, where poachers exterminated every cat right under the noses of wildlife officials, who proceeded to deny the catastrophe for months. And the same thing would have occurred in nearby Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve--India's most famous--were it not for the fearless efforts of Dharmendra Khandal and a cash-strapped NGO called Tiger Watch.
When I was in Rajasthan last November to report "Cat Fight" (in the June/July issue of ADVENTURE), I spoke with Ragu Chunduwat, one of India's leading tiger experts. Chunduwat worked for years in Panna, and when he first reported evidence of poaching to officials in 2004, they harassed him and finally drove him out of the park. "It's obvious there are no tigers left at all," he said last fall, "but they're still not admitting it. Denying it doesn't allow you to move forward."
Panna is already engaged in reintroducing tigers from other reserves, but if Sariska is any example, no one is getting their hopes up. Officials couldn't be bothered to do DNA checks on the three tigers moved to Sariska, only to find out later that the trio are all siblings, which means a genetic dead end.
Look for this movie to replay itself over and over again in India. Last month federal officials acknowledged that the situation in up to 16 tiger reserves is "truly alarming." There are supposed to be 1,400 tigers left in India, more than any other country (there are only 3,000-plus left in the wild), but no one really believes that anymore.
You can donate to Tiger Watch here.