Tigers are on the retreat from the Sahyadris and the predator's preferred prey, the sambar, is on the decline.
THE hunting records of Shahu Maharaja (regnal years 1894-1922) of Kolhapur prove that tigers were fairly common in the Sahyadris, the lyrical name by which the northern Western Ghats is known within the State of Maharashtra, in the early part of the last century. A century later, on February 15, 2010, we were standing in front of a small, now dilapidated, fort built by the Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji on a hillock near the Gagangiri Swamy Mutt.
The hills around us, scorched by the winter sun, were a mosaic of golden yellow and deep brown. From our vantage point, we could clearly see the break in the continuity of the tiger habitat, which is otherwise continuous from the Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary to the Chandoli National Park, for almost 50 kilometres along the ridge.
The Gaganbawada village, which is sprawled on the Sahyadri ridge at an altitude of nearly 900 metres, with a population of about 1,400 and with a number of farmhouses and restaurants, breaks the tiger habitat. The damage done is beyond repair; there is no space for the big cat here anymore.
As we stood on the hillock studying the lost tiger terrain, alarm calls of the langur suddenly burst forth from the steep slopes on either side, indicating the presence of a predator, possibly a leopard. We moved to the edge of the hillock to have a closer look at the forests in the Konkan foothills below. An alternative tiger corridor lay before us, if only the three villages down there (Done, Dindawane and Tali, 120 families in all) could be relocated.
Of course, this will have to be an incentive-driven resettlement. It may also be necessary to acquire some private forests located between the villages and the base of the hills to strengthen the suggested corridor. The ownership of large tracts of private forests in the Sahyadris, which are felled periodically for firewood and timber, is a conservation issue.
Our mission in February was to evaluate the connectivity between the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve, which includes all of the Chandoli National Park (318 square kilometres) and the Koyana Wildlife Sanctuary (423 sq km). The Sahyadri Tiger Reserve is reported to have nine tigers. As this number is too small for long-term viability of the population, we were keen to assess the status of the forest in the corridor between Chandoli and the Radhanagari Wildlife Sanctuary (351 sq km) to the south, which also has a small tiger population.
The impediments to tiger movement and survival are many. The Koyana sanctuary is almost broken into two, longitudinally, by the 50-km-long Koyana reservoir, which can be crossed only by large mammals like the tiger in the summer, and again, only at certain locations. The eastern part of the Chandoli park is dry, rocky and dominated by inedible plants such as Memecylon edulis, Gnidia glauca and Syzygium spp, and thus cannot support a high density of wild ungulates such as the gaur, the sambar, the wild pig and the barking deer. Poaching of wild ungulates has further diminished the capacity of the reserve to support more tigers. On the other hand, since there is reported to be a functional connectivity between the Radhanagari sanctuary and the Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, we believe that the tiger landscape in the Sahyadris, comprising the protected areas and corridor forests (1,600 sq km), can eventually support a population of 15-20 adult tigers within 10-15 years. This is possible provided the required abundance of wild ungulate prey is restored through active interventions such as stringent protection and reintroduction.
The sun went down in the western sky in a glorious burst of orange as we drove towards Udgiri, a bauxite mine, on the boundary of the Chandoli park. The mine, operational since 1968, reportedly had its lease renewed in 1998. Scores of trucks heavily loaded with ore were coming down from the mines. The road was rough, the going slow, and when we realised that we would not make it to the mining site before dark, we decided to drop the plan. We stopped, instead, near a labour camp and met a man who had been living there for a month. We asked him whether he had seen any wildlife in the area, and he replied that he had only seen the gaur, that too just on three occasions, in a way confirming our fears that disturbance so close to a wildlife area was driving the animals away.
The next morning was cool and misty and our first short walk was in the Amba forests, which include the Manoli dam and its catchment area. Great hornbills and black eagles flew over the reservoir. The red fruits of Connarus wightii were conspicuous amid the green shrubs. Tracks and scrapings seemed to indicate that grey jungle fowl were fairly common in the area. Several leopard and sambar signs, including a sighting of a group of five gaur, and tiger signs seen earlier by a naturalist who was with us on this trip, led us to conclude that the Amba forests could be one area where a tigress, with prey recovery, could find a home to stay and breed. One objective of our walk was, in fact, to identify such mini-core areas.
One major impending threat to the Amba forests and possibly to other areas in the Sahyadris is the proposal to develop resorts. These may be established on private lands, but inevitably government forests will be felled for the firewood requirements of the resorts and the associated population, which will grow with time. Later that day we walked for four hours from the Kasari dam at Gelvade to Anuskura. The walk involved climbing a steep hill and then crossing a large meadow with moisture-laden soil and palatable grass, where we saw at least 20 gaur in four groups.
As we walked on the meadow, the fresh fragrance of Blumea lacera being crushed underfoot wafted into our nostrils. We spent the night in a farmhouse in Anuskura. The owner indicated that the rich and influential still indulged in poaching with apparent impunity.
The following day was bright and sunny, and we drove up to the ridge top to have a look at the Arjuna dam, which is under construction. The road and the steep, naturally bare, mountainside on the western (Konkan) side created a conspicuous break in the connected habitat, but the forests on the ridge top were intact. In the far distance, a magnificent gaur bull was grazing on the grassland.
We began our walk from the Barki dam, ahead to Barki sada (plateau) and then on to Washi village. It took us seven hours, and on the way to Barki sada, we saw many signs of sambar and the scats of barking deer. The view of the semi-evergreen forest from the sada was breathtaking, with several species of trees assuming new colours. At the base of the sada escarpment, there were numerous rock shelters, which could provide ideal dens for large predators. On the sada, grass was scanty by virtue of it being a laterite plateau, but there were old tracks of gaur, wild pig diggings and two droppings of sloth bear.
On our walk to Washi, we did not see any sign of either the sambar or the gaur. We did see a group of common langur, though. The relatively few wildlife encounters here could be because this trail is frequently used by the villagers to reach the Siva temple on the sada. We spent the night in a school at Padasali village.
On February 13, we crossed the Padasali river on our way to the Kode dam. The water was crystal clear, and with deep pools the river seemed to be an ideal habitat for a thriving population of murrel fish. There were many sambar, wild pig and grey jungle fowl signs, and we also saw the remnants of a porcupine that had been killed and cooked in the forest. That night, and the following, we stayed at the Salvan Forest Rest House atop a hillock, amidst a grove of trees tenanted by a group of common langur. The serenity of the place, however, was incessantly disturbed by the heavy traffic along the Kolhapur-Gaganbawada road.
The following day, we trekked from the Wesraf dam to the outskirts of Gaganbawada village. There were signs of the barking deer, the sambar and the gaur on the way. Many grey jungle fowl called in the forests around.
On the last day, we trekked up to Shivaji's fort and then to the catchment area of the Lakhamapur dam. We saw signs of sambar and jungle fowl, and flushed two gaur in the catchment area, even though it had been heavily cut for wood, close as it was to Gaganbawada. The other revelation was that there are two trails on the ridge of the Lakhamapur catchment along which tigers from the Konkan can easily come to the Morjai sada, which in turn is well connected to the Radhanagari sanctuary. These trails were earlier used by the residents of three villages (Lakhamapur, Narveli and Taliye) that were submerged by the dam in the mid-1990s.
On our 50-km walk, although there were frequent signs of sambar and wild pigs, there was a not a single direct sighting of these two species, indicating that their numbers are low. Of the three large wild ungulates of the area (gaur, sambar and wild pig), the sambar is the most suitable prey for the tiger. This is not only because of its large size but also because of its preference for dense cover, like the tiger. It is crepuscular to nocturnal, again like the tiger and it occurs either alone or in small groups, enabling the tiger to stalk and kill it with less difficulty compared with the gaur or the wild pig. In fact, the gaur could be a dangerous prey; there are several reports of gaur killing tigers outright, and it is well known that wild boars can fatally injure tigers with their tusks. So far, no tiger casualties have been caused by the sambar. Not even a fully grown stag with hard antlers could pull that off.
It seems, though, that the Sahyadris are short of sambar. In a hilly to mountainous tract like the Sahyadris, it will not be an exaggeration to say that sambar conservation is tiger conservation. This is more so because the chances of augmenting the chital population through reintroduction are remote. This is because the chital, although an important prey for the tiger, prefers open and undulating terrain. At the most, if reintroduced, chital may inhabit only certain portions of the eastern slopes of the Sahyadris, where they are reported to have occurred in the past, at places like Chandgad and Anuskura. Having established that the sambar is vital for the re-establishment of the tiger, it is important to identify the reasons for the drastic decline of the sambar in the Sahyadris. Apparently, there was large-scale death of sambar due to an epidemic sometime in the mid-1980s. The other likely reason is poaching.
Poaching, particularly from the Konkan side (it takes just 30 minutes to get to the ridge top from this side), needs to be curbed immediately. This can be accomplished only if the local people support conservation by working with the Forest Department.
Three programmes that can help in securing this crucial support are: the involvement of local people in managing the fish resources in the reservoirs (murrel fish for angling can be propagated in the numerous small rivers that arise from these reservoirs); their inclusion in ecotourism programmes through eco-development committees, which would be in charge of the identified mini-core areas and that can decide on the use of the funds generated; and the taking up of intensive afforestation programmes around the villages to provide firewood and fodder.
Native species such as Grewia tiliifolia, Bauhinia variegata and Gmelina arborea can be planted for fodder, while both native species (such as Lagerstroemia parviflora) and exotic species (such as Casuarina equisetifolia) can be used for firewood. The Forest Department should immediately stop digging trenches in the grasslands for water conservation not only because rainfall in the region is adequate (average annual rainfall in the Sahyadris is around 300 cm) but because it interferes with the grassland dynamics. It should also refrain from planting exotics such as Acacia auriculiformis and A. manjim in these grasslands for the same reason. If needed, native fodder species such Grewia tiliifolia, Elaeagnus latifolius, Bauhinia variegata and Zizyphus mauritiana can be planted. The mining activity in Udgiri should be regulated. A policy decision at the government level is required to prevent mining, even on private lands, in the Chandoli and Radhanagari corridor.
Tigers are on the retreat from the northern Western Ghats. Even until 30 years ago, a few tigers roamed the Dangs forests of Gujarat, but they are no longer to be seen there. With sustained and timely steps, we need to prevent the extinction of this magnificent predator from the Sahyadris.
A.J.T. Johnsingh, eminent wildlife biologist, and Atul Joshi, researcher, are with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. M.K. Rao, IFS, is a forest officer in Maharashtra.