Throughout the past century, Sariska enjoyed a formidable reputation as one of India’s few wildlife parks that guaranteed tiger sightings. In fact, it was thanks to its impressive tiger population that Sariska was originally afforded protection by the erstwhile Alwar state — these grounds were once the hunting preserve of trigger-happy royals, who had goats tied to poles to attract tigers for their shikar outings. Such diversions were consigned to the past when conservation became the buzzword and Sariska was made a Project Tiger reserve. Ironically, today Sariska has come to represent everything that is wrong with India’s forest protection efforts, a telling comment on the extent of neglect this beautiful reserve suffered. In early 2004, the nation awoke in disbelief to the news that rampant poaching had wiped out the entire tiger population in Sariska National Park. Despite its tragedy, Sariska still contributes to the conservation of the beast that remains India’s enduring emblem — for, the debate on the condition of our sanctuaries that began with Sariska’s story is now firmly on the national agenda.
This unfortunate story forms the backdrop to any visit to Sariska National Park. Yet, the park’s history, and its surviving wildlife, continues to be captivating in its own right. There’s the sight of the first hill burnished with the rust leaves of dhok, or Anogeissus pendula, as one crosses over the hill into Kalighati Valley. There’s the leaf-fringed avenue of dhok that greets the visitor at the old gate leading to Kankwari, overgrown on both sides with old trees of guler and pilkhan. There’s the sight of an explosion of blue-breasted quail, of the deep pools of the Siliberi Nala flowing down from Pandupol and of Pallas’ fishing eagles watching for prey from nearby evergreen trees. There’s the enduring memory of the six porcupines we saw in the course of an early evening drive near Umri, and that of the reclusive Indian pitta at Taraunda late one evening. I still treasure these memories from my numerous visits to Sariska.
My last tiger sighting at Sariska National Park, one hot April, was in the grassland just beyond Kalighati. In the late morning, as we were returning past Bhaironghati from a drive to Pandupol, we stopped near the salt lick short of Kalighati Chauki. We saw langurs climb up the trees on the hillside. They soon started calling. Then it was the turn of a sambar concealed in the grass. Clearly, a predator was moving nearby. We drove down the crest of the hill so that we wouldn’t miss the animal. Before long, we could hear the loud and impressive call of a tiger, and then we saw him cross the road behind us, completely indifferent to our presence. It was late in the morning, and he seemed to be in a hurry to get to the water hole behind the hill. We were grateful for the unimpeded, glorious view.
That there is no chance of such a sighting anymore is disheartening. Despite this, I urge visitors to enjoy the other sights and sounds of the Aravalli forest. I know I will return for more.
About Sariska National Park
Sariska was established as a Tiger Reserve in 1978. Before Independence, the reserve was part of the erstwhile Alwar state. In 1955, hunting, shooting, trapping or capturing of wild animals was made illegal. In 1958, the reserve was upgraded to a sanctuary, and later, areas contiguous to the sanctuary were also included. A primary notification declaring the core area of the reserve as a National Park was made in 1982. The final notification is still pending, as questions regarding boundaries and rights of villagers living in the park are yet to be settled. An area of 866 sq km falls under the Project Tiger Reserve. There are 16 revenue villages and associated guadas or cattle camps inside its boundaries. The semi-arid Aravalli forest suffers from enormous human and livestock pressures. The poachers who killed Sariska National Park’s tigers (according to a Project Tiger report, there were 24 tigers in the reserve in 1997) are said to have received considerable help from villagers wanting to protect their livestock. The huge number of pilgrims visiting the temples in Sariska has also put pressure on the forest.
If only these acres were afforded protection, these semi-arid forests could well support high ungulate populations (camels, horses, hippos and other herbivorous mammals) and exhibit rich predator diversity.
State: Rajasthan Location In the Aravalli Hills, 35 km from Alwar in north-east Rajasthan
Distances: 249 km SW of Delhi, 110 km NE of Jaipur Route from Delhi NH8 to Shahpura via Gurgaon and Behror; state road to Sariska via Bairat and Thana Ghazi Route from Jaipur NH8 to Shahpura via Amer and Chandwaji; state road to Sariska
When to go: The park is open throughout the year for pilgrims to Pandupol. But in the rains, it’s closed for wildlife visits. The most comfortable time to go is Nov to Mar, though the best wildlife viewing is during the warmer months
Go there for; The memory of tigers (alas!), but there’s enough wildlife, and history, to interest tourists
About the Author
Himraj Dang has worked in infrastructure finance and development. He is currently an advisor to various environmental projects and private equity investments.