Shoot-at-sight orders in Corbett tiger reserve

bengal_tiger_edIn a stringent anti-poaching measure, authorities at Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) have issued shoot-at-sight orders “to prevent killing of big cats in the reserve”. The orders were passed after movement of suspected poachers was reported near the southern boundary of the park. Officiating in-charge of CTR, Parag Madhukar Dhakate, said that the step has been taken for “protection of wildlife, especially tiger”.

Besides the shoot-at-sight orders, various other steps are being taken by the authorities, including barring villagers in the vicinity from entering the protected area and subjecting visitors to the park to extensive frisking.

“We have started tactical anti-poaching operations under which forest staff has been ordered to shoot at sight if a suspected poacher with arms is seen in the critical tiger habitat zone. This is not the first time such directives have been issued,” said Dhakate.

The order comes just days after the controversial BBC documentary, ‘Killing for Conservation’, raised a question as to whether the war on poaching had gone a step too far. The film claimed that guards at the reserve were given the power to ‘shoot and kill’, which according to the BBC’s South Asia correspondent Justin Rowlatt had led to the deaths of 23 poachers, compared to 17 rhinos last year. The environment ministry later criticised the BBC for “presenting a one-sided picture” and requested that it blacklist Rowlatt.

Dhakate, meanwhile, added that to protect wildlife in the tiger reserve two drones and 150 forest frontline staff has also been deployed. To keep an eye on the park which has a population of 164 tigers, over 388 camera traps have been set up and sharp shooters equipped with night vision goggles have been put on duty.

The park, which on an average sees over 1,000 visitors daily, will remain open to tourists in all five zones — Jhirna, Bijrani, Dhikala, Dhela and Durgadevi — but they will be subjected to extensive frisking. “Tourists are informed that they will face strict frisking, which they should cooperate with,” Dhakate said.

Villagers in the vicinity of the park have also been told not to enter the forest area of the park for at least the next seven days. Over 100 villages are in the vicinity of the park and many villagers depend on the area for daily needs such as firewood.

At present, over 500 forest department personnel maintain a 24-hour vigil at the reserve. At least three incidents of attempted infiltration have been thwarted in the past three months, forest officials said.

Incidents of poaching of tigers and leopards have been on the rise in the state. The hill state reported seizure of 22 leopard skins and bones in 2016, according to the records of Delhi-based non-governmental organization Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). Numbers are equally alarming when it comes to tigers. Between 2012 to March 14, 2016, 50 tiger deaths were reported from CTR, out of which 13 big cats were killed by poachers. In March 2016, the special task force (STF) of Uttarakhand police in the biggest haul of its kind seized the skins of five tigers from a gang of poachers. Four of the skins were believed to belong to big cats from Corbett.

Commenting on the shoot-at-sight orders, A G Ansari, a wildlife conservationist, said, “Stringent measures are necessary to protect wildlife. In 2011, when 11 elephants were poached at Corbett, similar directives were issued.”

H S Bargali, deputy director at Corbett Foundation, agreed with Ansari. “Shoot-at-sight orders at Kaziranga National Park have proved a great deterrent to poaching. I appreciate that Corbett authorities too have taken the same decision.”

The shoot-at-sight orders have been issued in keeping with a 2003 Government Order which permits such operations to be held in order to save wildlife, Dhakate said.

Even after a recent Uttarakhand high court order prohibiting killing of tigers, panthers or leopards on the pretext that they are man-eaters or holding them captive for reasons other than medical care, the tigers still face a grave threat to their lives because of poachers, he said.

Corbett is one of India’s oldest national park and is the place where Project Tiger was first launched in 1973. (The Times of India & Hindustan Times)

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