What went wrong with the tiger reintroduction programme at Mukudara Hills Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan?

Suhas Kumar

Representative image by late Bobbie Jamwal. Clicked in Rajasthan


Those who have been following the ambitious tiger reintroduction programme at Mukudara Hills tiger reserve must be dismayed by the news about the death of the 2 nd cub on 17 th August 2020, that was being treated for injuries at the Kota zoo, Its sibling was found dead some 20 days ago, besides two adult tigers Tigers MT2 and MT3 were found dead within a span of 15 days in July.

It is certainly a serious setback to the Forest officers and the state government. I learnt from the newspaper reports that the state government has already ordered an inquiry to find out the causes. I think whosoever is entrusted with this inquiry should consult the NTCA’s MEETR (Management Effectiveness Evaluation) Report for 2017-2018 for Mukundara Hill Tiger Reserve. This report was prepared by a team headed by me; Dr Samir Kumar Sinha of Wildlife trust of India was member of my team. We had extensively toured the area and had discussed every relevant aspect
of management with the officers and staff, we had also interacted with local people before making a detailed report about preparedness of the reserve for tiger reintroduction. Had the NTCA or the State government paid some heed to our findings and recommendations probably the project would have proceeded smoothly without such a dire impasse
Despite strong warning in our report against premature reintroduction without being fully prepared on the ground the forest department had gone ahead with the programme , perhaps, under extraneous pressure and this unnecessary hurry has now cost them dear.

The MEETR reports of tiger reserves are public documents and are available on NTCA Website. Here I am presenting our unedited report to let the readers understand the reasons for such a dismal situation at MTR today and what could
have been done to avoid this and succeed.

Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan


Dr. Suhas Kumar, Chairman
Dr. Samir Kumar Sinha, Member
MEETR (Cluster-I)
(28.11.2017 – 30.11.2017)

Photo source: Tiger Conservation Plan (TCP) of Mukandra Hills Tiger Reserve

Mukandra Hills Tiger Reserve (MHTR) has an unusual shape like a long-handled hammer (80 kms. in length and 2.5 to 5.5 kms. in width). It is a moderately sized tiger reserve with a core extending over 417.17 sq. km. and a buffer of 342.82 sq. km. The buffer consists of patches of forests scattered around the core area.

Mukundara Hills National Park, Darra, Jawahar Sagar and National Chambal Gharial Sanctuary (part), are included in the core area of the tiger reserve. Few forest blocks of Kota, Jhalawar and Chittorgarh division have been included as buffer of the tiger reserve.

The major immediate objective of this reserve is to “establish a viable, free-ranging tiger population in MHTR by the end of 2027 by reintroducing wild tigers from other habitats and rebuilding the tiger population by providing secure and conducive environment for them by creating a 200 sq m inviolate core, improving habitats, and by supplementing prey population by starting a translocation and conservation breeding programme. The plan includes supplementing the founder population by releasing 08-10 tigers in a phased manner over a period of 10 years in MHTR.”

The preparations to reintroduce tigers into this reserve have begun with palpable enthusiasm. Significant progress is visible on the ground in a short span of time. The achievements should be attributed to a strong political will, wholehearted support of the state and efforts made by the Field officers. Despite these positive vibes, the challenges faced by the reserve are enormous – 14 villages in the core and about 90 around its periphery, cause enormous biotic interferences in the habitat. Grazing pressure is quite high; there are about 10000 cattle head owned by 1585 families in 14 villages within the core and approximately 90000 cattle heads in the 86 buffer villages. Cattle herding is the mainstay of local community dominated by Gujjars.

Large scale mining activity has disturbed its connectivity with Bundi. Mumbai – Jaipur railway line and National Highway No. 12 fragments the core area at Darra. Moreover, the core in most part of the reserve is only a few km wide. The evaluation committee was apprised about the plan to reintroduce tigers by year end (2017), and the pace of infrastructure development work on the ground reflected this intent.

However, the committee strongly feels that reintroduction of tigers in the reserve in near future may be counterproductive as preparations, other than construction of enclosures, are far from complete and bringing tigers at this stage may result in serious conflicts with local people. Further, the committee also suggests that tourism in the tiger reserve should be given a backseat until the founder population of tiger establishes itself in their new home.

Strengths

  1. A strong political will and support from the government to establish Mukundara Hills as a popular tiger reserve.
  2. Enthusiastic and motivated Field Director and Deputy Director and a team of young staff.
  3. Serious and concerted efforts have been made to stop the seasonal movement and grazing of around 2 lakh migratory sheep through CTH and to evict illegal cattle camps from core and buffer.
  4. A tenuous connectivity with Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve exits through Indergarh-Lakheri-Ramgarh Vishdhari Sanctuary-Dabi-Jawahar Sagar Sanctuary, and also to Darra through the ravines of Chambal and Kalisindh. Another possible corridor is up to Gandhi Sagar Sanctuary of Madhya Pradesh through Bhainsroadgarh Sanctuary.
  5. A Good tiger reintroduction plan has been prepared and several measures to strengthen protection and monitoring have begun. The e-eye surveillance system, M-stripes, creation of STPF has been planned.
  6. About 10000 LPG connections have been provided to families residing in the buffer to reduce the anthropogenic pressure for firewood on the tiger reserve for firewood.

Weaknesses

  1. The shape possesses an inherent disadvantage to MHTR, making it vulnerable to the biotic pressures emanating from 14 villages inside the reserve and about 87 villages around the periphery. As grazers are the predominant occupants of the area with poor socio-economic background the habitat is under severe stress.
  2. The unusual shape of the core with patchy buffer areas and excessive mining in the corridor linking MHTR with Bundi forests makes it a tough task to ensure long-term viability of tigers in this area.
  3. The area has poor prey base. Recently 400 chital from Jodhpur Zoo were released in the CTH but post-release monitoring was not done, thus fate of the released animals is not known. Sambar are also being translocated from a
    military area. A good number of leopards, jackal and wolf in the landscape exert high predation pressure, therefore, there is a likelihood that the released populations would soon dissipate to unviable levels and will be eliminated completely.
  4. Man-made development infrastructures passing through the CTH like the Jaipur-Mumbai railway line, National Highway 12 pose serious challenges before the managers.
  5. Infestation of Prosopis in the grasslands and lantana in other area is destroying the habitat for herbivores.
  6. Preparation to curb the risk of poaching is not visible on the ground yet. As soon as the tigers are brought here there are chances that the dormant local poachers may be activated by the organised mafia.
  7. The frontline staff is untrained and inexperienced in wildlife management and protection.
  8. The villagers still residing in the CTH are hostile to the management. There have been physical confrontations with the staff in Borawas village recently and also in Giridharpura village last year.
  9. The plan to release tigers within next 6 months is pre-mature as preparations are not yet complete. Non- involvement of a full-time research team to participate in the release programme and later on in the monitoring of the released tigers and prey species is going to be detrimental. Training of staff in monitoring skills such as analysing signs and evidences, PIPs and camera traps appear inadequate and with the results of the plan to release tigers this year would not be much fruitful. In the current situation of low prey base, the reintroduced tigers may thrive on cattle that would certainly aggravate conflict with local villagers.
  10. To protect the CTH from the biotic pressure masonry walls are being constructed. Care must be taken to ensure that these man-made barriers do not cut off the access to the corridors.
  11. Some villages have been relocated on forest land, but the forest lands have not been de-reserved and mutation of the land has not been done, as a result legal status of the land has remained unchanged, even in the cases where
    relocation has completed nine years ago. Due to this lapse, the relocated families are not eligible for agriculture loan and they are mostly kept deprived of Panchayat’s developmental activities. Such inordinate delays may lead to
    loss of credibility and impede the relocation process.
  12. The impacts of interventions to reduce villagers’ dependence of the forest, especially the current level of LPG connections provided to the villagers, are not monitored.

Actionable points

  1. Present practice of hard-release of prey species into the CTH will not be successful. It would be useful to establish in-situ conservation breeding facility at multiple locations within the CTH.
  2. Process of relocation of Giridharpura and Borawas villages should be hastened to help reduce conflicts and make available a large undisturbed habitat to wild animals.
  3. Skills of staff need to be enhanced through trainings in controlling wildlife offences such as surveillance of crime and habitual offenders, traditional hunter communities, intelligence gathering, crime investigation etc.; managing
    conflicts with villagers; monitoring of various aspects of management such as prey base, predators, water sources, fire, road kills, cattle kills , impact of habitat interventions and also interventions in the villages to reduce resource
    dependencies such as distributed LPG connections, etc.
  4. As most of the villagers in the buffer depend on cattle and a sizable number on mining for livelihood the conflict with them will continue in future unless a long term systematic intervention is set in motion to provide them skills and opportunities to switch over to other sources of livelihood.
  5. The complaint of rehabilitated villagers about non-issuance of revenue pattas of the forest land on which they are settled should be addressed at earliest to make the rehabilitated families eligible for getting agriculture loans and reap the benefits of rural development schemes of the government. The management must take cognizance to resolve this issue. In March 2017 the MoEF&CC has already issued a clarification allowing de-reservation of forest
    land diverted for relocation and rehabilitation of villagers from PAs. This needs to be consulted for.
  6. Retrofitting of NH12 and the railway line passing across the entire width of the CTH at Darra WLS needs to be completed as early as possible.
  7. Strengthening the management of Bhainsroadgarh sanctuary would be necessary to support the Mukundra tiger relocation project. This is the area that the tigers from Mukundara would occupy in the coming years. It would be
    prudent to notify Bhaisroadgarh sanctuary as a Satellite Core of the MHTR and bring it under the administrative control of MHTR management.
  8. Reports of occasional presence of tigers in this forest tract indicate existence of live corridors but the situation on the ground today is dismal – the corridor between Bundi and Mukundara is already vitiated owing to the heavy mining activity in Suket. As the government is keen on bringing in tiger in Mukundara, it would be worthwhile to free some area by stopping mining in critical movement passages. A study to understand the ground situation and give suitable recommendations may be initiated at the earliest.
  9. Monitoring of the impact of interventions in the villages such as supply of cooking gas connection is not being done. It would be useful to monitor the level of use of the LPG as well as its impact on the consumption of firewood.
  10. The committee came across some cemented waterholes constructed for wild animals. The use of too much cement-concrete in such water holes and their design should be reviewed and improved. The committee also advises to
    avoid building artificial waterholes that require filling up by transporting water from elsewhere. In water scarce areas provision of solar powered pumps for filling up the water holes may be made. The availability of ground water
    should be determined beforehand by carrying out Vertical Electrical Sounding (VES) Resistivity Survey.

The author, Suhas Kumar, IFS (Retd.), is former PCCF, Madhya Pradesh. Now he is Member Madhya Pradesh State Board for Wildlife, Member Chhattisgarh State Board for Wildlife, Member Governing Council NCHSE Bhopal, Member Delhi Biodiversity Society, Member WWF-India, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh State Advisory Board

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