(Original, March 2009 -Revised May 2017)
There came a time in the history of Madhya Pradesh, a state that leads from the front in the field of wildlife conservation in India, when it faced international flak for losing all its tigers from Panna Tiger Reserve. I was on study leave when reports began pouring in about the ‘’Panna debacle”. I was shocked as well as angry by the media reports and annoyed by the tirade which some well-meaning Conservation NGOs and self–centred hoteliers had launched together against the wildlife wing and particularly against the then Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW), Dr. H.S. Pabla. When Dr. Pabla resolved to bring back tigers to Panna by transferring tigers from other reserves, doomsday predictions adorned the front pages of the newspapers and many experts, especially from the metropolis, voiced their skepticism in media. Some hoteliers even mobilized guides to protest against transfer of tigers from one reserve to another. One of the news items was particularly irritating, and I couldn’t control my anger and decided to give a befitting reply to the detractors. I sent my point of view to Hindustan times and later to the Sanctuary Asia magazine and they published it.
I am reproducing that article for the benefit of the younger generation of wildlife managers –
“Transfer of tigresses from Kanha and Bandhavgarh to Panna is being opposed by local guides and conservationists”————- Over the last week in every newspaper worth its name the above caption adorned the news about the tiger supplementation move begun by the state government. I am appalled, not by the move but by the sheer misunderstanding that the guides and some of the hoteliers and the so-called conservationists are suffering from. In my opinion, their opposition primarily arises out of self-preservation rather than their interest in saving the tigers’.
Let me explain the other side of the story to put things in the right perspective:
Tiger is a long-ranging species, and its long-term survival precariously depends on genetic exchange with other tiger populations elsewhere. Tigers inhabit and breed in undisturbed habitats. When the population of tiger increases within a protected area, competition among them leads to conflict, and the weaker tigers are pushed out to the peripheral and sub-optimal habitats outside protected area boundaries. Besides, research confirms that female tigresses fail to come into oestrus (a recurring period of sexual receptivity and fertility in many female mammals) and even when pregnant they often abort if the conditions –secure habitat, prey animals and appropriate breeding cover are not available. Such suitable habitats, abundant prey, and cover are scarce outside protected areas (national parks- sanctuaries and tiger reserves).
Beyond the boundaries of the tiger reserves, diverse land uses, the presence of hostile villagers, poachers emboldened by insignificant protection machinery and lack of adequate trained protection force leads to their extermination. When tigers find no suitable place to occupy outside protected areas, they are condemned to huddle within small areas and get into fierce territorial fights that often culminate in the death of the weaker tigers. This situation is already prevailing in some of the tiger reserves like Kanha.
The irony is our tiger reserves, and other categories of protected areas are diminutive in size compared to the protected areas of Africa and Americas that are large enough or contiguous with other protected areas encompassing the ecological boundaries of long-ranging species either within a protected area or landscape. In India, most of the tiger reserves have already reached the threshold population that such small areas can hold. India’s conservation strategy that visualizes linking smaller Protected Areas through viable forested corridors is perhaps the only answer to achieving this vital biological requirement. Unfortunately, this concept couldn’t take off owing to the absence of support from the right quarters as well as the non-availability of an enormous amount of funds that is required to restock fragmented forests and provide alternatives to those natural resources for which the local people depend on buffer and corridor-forests. The human dependence on forests and forest land is ever increasing – forests are getting more and more fragmented owing to its diversion for roads, expansion of cities into wild habitats and other massive development projects, including the proliferation of hotels and eateries along the periphery of the tiger reserves.
Obviously, our protected areas, tiger reserves included, are like ‘islands’ surrounded by a sea of diverse land uses that are largely incompatible to the conservation of wildlife. Today, the average size of protected areas in India’s is only 269 sq km, which are therefore like islands in ecological terms.
An ecological theory propounds that the rate of extinction of any species is rapid on an island. Such small protected areas are often ecologically not viable if these do not have connecting links with adjacent protected areas for facilitating movement of larger species of fauna and genetic continuity between isolated populations of plant and animal species through continuous distribution. Now with the above facts before us, it is not very difficult to surmise why tigers need to be shifted from some tiger reserves bursting at the seam with tigers to those reserves where tiger population has shrunk and needs to be injected with fresh genes and more females to breed more tigers.
©Suhas Kumar (6.3.2009), is Member Madhya Pradesh Wildlife Board. As an Indian Forest Service officer, borne on the Madhya Pradesh cadre, he served at the level of Principal Chief Conservator Forest. He has distingushed himself as a wildlife expert who worked with conviction and whose mission is conservation