Recently, there were two cases in which tigers dispersing from the core area of Panna Tiger reserve were found dead. Their carcasses were discovered by the staff after several days despite the fact that both tigers were fitted with satellite radio-collars and were presumably under regular surveillance by the research team of WII. The first case in which a 2-year-old tiger P234(31) was found electrocuted and skinned in Majhgawan jungle of Satna division,the dead body was discovered after 18 days as the last signal recorded from its collar was on 13 October 2021. The key to receive satellite signal was with the WII research and monitoring team, FD Panna and DFO Satna.
In the second case a 3-year-old pregnant tigress P 213(63) was found dead on 10 November 2021 in the Amanganj buffer forest of Panna tiger reserve. The untimely death of this tigress was a sad case of inexperience and casual approach of the mangement. Totally relying on the satellite collars was a bad strategy as no one physically monitored the tigress. The post mortem revealed that the animal died of septicaemia caused by an unattended wound on the right shoulder (the part of body which she could not lick herself and heal the wound). The death of tigress P 213 (63) could have been averted if physical surveillance was made a part of the monitoring protocol. In that case the monitoring team could have detected the wound and the tigress could have been treated by the reserve’s veterinarian. Losing a breeding tigress is a severe setback (in Panna tiger reserve several generations a founder tigress T2 had produced around 70 tigers till now- several of them have left the reserve to find new territories). Obviously, if this slackness of management continues Panna may soon travel backwards to square one. And unfortunately, if that time ever comes it would amount to defiling and belittling the toil and sacrifices made by a large number of forest personnel, individuals and villagers who brought back tigers to Panna.
The current trend of losing tigers at a faster rate to poaching and territorial fights points to the fact that the PAs are now brimming with tigers and therefore dispersal of young and the weak, to the peripheral forests or far off places to find a suitable habitat, will continue rising. What is the solution then?
In 2013, the wildlife wing of M.P. had declared a policy that the tigers dispersing out of the natal areas (Protected areas where the tigers breed undisturbed) into territorial divisions and in the areas managed by the forest corporation will be the responsibility of the territorial divisions or the corporation as the case may be. It was amply made clear to the in-charge officers that their field personnel will be trained and fully equipped to monitor tigers in their respective jurisdictions. This had resulted in a lot of enthusiasm in DFOs and CCFs and several excellent example of meticulous monitoring and protection of tigers in territorial divisions emerged from 2013 to 2016. Legally all CCFs in charge of forest circles, DFOs, SDOs and Range officers are notified Wildlife Wardens for their respective jurisdictions and they are duty bound to take care of wildlife therein. Those who might have followed the developments in the wildlife wing in those days must be aware of the story of Datia tiger, that had come from Ranthambhore; this tiger was monitored and protected by a very enthusiastic DFO -C.S. Ninama, P-211 a young tiger that had left the Panna tiger reserve and moved into Sagar and then to Lalitpur district of U.P was meticulously monitored and protected by territorial staff trained by the then FD Panna – R. Srinivasa Murthy (this case also became a fine example of exemplary interstate cooperation), to monitor tigers dispersed from Ratapani into the Kerwa forests, rigorous training was imparted to territorial staff by retired and serving wildlife experts and some able scientists from IIFM to help them understand the field craft of monitoring. These trainings were imparted to the staff of Bhopal, Sehore and Obedullagunj forest divisions. In those days, excellent protection efforts and monitoring of tigers and wildlife was also happening in Balaghat, Chhindwara and Jabalpur. But later, most likely, owing to lack of interest at the headquarters and waning out of the budget in the state funded budget head – ‘Wildlife management outside Protected Areas”, this much-needed involvement of territorial divisions diminished and probably disappeared. Besides, during the same period (2013 onwards), a proactive intervention was started by the state government. The state government had ordered a periodic zonal review of all the territorial divisions every year by the Principal Secretary Forests along with HoFF and CWLW. It had had a positive impact on wildlife conservation efforts in Madhya Pradesh. It is unfortunate that this practice, too, has been discontinued.
People ask how many tigers Madhya Pradesh can sustain? Here, one needs to understand the dynamics in nature. Whenever population of a predator goes on rising the predation pressure brings down the prey population. This leads to severe infighting, and dispersal of predators- both these phenomena result in untimely mortality in the predator population.
Frequent dispersal of young tigers from Panna is a manifestation of that natural dynamics; presently there are around 70 tigers in this tiger reserve. As the PAs are small sized the dispersing tigers soon land into troubled waters where unnatural and untimely death becomes an imminent possibility.
The death outside the safe confines may occur under the wheels of vehicles on a highway or a train on a railway track, or the tiger may go after its prey into farmlands and get electrocuted. In conflict situations, villagers aggrieved by frequent destruction of their livestock resort to poisoning carcasses. Besides these, professional poachers await the arrival of dispersing tigers to areas where they are least protected- they either trap them or electrocute them.
Given all other factors such as habitat inputs, protection, diseases, poaching, tourism etc. remain constant, Panna tiger reserve will one day stabilize in terms of number of tigers it could sustain. It is not that there is no space for tigers outside the tiger reserves – there is plenty of space (good tiger habitats) in territorial forests but that space must be protected and managed to hold at least some tigers. If the forest department could actively protect and manage tigers outside the PAs with appropriate inputs, we may hope that a healthy population of tigers and its prey would thrive in territorial areas also as was the case in 1990s. The other potential sites as proposed Onkar eshwar national park and Kuno national park, Kheoni sanctuary, Nauradehi sanctuary should be prepared to receive tigers with appropriate inputs such as maintenance as well as creation of grasslands, augmentation of prey base by translocating species like chital and nilgai from reserves where they are abundant, strengthening protection, imparting monitoring and surveillance skills to staff and setting up a proactive team of officers at the Wildlife headquarters.
- The practise of taking care of the dispersing tigers by making territorial divisions responsible, trained and well equipped must be revived. If the territorial areas become responsible for tiger conservation there would be no dearth of habitat for tigers. There was a time (from 1999-2002) when almost 60% of forest divisions had reported presence of tigers in their jurisdiction (Please see graph).
- The budget head for wildlife conservation outside PA should be fully and judiciously utilized.
- The mandatory state level review meetings on tiger protection in territorial areas, as ordered by the state government in 2013, should begin immediately
- Vacant suitable habitats like the proposed Onkareshwar national park (650 square Kms of complete wilderness) should be notified at least as a wildlife division if not as a national park, restocked with prey and trained staff to receive dispersing tigers that are living in hostile human dominated landscapes. The Cheetah project, which I feel is a costly and unnecessary project with little chance to succeed in a habitat like Kuno, should be abandoned and Kuno National Park should be used to resettle tigers caught from hostile territories or areas of tiger: human conflict. I had mooted the proposals to use Kuno and Onkareshwar for rehabilitation of tigers in distress and the State Board for wildlife had recommended both proposals, but for reasons unknown to me the forest department is reluctant to act on it.
- Corridors must be actively managed and protected- this is a challenging task as the corridors are managed or used by multiple agencies. But if the Government shows determination, it is an achievable task.
- On a larger scale the state govt should ensure retrofitting of existing linear infrastructure like roads, railway line and canals with safe animal passages and ensure wildlife friendly new roads, railway lines and canals. Free movement of tigers over the landscape will reduce Human: Tiger conflict and will facilitate access to suitable habitats.
- As far as I remember the wildlife wing had stopped using satellite collars in late 2013 when we discovered that those costly collars were short lived – they functioned only for 3 to 4 months. Even when we were using the satellite radio collars on rehabilitated or dispersing tigers, physical monitoring was never abandoned completely as a precautionary measure and to keep the field personnel alert and responsible. Satellite monitoring of long- ranging endangered animals should be avoided or it must be accompanied with periodic physical monitoring using VHF signals.
The author, Suhas Kumar, who retired as Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, has spent almost 25 years managing, supervising, and guiding the management and training of officers and staff of national parks, sanctuaries, and tiger reserves of Madhya Pradesh. He is a trained wildlife manager, a law graduate, and holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Ecology discipline in the field of ecotourism in protected areas. He has also acquired some knowledge and training in nature interpretation and ecotourism from the US, the UK, and Australia. He is a member of Chhattisgarh State Board for Wildlife, WWF-India’s State Advisory Board for Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and the Governing Body and Governing Council of National Centre for Human Settlement and Environment, Bhopal. He is also a member of the Delhi Biodiversity Society. Earlier, he had served as the chairman of the Research Advisory Committee of the M.P. State Biodiversity Development Board and member of Madhya Pradesh State Board for Wildlife for two terms. He was the chairman of one of the evaluation teams constituted by NTCA in 2017-18 for 13 tiger reserves of the country.