By Shreya Sethuraman
She puts one paw on the edge of the cage, then takes it back in. She pauses and peeps out, looking to her right and to her left, growling as she tries to gauge her surroundings. She’s hedging; you would be too if you’d spent the last 18 hours in an iron enclosure, being shipped 368 kilometres overnight from your old home in Pench to Panna, a place you’d never seen.
Ultimately, she proves she’s no coward. T6, the newest tiger in Madhya Pradesh’s Panna Tiger Reserve, walks out slowly and majestically makes her way into the jungle. Her every step forward is a step ahead for the Reserve’s tiger relocation programme, a project that has found great (and rare) success in increasing the big cat’s population in the Reserve.
Up until 2006, Panna had an estimated population of 24 tigers; many even believed the number was as high as 35. But by 2009, a Wildlife Institute of India study put the number down at zero – there was only a single male tiger left in the dry, dense MP forest. Some had fallen prey to poaching, poisoning (by local villagers who’d had their cattle killed by big cats) and dacoity (after an evicted encroacher decided to take revenge by damaging the forest habitat). Others had simply reached the end of their 15-year lifespan and died of natural causes or illness.
Watch: our exclusive video on the reserve
For a while, Panna remained a tiger reserve with one male tiger and no one to mate with. But today, thanks to the efforts of a dedicated field director and his team, and daily wage labourers who learned to care enough about the animals to protect them, it’s proudly (and protectively) home to 24 striped cats. And while it’s an everyday challenge, to keep them all alive and thriving, it’s become a model for tiger conservation efforts as far away as Russia and Cambodia.
The cat people
Rangaiah Sreenivasa Murthy, the present field director of Panna Tiger Reserve, came to Panna in May 2009 armed with only one aim – to increase the tiger count. He found an ally in Dr Raghu Chundawat, a conservation biologist who had worked with the tigers in Panna. Chundawat was one of the few who saw them disappearing and even raised several alarms, but nobody listened to him. “My association with the tigers at Panna began in 1996, and went on till 2005. I still haven’t figured out what exactly happened,” he laments.
The initial plan was to bring two female tigers from other reserves (T1 from Kanha and T2 from Bandhavgarh) to mate with the lone remaining tiger in the Panna forest. Everyone was hopeful. But there were worries: Relocation is complex and carried out only with the approval of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). Every relocation is a risk; you are, after all, moving an animal from its safe comfort zone to a place where other tigers have not thrived. And recent relocation efforts in Rajasthan’s Sariska Tiger Reserve weren’t encouraging. Sariska is home to 28 villages, the inhabitants of which depend on the forest for their sustenance. This constant human disturbance had perhaps stressed the tigers.
In Panna, would the tigresses adapt to their new home or die a needless death, bringing numbers down further? Would the 16 villages bordering the Panna Reserve cause similar problems for the tigers in their quest for their own survival? Was it possible to keep a protective eye on the animals, but still create a stress-free environment for them to mate successfully?
The family connection
The challenges began almost as soon as the project did. In March 2009, when the tigresses were brought from Kanha and Bandhavgarh, the lone male tiger in Panna disappeared – he left, in all probability, in search of a tigress and never came back. “It was then that we decided to relocate a male tiger (T3) from Pench,” says Murthy.
There is a reason the animals were chosen from different reserves. Tigers are incestuous. It’s not unusual for mothers to mate with their cubs; coupling among siblings is common too. For conservationists, this is not good news. Tigers brought from the same reserve are often likely to be siblings and inbreeding can lead to birth defects and weaker genes that make the animals vulnerable to illnesses. “Had we brought both the male and female tigers from Bandhavgarh and had their mating not been successful, people would’ve said it’s because they’re siblings,” Murthy says.
In addition to T1, T2 and T3, it was decided that two more tigresses from Kanha, both abandoned as cubs, would be brought to Panna to increase chances of mating. Panna, which once had 24 tigers and lost them all, was now home to five new cats – a huge risk.
Must see pics: Panna reloaded
A new route forward
With big risks came big changes. In addition to Murthy’s posting in 2009, the MP government also hired entirely new staff at the Reserve. Murthy conducted several formal and informal meetings with staffers across all levels and asked them only one thing: “Tell me what happened”.
The answers he received painted a more realistic picture than any government report could. “The feudalistic setup of this place does not offer any evidence of what really happened inside and outside the park with respect to poaching,” says Murthy. He found out that local villagers took pride in killing animals – very few had any empathy for the loss of tigers in their areas. Ram Mishra, who ferries range officers and forest guards through the forest in his rickety old vehicle, says that for villagers, the cats are a “headache because tigers may kill their cattle. So it’s very convenient for them to not have any tigers.”
The new field director and his team worked to kindle in the villagers, a sense of pride in their forest and its inhabitants. He also helped smoothen the relocation of the 16 villages at the edges of the Panna forest. “There are two ways to relocate villagers,” says Murthy. “One is the ‘golden handshake’ – the NTCA offers Rs. 10 lakh per family to move elsewhere. The second is for a family to take part of the money and get settled on a piece of land [elsewhere]. People in Panna prefer the golden handshake.”
Special attention was also paid to the Reserve’s buffer zone – the nebulous periphery of the forest that is used both by cattle and wild animals. This is where tigers are at the highest risk of attacking cattle and being attacked by villagers. In Panna, forest authorities ensured immediate compensation to a villager if his cattle was killed by a tiger, preventing him from trying to poison the cat. “Buffer zones destroy tigers more than protect them,” says Dr Chundawat.
Murthy and his team also initiated nature camps so local kids could tour the Reserve, have breakfast and lunch and get acquainted with the habitat essential for supporting tigers. The move helped inculcate basic concern for the animals and also helped the kids change the mindsets of their parents.
Working as one teamWorking as one team
Villagers, however, aren’t the only threat. The dense jungle itself can hinder conservation efforts. Apart from radio collaring each tiger, an intelligence cell was set up using continuous help from paid locals, who knew the jungle best. “We’re not totally dependent on support from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII),” explains Murari Prasad Tamrakar, assistant director at the Reserve. “We’ve put our own people on a 24/7 watch, get hourly updates about the whereabouts of tigers and keep a close watch on their progress.”
It was this knowledge that helped the forest authorities at crucial junctures. When a radio collar fell off T4, locals used their familiarity with the trails to track her. And when T3 tried to escape to Pench soon after he was brought in, locals stepped in again. A naturalist had suggested a ‘urine technique’ to bring T3’s attention to the tigresses in the forest. Locals sprayed urine (collected from tigresses at a zoo in Bhopal) across the forest and dispensed about 100ml in T3’s cage before his release.
The technique proved to be a success within just four days! T1 and T3 met on December 29, 2009, were together till January 3, 2010, and T1 gave birth to her first litter of four cubs on April 16, 2010 – a day the Reserve staff celebrate every year with a cake and a sort-of birthday party. T3 mated successfully with T2 as well, who delivered her additional litter of four in October 2010.
“Our happiness knew no bounds when we came to know of the cubs. You can say we felt like proud parents,” says Dr Sanjeev Kumar Gupta, Panna Reserve’s veterinary doctor. His dedication to safeguarding the tigers is an inspiration to everyone – on the day T6 was released, he had a terrible fever, but still couldn’t keep himself away from watching her enter her new home. More....