It is no surprise, the once fertile Bengal plain, which was home to the Royal Bengal tigers, has seen tigers decreasing up to their extinction in the recent past. Illegal hunting, presence of localities, absence of well-defined biosphere borders, and the presence of national highways and rail routes have destroyed the once rich biodiversity landscape. Nearby areas of Assam, facing war and terrorism over the years have almost wiped out Royal Bengal tigers and One-Horned Rhinoceros, both endangered species in India.
Buxa Tiger Reserve has been one of the prime tiger reserves in eastern India, where a substantial number of tigers were found as late as the 1990s. However, the number of tigers in the dense, impenetrable forest reduced drastically at the turn of the century, and tigers seemed to vanish from the entire reserve forever. While some blamed illegal poaching, while others blamed the scarcity of water and migration to higher altitudes in Bhutan, all agreed upon one joint initiative to protect the wildlife living there at all costs.
Buxa is one of the biggest parks in India, and it is likely that a major part of it is entirely unexplored and untouched by humanity. Residents in nearby villages, as well as forest officials, had never given up hope that tigers have become extinct from Buxa Tiger Reserve. According to official sources, no tigers are left in the reserve. The Government was looking for two options, either re-locate tigers from Kaziranga National Park in Assam or leave Buxa Tiger Reserve as it is now. The second option is beneficial for tourism as the park has a few villages and a railway station inside, which can sustain hotels, tourist rush during winters and provide guided treks. The first option is more beneficial for preserving wildlife, which is a must to protect the ecosystem. As the Government was in a state of not rejecting either proposal, a tiger was sighted in Buxa Tiger Reserve. A good example of this can be the adjuscent Jaldapara National Park, where the endangered one-horned rhinocerous has been protected successfully from poaching while promoting elephant rides for tourism.
Tiger was officially sighted last in 1998, 23 years ago. After that, villagers and forest rangers reported only claims of tiger sightings up to 2010. Though Buxa had an almost preserved ecosystem, tigers were missing, either dying or migrating to Bhutan. Some people, including officials, had kept their belief that Buxa is too dense to explore fully and tigers may be present in the most remote parts of the park. The recent tiger sighting has kicked off debate as to whether the tiger migrated from neighbouring Manas National Park of Assam, an area famous for wild water buffalos, or hills of Bhutan, or was present in the park itself under everyone’s eyes. Similar tiger sightings were reported in past 3 years from the neighbouring Neora National Park, a remote forest in north Bengal famous for protecting the endangered red panda. Whatever result the debate produces, everyone wishes to see the tiger in Buxa after so long.
However, the forest officials have rightly closed the park to visitors and have also extended their guards to protect villagers living there. The Government, for some years, was looking for rehabilitation of villages within the national park, and if possible, increase its size beyond the current borders. Now, as the tiger has been sighted, to ensure safety to both man and wild, the Government has hastened the process of rehabilitation. From now on, tourists have to stay outside the core area of the forest. However, a road and an important railway line that runs right through the core area of the park can not be done away with. Despite the limitations, tiger sightings at Buxa suggest that the Government has done well to protect the wildlife and has brought a smile to tourists as well as locals alike.
Written by – Himadri Paul