Home where tigers can roam

Home where tigers can roam

To effectively tackle human-tiger conflicts, solutions must connect areas with high tiger density to habitats with fewer tigers,

Growing tiger populations have resulted in an increase in cases of tiger attacks on humans. While prompt action in capturing such tigers is necessary, long-term solutions should focus on connecting areas with high tiger density to habitats with fewer number of tigers.

The past five years have seen villagers taking to the streets to protest, at the periphery of Karnataka’s iconic Bandipur Tiger Reserve. The reason for their ire was the loss of human life to tiger attacks.

A few of these protests have been emotionally-charged events, with a sense of violence as villagers perceive that the protected tiger has a greater value than the life of a villager.

In December 2012, it was the villagers living near the Moliyur Range, where a tiger had killed four people within a week.

In November 2015, the protests were about a tiger that had killed three people in a month in the Hediyala Range and more recently, in October 2019, it was about a tiger that killed two in the Gopalaswamy Betta Range of the Reserve.

There have been numerous other incidents of tigers killing people around Bandipur, the adjacent Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and the Nilgiris district in Tamil Nadu.

The Forest Department had to act fast, and in several of the above cases, adeptly trapped or immobilised the tigers. However, while necessary, removal of these tigers only offers a short-term solution, as the removed tigers are frequently replaced with others, especially in growing populations in Karnataka. 

The question that confronts the Forest Department, the conservationist and the activist alike is whether we see an escalation of tiger attacks and if so, what can be done about this?  

T Balachandra, Director, Bandipur Tiger Reserve maintains that these are new challenges emerging from successes in tiger conservation, where tiger reserves have witnessed an increase in tiger numbers. According to the census figures provided by the Forest Department, Karnataka has witnessed a 29 per cent increase in tiger numbers from 2006 and Bandipur with approximately 135 tigers today, has made a significant contribution to this increase.

This increase naturally has implications for tiger management.

Transient tigers moving from core areas, already occupied by dominant male tigers, need places to go to. For Bandipur tigers, habitats to the north in the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve and to the west, in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, are likely saturated with dominant males.

Displaced tigers have little option but to move into the eastern fringes of the reserve dominated by a mosaic of crop-lands and degraded, fragmented forests. 

The current practice used in tiger reserves in India, of maintaining databases of photos of tigers obtained from camera traps, and identified with a unique code based on their stripe patterns,  provides useful insights into the complex and dynamic nature of tiger populations within tiger landscapes.

The tiger recently caught in the Gopalaswamy Betta Range was first camera -trapped in the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, 60 km away. Another male tiger found close to the same conflict location was first camera-trapped in the Moolehole Range of Bandipur 20 km away.

Both tigers were estimated to be 3-4 years old. Interestingly, there were additional tigers also present close to this conflict location. These photos proved that the tigers had been moving across long distances.

All this makes management of these tigers, that have attacked or killed people, very difficult. Since there could be several tigers moving in the same conflict location, rapidly identifying the right tiger, is vital.

While attempts are being made to identify the right tiger by comparing DNA patterns collected from scat in conflict locations, results from the DNA analysis  often cannot be received fast enough for an informed decision to be made.  The National Tiger Conservation Authority has ambitious plans for promoting tiger corridors linking core habitats across tiger reserves.

The shift

In addition to encouraging gene flow across tiger reserves, such corridors facilitate the movement of tigers from high tiger density to low-density areas (sinks) potentially reducing conflict with people 

Two protected areas, having connectivity with Bandipur have lower densities of tigers. The Satyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR) in Tamil Nadu, located immediately east of Bandipur is a large reserve with a total area of 1,412 sq km.

According to the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, while no tigers were observed in 2005, recent census data indicated that the reserve has 54 tigers.

This is still a far lower density of tigers than in Bandipur, a smaller area (874 sq km) with more tigers. STR can thereby act as a sink for tigers moving out of Bandipur. 

More distant and connected to Bandipur through the STR and the Biligirirangaswamy Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve, is the Malai Mahadeshwara Sanctuary. With an area of 906 sq km and 13 tigers as last reported, this sanctuary could act as yet another sink for tigers moving out of Bandipur. 

Tigers travel large distances and it is not inconceivable that habitats in the Malai Mahadeshwara Sanctuary could be colonised by tigers from Bandipur. A DNA study to assess connectivity of tiger populations in Central India in 2013 indicated that tigers can disperse several 100 km. 

No joke, this

Maintaining connectivity between high-density tiger habitats like Bandipur and sink habitats as described above, requires strict compliance to National Tiger Conservation Authority and National Wildlife Board guidelines for linear intrusions into tiger habitat such as roads, railway lines, irrigation canals and transmission lines to avoid further habitat fragmentation. It is imperative that Tiger Reserve and Protected Area Management Plans are assiduously followed to check encroachments, proliferation of invasive weeds, poaching of prey species, and ensuring intense community liaison especially where tigers inhabit habitats fragmented by croplands and settlements.

It is only by these means that tiger habitats can remain viable.  Just like the STR which had no tigers in 2005, tigers were rare three decades ago in the BRT Tiger Reserve. According to the Karnataka Forest Department, numbers have doubled from 35 to 68 between 2010 and 2014. This is possibly strong evidence that habitat viability can be improved. 

But in the short-term, tiger-capture teams need to be adequately staffed with good veterinary, tiger tracking and community liaison experience. It is to be noted that skilled Soliga tribals from the BRT Tiger Reserve played a significant role in capturing the tiger in the Gopalaswamy Betta Range. 

Unless these are followed, tiger-human conflict will continue to cause human loss and have economic repercussions. Increased antagonism to the presence of tigers will consequently make future tiger conservation efforts unviable. 

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