- Originally written in 2009-With Post Script, 2015.
By Dr. SUHAS KUMAR
In 2009, two young wild tigresses – one from Kanha and another from Bandhavgarh were translocated to Panna to supplement the struggling tiger population, which, reportedly, was very-very small or non-existent. And after a gap of several months, a middle-aged male was brought from Pench Tiger Reserve to give company to the reintroduced females.
To find out the reasons for the sudden disappearance of tigers from Panna, the government of India ordered an investigation by a special team (SIT) headed by a former director of project tiger and the state government set up a high-level committee to investigate the causes. While the SIT squarely blamed the state government for mismanagement and its failure to curb poaching, the committee proposed some ecological perspective saying that the females left the park to safeguard their cubs from male tigers. In my opinion, both these findings are not wholly correct.
That the habitat of Panna, till 2007, did support a good number of tigers is undisputable for I have firsthand knowledge of this fact – during a one day tour of the reserve in July 2007, I had seen fresh pug marks at 3 different locations 10-15 km apart and heard vocalization by a tiger near Madla entry point of the tiger reserve.
The confirmation that the Panna reserve had lost all of its female tigers and from among the males merely a lone survivor roamed came after several rounds of checking and rechecking by the experts. This lone survivor was then wandering outside the safe confines of the tiger reserve; the staff had seen its pugmarks near Panna town in the fields along the Panna – Satna Road.
When I learned all these details in March 2009 through newspapers, I was totally at a loss as it was difficult for me to understand how in a short span of a year and a half all the tigers of Panna had suddenly vanished. I was also confused because, in the preceding three years, Panna Tiger Reserve had undergone a massive protection facelift? If poaching was the explanation I was unable to perceive how, in a short span of time, such large scale extirpation of the tiger could go unreported without a whimper in the press for Panna was a hot destination for media after a researcher had made a series of allegations against the management.
I devoted some time to search for likely causes for this sad state of affairs at Panna and came out with some hypotheses. In my view, the reason for the disappearance of a species is manifold – and in most cases, it is a combination of unsuitable ecological conditions and anthropogenic decimating factors like poaching. When an endangered species suddenly vanishes the so called experts tend to blame it on ‘poaching’ alone. And nobody cares to find out the other reasons.
Poaching, in and around Panna Tiger Reserve is a reality, no doubt, but almost all other tiger bearing areas face the same threat. Today amply networked and equipped professional gangs of poachers are involved and in this trade and the local traditional hunter communities are their partners. But what are the other factors besides poaching to explain the mysterious disappearance of all tigers from Panna over a short duration (between July 2007 to March 2009)?
The plausible hypotheses to explain the mysterious disappearance of tigers, which I am inclined to offer, is based on my knowledge of the terrain and the tigers of Panna, are:
i. The habitat had only a few female; some were poached within their territories that extended beyond the reserve and the remaining few, except one, dispersed out of the reserve in search of better hunting grounds. The presence of this lone female with two cubs was noticed in adjoining North Panna forest division in 2009.
ii. Males spread out and moved to other areas beyond the tiger reserve in search of prey and fecund females.
The above two hypotheses draw support from Dr. Raghu Chundawat’s Tiger Ecology Research. He concludes that the male tigers of Panna operate in a much wider area – one of the radio-collared males had a territory as huge as 277 square km, and females of Panna Tiger reserve have territories larger than those reported for females from any other PAs (Sunquist, 1981; Smith, 1984; Karanth and Sunquist, 2000). The territory the female tigers either extended beyond the Park boundary or touched its periphery, exposing breeding females to external threats (Chundawat,R. 2001).
This also means that the male tigers no longer seen within the reserve left the park after the disappearance of the females and might have moved out into the territorial forests of Satna, Rewa, Chhatarpur, Chanderi, Sagar, Damoh or Tikamgarh. Or, may be in the forests of Uttar Pradesh – a quick look at the Google map of this landscapes reveals the extent of dense and sparse forest cover beyond the tiger reserve which the tigers of Panna might use as their extended habitats. The support for this hypothesis comes from the field reports of the sudden appearance of a tiger in Damoh forest division – about 180 km away. That the tiger from Panna could wander off to far away forests of Damoh was confirmed again when a male radio-collared tiger that had strayed out of the Panna tiger reserve was recaptured from there. I also believe that a tiger and a tigress that have made Madhav national park their home since 2007 were also refugees from Panna tiger reserve. The habitat of Madhav National Park had recovered from severe depletion resulting from almost seven years of mismanagement until a sensible and hard-working officer arrived on the scene in 2006. Till then it had been more than 25 years for Madhav – once a playground for tigers – to have cradled a resident one, though pugmarks of transients were seen off and on. The recent and continued occupation of Madhav’s rejuvenated habitat by two tigers is a case of reclamation of a resurrected, potential habitat by dispersing tigers.
Dr. Chundawat’s research also points out two major problems about natural prey of tiger at Panna-
i. Panna National Park has an estimated density of 32 prey /km2 is low in comparison to other high tiger density areas.
ii. chital population has a poor fawn and yearlings ratio per female, indicating reduced productivity of the population.
His research attributes poor utilization of habitat by herbivores to the sparsely wooded landscape and the absence of water in tiger reserve’s upper plateau in summer season. Besides, chital, which usually forms a significant portion of tigers natural prey, are not very productive in the dry deciduous and water scarce landscape of Panna, making tiger utterly dependent on supplementary prey like cattle. Considering these two constraints that the tigers of Panna were facing, relocation of 9 villages that had a sizable cattle population – an important prey supplement for tigers – had an effect on prey availability as most families of these nine villages moved out along with their cattle in 2008-09 leaving the habitat suddenly bereft of supplementary prey (cattle). Another management intervention that might have adversely affected availability of prey for the tigers was the translocation of about 5000 feral cattle from the reserve to the pens by the end of 2008. The restricted distribution of chital in the undisturbed areas in and around Badgadi, a village that was relocated about 20 years back, may have been another reason why tigers were forced to move out of the reserve in search of prey. If a formidable male had occupied the stronghold of chital “Badgadi” and its immediate surrounds , other tigers would find a little courage to prey on chital there.
Some well-meaning people, who point out that the Panna tiger reserve has a good population of blue bull and therefore there is no dearth of prey for tiger, should consider that blue bull is not a preferred prey of tiger. And compared to cattle it makes a tough quarry as it is much agiler and alert than the cattle, besides it inhabits drier and sparsely vegetated tracts which the tiger usually avoids for such tracts are water deficient and provide little ambush cover. Because tiger has evolved as a specialized forest-edge predator following the cervid-radiation in Asia (Sunquist and Karanth, 1999), its survival and hunting strategies are more cued to cervids than prey found in open habitat. Tigers do not avoid blue bull consciously but preys only sparingly on the blue bull that occupy forest-edge habitat. Moreover, the blue bull is less likely to achieve their optimal densities in these forest habitats. Therefore, in Panna, prey species like nilgai and chinkara may be playing a limited role in the ecology of tigers. The Cervid and the bovid populations usually achieve their maximum densities in a mosaic of forest habitat in Asia, and therefore, these habitats support higher tiger densities
The research carried out by Chundawat in Panna suggests that the tiger’s habitat occupancy is directly linked with water and prey availability but in Panna the productivity of natural prey like chital and sambar has been suboptimal compared to other reserves, even the fawn to yearling survival rate has been very low. Gogate and Chundawat (1997) report that chital is the most preferred prey in Panna (concerning number) and this species is utilized more than its availability. It is only in the case of Panna that chital has been reported as the preferred prey whereas in all other cases so far chital has been reported to be the principal prey and this, perhaps, indicates the absence of habitats that are conducive to the proliferation of chital. Hence in Panna, there is a need to create and maintain such habitats (Mathai Manu Verghese, June 1999, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun). Managing the relocated village sites at a seral stage as edge habitats consisting of grassland juxtaposed by woodlands and creating more waterholes should become the prime focus of management.
If data of cattle kill for three consecutive years (2004, 2005 and 2006), for the villages evacuated in 2007, are analyzed, one may be able to draw some useful conclusions. I would also suggest that all the DFOs of the districts which I have listed in this note may be asked to mount a vigil to locate evidence of tiger in their forests and immediately report the presence of any tiger within their respective jurisdictions. As I have said earlier the tiger and its remaining non-PA habitats need more protection outside the PAs than within, the DFOs need to be equipped and made responsible for the protection of tigers within their jurisdictions. But it seems, at present, they appear to be in a state of denial of the threat of poaching and even reluctant to confirm presence of tigers in the areas under their charge ?
In my view, the management needs to begin a planned intervention to augment water availability in water-scarce habitats and try to reclaim the abandoned village sites as grasslands so that the chital, a versatile species, may respond favourably and become more productive. With better habitats, the fawn to yearling survival rate, which is meagre right now, would certainly improve. The another significant intervention required is to equip and make the forest officers, who manage territories around the tiger reserve, responsible for tigers and wildlife so as to protect tigers from poachers and secure breeding areas of the female tigers that extend beyond the boundary of the tiger reserve.
If we could take these measures without losing time – we may hope the return of the tigers to Panna, or else, We may be witnessing the last of the tigers in this unfortunate reserve. I hope that the nomad tigers would come back as the habitat and prey base improve, but I also fear that the unfavourable conditions beyond the safe confines of the tiger reserve may have already decimated the wandering tigers. The fate of the vagrant tigers outside tiger reserve remains uncertain. Outside it is wild-wild west – poachers lurk with their gin-traps, sticks and iron bars and the upset villagers, whose cattle is killed, lie in wait with their devices to electrocute or poison tigers. With this sad scene outside the reserves, there is but a flimsy hope that out of ten straying tigers probably only one would get a safe passage back home. ( P.S. – In 2013, CCMB, Hyderabad published a research paper confirming that one of the cubs born in Panna after reintroduction carries the genes of a tiger thought to have been exterminated before 2009- an undeniable proof that one of the resident tiger that had left PNP had returned and mated with one of the reintroduced tigresses)
Now in the prevailing situation what the female tigers brought from Kanha and Bandhavgarh could do remains to be seen. The chances are – the lucky males that have so far escaped the trap or the live wire will return by the onset of winter when the mating season reaches its peak. It is time, therefore, to ensure – by putting in place pointed protection machinery inside and outside the tiger reserve- that the nomads outside the reserves remain safe and the females within the tiger reserve do not stray out. And by employing a network of informers in the peripheral villages and by swift preemptive actions poachers are kept at bay. Pressure on the poachers must never relax.
( P.S.- The tiger from Pench and the females from Kanha ,Bandhavgarh have successfully resurrected the tiger population in Panna and by 2015 there were around 30 resident tigers in Panna tiger reserve)
Note : The views expressed above are solely of the author and not written in any official capacity( additions made in 2015).
( The original note written on 26.3.2009 was Sent To Dr. P.B Gango padhyaya, the then CWLW, MP and Shri H.S. Panwar, Member of the Committee constituted by the State Government to inquire into the issue of Vanishing tigers of Panna.)