A new life in Kanha

The Kanha Tiger Reserve’s goal-oriented strategies and systematic conservation practices have over the years made it an embodiment of the concept of biodiversity conservation in the country, one that others can emulate.

Published : Aug 05, 2015 12:30 IST

The black-naped monarch.

The black-naped monarch.

IT was a cold, crisp December morning, and the previous night’s wintry shower had added fragrance to the earthy smell of the soil. The light mist still hanging over the meadow was slowly fading away in the sunshine. The breeze wafting across the meadow carried the salubrious aroma of the rich vegetation of trees, climbers and grass. We were in an open four-wheel-drive vehicle, monitoring a radio-collared tiger through telemetry. We followed the beeps as they grew stronger and stopped near a small grove of sal ( Shorea robusta ) trees with dense undergrowth. The occasional guttural alarm calls of black-faced monkeys evoked high-pitched alarm calls from a chital herd grazing nearby, betraying the presence of a predator close by. All of a sudden, the tiger sprang out of nowhere, darted into the chital herd, knocked down a male chital with its powerful forelimbs and dug its powerful jaws into the deer’s throat. It was over in seconds. The hush that had fallen over the place was all too brief, and it was business as usual in the jungle at the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.

This was no ordinary tiger. It was one of three orphaned cubs, one male and two females reared and trained in a specially designed, large in-situ enclosure with a mechanism to facilitate hunting opportunities for trainee cubs! It is probably the first time in the world that orphaned tiger cubs have been trained for survival and rewilded. Over the years, trained cubs, both male and female, have been released successfully as young adults in the Satpura, Panna and Kanha Tiger Reserves (all in Madhya Pradesh). So far, five orphaned tigers have been rewilded. While there is no intention here to imply that the mother is dispensable, in the past such cubs were fated for captivity in zoos, an unimpressive and dreary life for such a magnificent animal. Two other cubs of an earlier batch reared and trained thus grew into handsome tigresses and were released into the Panna Tiger Reserve around four years ago. These tigresses have so far produced several cubs and are credited with restocking a reserve that was once bereft of tigers.

Even after so many years, Kanha never ceases to amaze one with its pristine manifestations of nature: lush green grasslands, secluded tree groves, densely forested plains, forested hills and slopes and quasi wetlands, with of course majestic tigers and thousands of wild animals of different species.

Goal-oriented strategies, systematic conservation practices and periodic evaluations have, over the years, made Kanha an embodiment of the concept of biodiversity conservation in the country. Raymond A. Dasmann was the person who coined the term “biological conservation”, and as a wildlife scientist and conservationist, he applied it largely in that context. With time, however, the meaning and definition of biodiversity has gradually widened. “Biodiversity”, or “biological diversity”, is actually the diversity of life, or all life forms, on the earth. It is the entire conceivable variety of living things, including their habitations and the interactions between them. More technically speaking, biological diversity embraces all species of animals, plants and microbes, the genetic variation within each species and the variety and complexity of the habitats and ecosystems that support and are supported by these species. The full interpretation of biodiversity may also include the educational, cultural, spiritual and aesthetic significance this great variety entails. Although the extermination of biological species has been a predictable phenomenon of evolution since life first appeared on the planet, experts believe that the present deterioration of the natural environment is responsible for the current unprecedented rate of extinction of species.

Penicillin, the first-generation natural antibiotic credited with improving and saving millions of human lives since the late 1940s, was derived from the humble mould/fungus Penicillium notatum or the closely related P. chrysogenum . Now, there is a growing realisation that one can prove the significance of only a small number of floral and faunal species. One does not know about the rest of the species, and ironically, the onus of proving its utility to mankind/nature is on the species itself. Many species will become extinct before they can prove their value to humans. The only wise course of action is to conserve each and every species regardless of its supposed usefulness.

A famed ecosystem

The Kanha Tiger Reserve is regarded as an important centre of biodiversity conservation in the country. And the significance of the biodiversity conservation planning and practices at Kanha lies in setting and achieving a host of highly important objectives of conservation priorities, including sustained addressing of challenges and threats to such conservation. The tiger reserve is part of the central Indian highland biogeographic region, with its typical floral and faunal attributes. The Kanha ecosystem is an example of in-situ conservation where the entire range of floral and faunal species with their genetic variations is preserved as part of a healthy, functioning ecosystem.

The present Kanha ecosystem has over the years almost recovered from considerable past ecological assaults. The sal tree and its main associates, once suppressed because of unfavourable factors, have now revived with a characteristic understorey and undergrowth and turned into the most representative woodland of this biogeographic region. Many damaged areas of the ecosystem are now amazingly restocked with original vegetation. The degraded bamboo forests of the 1970s have now recovered, and there is excellent growth of this wonderful forest crop as an understorey. Vegetation along the banks of rivers and streams has also revived, with tall grass species in the beds. The forests of the protected area ecosystem are in excellent condition with 12 clear vegetal cover types within the broad vegetation types of sal, miscellaneous, bamboo and grassland. At present, Kanha is a repository of around 850 species of 10 varieties of angiosperms belonging to 506 genera and 134 families and 22 species of pteridophytes belonging to 14 genera and 14 families. The above floral diversity also includes two species of gymnosperms belonging to two genera and two families, around 50 species of aquatic plants and 18 species of rare plants.

The Kanha wildlife ecosystem supports populations of many carnivore and herbivore species, and their general response to biodiversity conservation practices has been a normal increase within the habitat-prey-predator dynamics. The tiger reserve is surrounded by a vast stretch of forests and forms the nucleus of the source population of tigers, where stringent protection and a good prey base, with excellent natal or birth areas, facilitate regular breeding and the birth of new cubs. The probability of these cubs reaching adulthood at Kanha is high owing to many congenial factors. Outside the tiger reserve, in managed forests, however, tigers are faced with a wide range of threats and challenges, and this sink population needs supplementation from Kanha’s source population as young tigers start dispersing from their mothers. And this concept of source-and-sink population dynamics of tigers has made the tiger reserve all the more relevant. Stringent protection and various management practices have ensured a good prey base for three main species of carnivores, namely, the tiger, the leopard and the wild dog.

The protected area is also renowned for its excellent grassland habitats that sustain thousands of at least nine major species of ungulates, including the endemic hard ground barasingha and the recently reintroduced blackbuck. Apart from the two endangered species, the tiger and the hard ground barasingha, the ecosystem supports some other wildlife species that are of importance according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species and the schedules of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. There are around 300 species of birds, 43 species of mammals, 26 of reptiles, and also a wide range of moths/butterflies and other insects. Camera traps have also captured some rarely sighted species such as the mouse deer, the rusty spotted cat and the Indian giant squirrel.

Mechanism of conservation

The Kanha management wants to conserve for posterity the biodiversity of the Kanha wildlife ecosystem in its entirety, especially the tiger and the ungulate species, by garnering support from local communities through well-established eco-development committees and eco-development programmes. The mechanism of biodiversity conservation at Kanha involves an effective combination of protection, species-specific and habitat-specific approaches through ecological restoration, monitoring of biodiversity, cooperation of local communities, and proactive managerial initiatives.

The Kanha management is known to have adopted a protection-oriented approach for a long time with its reliable communication system, strategically placed forest-patrolling camps and intensive patrolling strategies, which has resulted in an appreciable increase in wildlife populations and kept forest and wildlife offences well under control. Some high-priority animal species require special treatment owing to their endangered status and specialised habits and habitats. One such species is the hard ground barasingha. The cervid, a graminivore, is partial to waterbodies and swamps and requires tall-grass cover for its survival. Under Kanha’s recovery/conservation plan for the barasingha, all subpopulations are monitored daily and their habitats and microhabitats are specially improved and modified to facilitate their speedy recovery.

The tiger population is monitored regularly under Phase IV of the new estimation methodology developed by the Wildlife Institute of India and the National Tiger Conservation Authority. Long-term ecological studies are also under way to gather important information on densities, social organisation, prey-predator relationship and other ecological parameters.

Ecological restoration is important to make the ecosystem resilient and self-sustaining with respect to natural species composition and function. The approach at Kanha ensures that habitats are managed properly to suit the requirements of the respective wildlife species. The famous Kanha meadows are systematically maintained by eradicating obnoxious weed species/restocking grasslands for herbivores. These anthropogenic grasslands, sites of relocated villages, represent an “arrested” stage of ecological succession which now, under favourable conditions, encourages the succession further towards a climax community, the ultimate crop growth and structure as supported naturally by the soil and climate of the region. This phenomenon results in the infestation of woody species. If they are not eradicated in time, it will lead to the disappearance of the grasslands, which herbivores need. Besides, eco-restoration also includes creating linkages within the ecosystem and improving the soil and moisture regime, water development and fire protection.

The tiger reserve management has adopted a multipronged strategy to monitor biodiversity in the protected area. This includes periodic floral and faunal monitoring by trained staff under a prescribed format, which involves quinquennial monitoring of vegetation, photograph captures by fixed camera traps, maintaining a photographic album of grass species, etc. Most of the monitoring data have been used in various documents such as management plans, tiger conservation plans and technical reports. Besides in-house, short-term studies, special consultancies are also assigned periodically to different institutions/experts to assess/quantify the biodiversity status of the protected area.

Apart from having scientific knowledge of biodiversity conservation, there is another important factor that determines the success or failure of conservation efforts. And this is the attitude of local communities towards the Kanha management and its practices of biodiversity conservation. The Kanha management has had to move carefully in building trust and confidence and has now successfully put commitments of socio-economic uplift across to these stakeholders. The managerial efforts have been reflected in the spontaneous response to the formation of eco-development committees and the implementation of eco-development projects in the villages. The park-people cooperation approach has resulted in a positive change in the attitude of the majority of the people towards conservation of the tiger reserve and will go a long way towards increasing biodiversity conservation.

Innovations and impact

The Kanha management has over the years taken a host of innovative measures to strengthen conservation. These innovations might also have had some impact on park management, policy and programmes elsewhere in the country. Kanha has reclaimed a significantly large area for the wildlife habitat by successfully relocating all forest villages outside the core zone, or the Critical Tiger Habitat. There is no forest village left in the CTH. These village sites have now morphed into excellent grasslands. The resurrection of the hard ground barasingha from a mere 66 animals in 1970 to around 700 in 2015, with a wide distribution in the Kanha ecosystem, indicates the good health of the habitats for the cervid. Kanha also boasts an unblemished record of sustained systematic conservation of a viable population of the endangered tiger for the past four decades. Besides protecting the majestic species in this ecoregion, the Kanha management has provided pragmatic ideas for and insights into conservation planning at the landscape level, with ecological corridors between wildlife protected areas. According to the 2014 results of Phase IV, it is estimated that there are 105 tigers, including cubs. Detailed telemetry studies of several tigers of different ages and both sexes have also been undertaken.

The reintroduction of three orphaned adult tigresses, reared, raised and trained for predation and survival by the Kanha management into the Panna and Satpura Tiger Reserves has proved to national and international conservation communities that this can also be a reliable technique to restock/restore tiger populations in problem areas. Until a few years ago, people thought that tiger cubs could only be trained for survival by their mothers and that such specially trained tigers might not survive in the wild and could turn into man-eaters, leading to man-animal conflicts. But Panna has proved to be a case in point where two orphaned and specially trained tigresses have been not only surviving for some years but have also given birth to several cubs.

Kanha has also added to the biodiversity status of the Bandhavgarh National Park by reintroducing 51 gaur under an ambitious multidisciplinary collaborative programme, which has opened up new possibilities for such ventures anywhere in the country. Until some 30 years ago, there was a good population of the blackbuck in the tiger reserve. This population, however, went extinct owing to habitat changes that were not congenial to this antelope. The reintroduction of the blackbuck into the Kanha National Park in 2011 paved the way for the rebuilding of a new population. There are now around 50 animals, which will be released soon from a large in-situ enclosure. Going by the maxim of not putting all one’s eggs in one basket, several barasingha have also been translocated to the Van Vihar National Park and Satpura Tiger Reserve to establish two geographically separate populations. Besides, Kanha is the first tiger reserve in the country with a functional buffer zone, which it has supported since 1995. The tiger reserve has followed an effective core-buffer strategy for biodiversity conservation, inspiring others to emulate the Kanha model.

Rakesh Shukla is Research Officer, Kanha Tiger Reserve.

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