Ken-Betwa Link Project and Panna Tigers: Matter to Ponder on Wildlife Day

Lalit Shastri

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has been telling the whole world how the Tiger reintroduction and translocations have successfully been used to recover tiger populations in India and while underscoring the global and national commitments to stop habitat loss due to deforestation it had also taken the initiative of pushing the idea of tiger reintroduction into Cambodia’s Eastern Plains by promoting the Panna model. In this backdrop, we have a contrasting situation where the Government of India and the Madhya Pradesh Government are determined to go full steam ahead with the Ken-Betwa Link Project that will submerge more than 4000 ha of the core area of Panna Tiger Reserve.

When we talk of Panna Tiger Reserve, its core area, and the connecting corridors we should not lose sight of the fact that this forest area is the northern-most tip of the best corridor of teak and dry mixed forest south of the Gangetic plain. The miscellaneous dry deciduous forest in Panna, which is interspersed with grassland areas, is an ideal habitat for tiger, leopard, spotted dear, black buck, sambar, wild dogs, sloth bear and the crocodilian gharial. Panna is also home for the endangered king vulture. The avifauna in the Panna National Park comprises more than 200 species including a host of migratory birds. A large variety of reptiles and snakes, including the python, are also found here.

Those bent upon going ahead with this dam will be doing a great disservice to the cause of conservation and ecological balance. How can they brush aside the fact that influx of numerous tributaries of Ken river have created unique micro-habitats and a substratum in the river. It has 89 species of fish, including the threatened mahaseer. If we look at the Ken river in totality, the species richness is maximum at Daudhan, where an earth fill and concrete dam is proposed to be built.

Initially, the Detailed Project Report (DPR) for the ken-Betwa Link Project done by National Water Development Agency (NWDA), had cited a figure of about 32,900 trees in the submergence area falling within the core of the Panna National Park. The basis for arriving at this figure was the baseless projection that there were only 7.8 trees per hectare in that area. When objections were raised, a sample survey was conducted and the per hectare count of trees was hiked by 22 to 45 times and the number of trees shot up to 1.1 million- a figure that was also counter-signed by the DFO Chhatapur. This survey was done by a forester and there is no record of his entry or exit from the Tiger Reserve during the survey period. When more objections were raised, the number of trees in the submergence area was raised to 1.4 million and this figure was verified by the then Panna National Park director. By the time these figures went to Government of India for clearance of the project, they had been raised further to 1.8 million. According to latest information, the number of trees has been hiked further from the initial count of 32,900 to 2.3 million. These figures relate to only the core area of Panna National Park. But many more trees would disappear in the buffer and other territorial areas. Once the trees are cut and the area is brought under submergence, Panna will go through a second disaster after the successful repopulation of this habitat with tigers.

The big question is – what about the tigers that have already made Panna their habitat. Due to the Ken-Betwa Link project, the present Panna tiger population will be forced to migrate to adjoining areas where they will get into conflict with other settled tigers leading to infighting and mortality. There will also be man-animal conflict when the tigers will move out of their present habitat.

The death knell of Panna Tiger Reserve was sounded on August 23, 2016, when the Standing Committee of the National Wildlife Board (NWB) at its 39th meeting had approved the proposal for Wildlife clearance with regard to Ken-Betwa Link Project-Phase I in Panna Tiger Reserve and agreed to recommend the proposal with the conditions to integrate Nauradehi, Rani Durgavati and Ranipur (UP) Wildlife Sanctuaries in the Panna Tiger Reserve and rehabilitate the affected villagers. Another condition imposed was that the resultant reservoir area shall be retained as core area with minimum activities for management purpose under close consultation with the Tiger Reserve management.

The main aim of Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP), according to the Government, is to transfer the “surplus water” of Ken basin to water deficit Betwa basin. The concurrence of the State Governments of UP and MP was received for this project August 5, 2005. This paved the way for signing of a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) by the Chief Ministers of UP and MP and Union Minister for Water Resources on August 25, 2005 in the presence of the Prime Minister of India. Under this agreement, both the States agreed for the sharing of water up to the Daudhan dam on Ken river.

The site is Sakra, 2 kms upstream from Daudhan. Mark the tree cover on the slope in the background. It will come under submergence. Photo by Harikrishna

Even at this stage, it is not too late to save the Panna landscape, which has been repopulated with tigers with great effort. There is ample ground to look for alternatives. The Silent Valley National Park in Kerala should serve as an example to stop the destruction of Panna. Ken-Betwa Link Project, which is threatening the Panna National Park’s rich flora and fauna, cannot be touted as the sole means to provide water for agriculture in the Betwa basin. The Chandela rulers of Bundelkhand (10th to 13th Century) are known for promoting water harvesting and watershed management, and for dotting their territory with traditional lakes and check dams. From the point of view of sustainable development, the Chandela model, if pursued vigorously, can still provide the right answer and deliver results on a fast track and at a fraction of KBLP’s cost.  

What is also unfortunate is that the Madhya Pradesh Government, is reportedly determined to revive and put the diamond mining project on the fast tack in close vicinity of Panna Tiger Reserve. The global diamond giant Rio Tinto recently chose to abandon this project. (check 1. Rio Tinto’s Exit from India: Did Tigers Trump Diamonds? 2. Take Action: Rio Tinto and the Bunder Diamond Mine 3. Diamond giant Rio Tinto’s Indian connection and questions that need to be addressed

Tiger Reintroduction Project

After the entire population of Panna tigers had vanished and not a single tiger was spotted in the Panna Tiger Reserve in 2009 making Panna a ‘zero’ tiger park, T3 was relocated to this area from Pench and T1 (Tigress from Bhandhavgarh) and T2 (Tigress from Kanha) were brought to Panna in March 2009. The comprehensive Tiger Reintroduction Project was conceived in technical collaboration with Wildlife Institute of India and launched by the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, along with the Panna Tiger reserve Team, to repopulate the Panna habitat with big cats after obtaining clearance from National Tiger Conservation Authority.

The Panna Tiger Reintroduction Project to repopulate the Panna Tiger Reserve is rated as the most successful tiger conservation project across the whole world. It had touched the first major milestone on December 26, 2009 when the Panna team had rescued T3, the male tiger brought from Pench Tiger Reserve and released it in the Panna park area for the second time. Most befittingly,Panna management remembers December 26 as an important day and draws energy from such milestones to rededicate itself for the cause of tiger conservation.

T3–the male tiger relocated from Pench to repopulate the Panna habitat in 2009

After the original Panna tigers had vanished and not a single tiger was spotted in the Panna Tiger Reserve making Panna a ‘zero’ tiger park, T3 was relocated to this area from Pench while T1 (Tigress from Bhandhavgarh) and T2 (Tigress from Kanha) were brought into Panna in March 2009. A comprehensive Tiger Reintroduction Project was conceived in technical collaboration of Wildlife Institute of India. After getting green signal from National Tiger Conservation Authority the project moved forward.

According to the then Panna field director Sreenivasa Murthy, the Panna Tiger Reintroduction Project envisaged reintroducing six tigers in all including the earlier two females as a part of founder population to start with (two males and four females). Under the project, a male tiger from Pench (T3) was brought in the month of November 2009. After staying in the park area for a short period, the tiger moved out. Murthy had informed that it was for the first time that a ‘homing’ instinct had been observed in a wild tiger. T3 was always moving in the southern direction where his home—Pench was located. He travelled more than 450 km during that one month. Once he was rescued and released in the park for the second time there was no looking back. He met and made friendship with T1 and T2 and both littered in no time. T1 gave birth to four cubs in mid-April 2010. T2 also gave birth to four cubs in October the same year.

T6 – while being released in Panna Tiger Reserve

Drawing attention to T4 (orphaned and hand-reared tigress from Kanha), Mr. Murthy said that altogether a new chapter in tiger conservation history was created at Panna. T4 was an orphaned tiger cub of just 15 days along with two other siblings when her mother was killed at Kanha. The Kanha management had picked up the three cubs and hand-reared them with a plan to re-wild them. T4 was the first to be picked up and was relocated for re-wilding at Panna in March 2011. T4 struggled in the initial months but T3 helped her to learn the art of hunting in the wild and her re-wilding process. T4 touched a new milestone when she delivered two cubs in the mid-November 2011 declaring to the world that she is the first to achieve such a rare feat. Subsequently T5 (sibling of T4) was also released at Panna in the month of September 2011.

T1 and T2 delivered their second litters in 2012 with four and three cubs respectively. Within a matter of a couple of years, of the six tigers that were to be reintroduced five tigers were reintroduced successfully.

T4 and T5 died in 2014 and 2016 and T1 and T2 have gone past their breeding age for the last two to three years. Now as per the official projections, Panna will ultimately have 21 breeding tigers within its core area with a total tiger population of 70-80 tigers by the end of 2022.

Panna tigers established their meta-population in Sarbangha forests of Satna district in 2016. They have since traversed in all directions from Panna utilising the corridor forests. Panna 212 (P212) has been introduced into the Sanjay tiger reserve in the Sidhi district in 2014 and another Panna tiger (P213-21) has travelled on his own from Panna to Bandhavgarh tiger reserve in 2017 and is now known as T71 there. Panna is today standing tall with 70+ tigers against ‘zero’ in 2009.

In this way Panna became the most successful tiger conservation project in the whole World.

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