Hope yet for tigers?

Conservation

Two years ago when the first tiger was translocated to tiger-less Sariska amidst fanfare, it kickstarted a new chapter in tiger conservation in India. But within a few months, it was clear that the road ahead was not a rosy one. All tigers shifted to Sariska were found to be siblings and conservationists thought and that’s why they are unable to mate and reproduce.

The centre approached Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra to borrow a couple of tigers from a different gene pool so that the inbreeding problem can be avoided. But none were ready to let their prized big cats go. The conservationists then turned to science for help.

Scat samples

Field officers at Ranthambhore collected 12 scat samples and sent then to geneticist Uma Ramakrishnan at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. The samples were collected from different areas within the Ranthambhore tiger reserve – Sultanpur, Sawai Madhopur, Darra gate and Kundera range as well as from Keladevi Sanctuary.

The team extracted DNA from the samples with standardised protocol. A species-identification test (PCR) was conducted to ascertain the samples were of the tigers. The NCBS team found only eight samples were from tiger and out of those eight, one sample was not good enough for the analysis. That one was dropped in the final analysis. The remaining seven samples underwent tests at the sophisticated NCBS laboratory. All the seven genotypes were then used to calculate relatedness among the individuals. The researchers compared the genetic make up of various individuals with each other as well as with samples taken from Rajaji and Corbet national parks. “Their relatedness was measured in a scale between 0 and 1 in which 1 means fully related like identical twins and 0 stands for complete strangers. In the same scale 0.5 means siblings and 0.25 means half-siblings like cousins,” Ramakrishnan told Deccan Herald. The question was which specific tigers were most genetically distinct from three tigers currently in Sariska.

They found four tigers are related to those at Sariska at the sibling level and a fifth one is related at a sibling level to one individual in Sariska, while it is related at a half-sib level to the other individual in Sariska. That left only two animals – samples known as RNTN2 and RNTN12 – who have the lowest relatedness values to those in Sariska. Both of these tigers are from Sawai Madhopur. On the basis of NCBS analysis, the National Tiger Conservation Authority decided to release those two in Sariska.

The first tiger was translocated on July 20 and the second one would be shifted within a month taking the tiger tally to Sariska to five and reviving the hopes of tiger re-population of in Sariska. “First time such tests are done in India before reintroduction,” she said.

Ramakrishnan, however, cautioned that re-introducing a tiger from a different gene pool does guarantee a successful mating. “There are many behavioural reasons which determine the mating. There are data showing that sibilings mate and there are also data showing that they don’t. Picking up an animal from a different gene pool only reduces the chances inbreeding, which may result in untimely deaths of the cubs,” she said.

Tigers vanished from Panna almost at the same time as Sariska. Following the reports of a tiger-less Panna, two female tigers were relocated from Bandhavgarh National Park and Kanha National Park in March 2009. However, the last male tiger disappeared. The government set up a committee to look into the disappearance of tigers from Panna, which in June 2009, announced that the reserve which had over 40 tigers six years ago, has not a single tiger left. There was only two tigress, which too were brought in a while ago.

Subsequent to the findings, the centre cleared a proposal to trans-locate two tigers and two tigresses to the reserve. A young tiger male was moved from Pench but it strayed out of the park shortly in November 2009. However, the tiger was brought back to the park a month later. Finally one of the tigress, translocated from Bandhavgarh, gave birth to three cubs in April 2010.

Holistic view

Following Sariska and Panna, the ministry is now taking a more holistic view of the entire conservation programme with external funding support and active involvement of the states.  The ministry is drawing up plans to involve the World Bank in the tiger conservation initiatives in an indirect way. Likely to be finalised before the World Tiger Summit in St Petersburg in Russia, the project involves the Bank's support for the livelihood security of people living in the non-forest, fringe areas near a tiger park.

A second project with the World Bank could be providing for infrastructure for towns and cities that provided the one-end of a demand-supply chain involving a city or town and a forest nearby. “However, the World Bank will not be involved in any way in conservation activities in the core and buffer area of the tiger reserves,” said Jairam Ramesh, union environment minister.

The new scientific tiger count that replaced the pug-mark based count, has found that the number of tigers – minus Sunderban and naxal-zones forests in Jharkhand and Chhattishagrh – varies between 1657 and 1165 with an average middle value of 1411.
Earlier tiger counts which threw large numbers, were all wrong as most of the tigers were killed by the poachers.

The centre changed the organisational structure and created a separate policing mechanism for wildlife crimes like poaching. Also it declared eight new tiger reserves and in-principle approval accorded for creation of four new reserves – Sahyadri in Maharashtra, Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, Ratapani in Madhya Pradesh and Sunabeda in Orissa. “But we have to involve the states actively at any cost for a better future for the tigers,” said Ramesh.

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