Conservation breakthroughs in Kanha

Print edition : July 03, 2020

An adult gaur bull that wildlife managers, seated on elephants, singled out from the herd is darted successfully. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

The bull was restrained and blindfolded for veterinary intervention and then loaded onto the recovery vehicle. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

Constructed in 1972, the barasingha enclosure has proved to be a game changer that has assured increased numbers of the endangered and endemic deer. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

The conservation of the hard ground barasingha at Kanha is an inspiring success story. Photo: Subhranjan Sen

Natural, biological and ecological constraints had resulted in the low population growth of the barasingha at Kanha, so it was decided to relocate some animals to a geographically separate habitat. Photo: Sharad Vats

Vital health parameters of a radio-collared tiger being checked. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

An immobilised tiger being carried away for weighment and veterinary interventions before translocation. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

Once locally extinct, the blackbuck can now be seen at Kanha. Photo: Nikhilesh Trivedi

Kanha also supports a good population of sambar. Photo: Jitender Govindani

An aerial view of the capture boma used for ungulate species. The boma method of South Africa involves using a large makeshift funnel-shaped enclosure of iron sheets and opaque cloth for capture operations. Photo: Dr Sanjay K. Shukla

A herd of chital trapped in the capture boma from where they can be gently driven into the transportation truck. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

The customised truck to transport ungulates. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

A male barasingha being released in a new park. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

The Kanha Tiger Reserve’s proactive wildlife management practices have taken translocation operations to a new level.

ON a chilly winter morning in January at the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, four elephants ambled through long grass and bushes amid the light mist covered forest of stately sal trees. The elephants were on a mission that was part of the larger conservation efforts involving the wildlife managers and veterinarians riding on their backs. Soon the elephants came close to a grazing herd of gaur, which they moved gently to a relatively flat and suitable terrain. While doing so they made sure that an adult bull that the managers had singled out had been sufficiently separated from the herd. The bull was now ready for immobilisation. Once the animal was in clear sight, a dart from a projectile gun found its mark and the animal gradually lost consciousness, staggered and slowly sank down on its haunches. All this while the elephants made sure that the rest of the animals stayed well clear of the bull.

Once complete immobilisation was achieved, the teams got off the elephants, quickly blindfolded the animal to protect its eyes from light, injury and dust, shifted it onto a stretcher and maintained it in a sternal recumbency position (with raised head and folded fore- and hindquarters) to avoid aspiratory pneumonia, gas formation and regurgitation of rumen contents. The veterinarians recorded the animal’s vital health parameters and administered some injections. This was the first of the 50 animals that were reintroduced into the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve some 250 km away, in Umaria district, in 2011-12. This population is now thriving with around 140 animals.

Since the late 1960s Kanha, regarded as one of the best-protected areas in Asia, has been undertaking proactive wildlife management practices such as expanding and improving the protected area with the aim of achieving the larger goal of biodiversity conservation in all its facets. Initially, these proactive practices were measured and purely local. Gradually, however, experience in adaptive management and the knowledge gained from the evolving science of conservation inspired the Kanha management to take up several ambitious undertakings.

Beyond the routine

Speaking generally, except for wildlife protection and rescue operations, most management practices at Kanha are conventional and have almost a fixed time frame for their completion. The management just has to take up these practices at select sites and in the proper seasons as envisaged in the tiger conservation plan as a response or “reaction” to managerial prescriptions. While these tasks are important, their unchanging regularity and dependence on nature makes them monotonous, and eventually, wildlife managers lose their enthusiasm to innovate and achieve higher conservation goals. “Proactive management” in the context of wildlife conservation is the opposite of the “routine” and “reactive” management. This approach looks beyond the routine and anticipates future challenges for timely preparedness. It requires a deep understanding of wildlife ecosystems, animal ecology and behaviour, and threats that may arise in the future.

Proactive measures could range from purely local innovations relevant only to Kanha to rather ambitious projects involving a multidisciplinary team of experts and other protected areas of the region. Local proactive measures may include special species- and habitat-specific and tourism management programmes, and so on. Regional measures, such as species supplementations, reintroductions and animal translocations, involve at least one more protected area in order to complete the donor-receiver scenario. While all these proactive practices are important, handling wild animals for translocation/introduction is the most exciting and newsworthy task in conservation, attracting attention from all quarters.

The conceptualisation and implementation of a proactive intervention entail serious deliberations and planning to achieve goals that may appear to many rather atypical and unconventional. To ensure success, practitioners of proactive management have to step out of their comfort zones to take the risks involved in such unorthodox interventions. Understandably, the approach may also raise questions about the expertise of the practitioners if the desired goal is not achieved or if the achievement does not fare well in a typical cost-benefit analysis. The more ambitious the goal, the higher the risk involved.

The team responsible for a proactive operation involving wild animals is always under pressure, from the media and higher-ups. And, if the target species happens to be iconic or endangered, it compounds the problem manifold. Besides, if some reintroduced/translocated animals die after settling down or simply do not fare as well as expected in the population viability analysis, uncomfortable questions are bound to be raised. The success of proactive management, however, has its rewards, and these innovations provide encouragement, build a foundation for future ventures and bring immense professional satisfaction to everyone involved.

Multidisciplinary approach

The science and art of reintroduction/translocation of wild animals have grown steadily over the years along with advancements in sophisticated drugs and equipment. The expertise of professional wildlife managers, veterinarians and biologists is required to capture, restrain, transport and release immobilised animals safely. Although in the recent past, the Kanha management has had some satisfying achievements in this area, such managerial intervention is still in its infancy in India. In several African countries, restraining, capturing and translocating hundreds of large mammals between different private wildlife reserves is a common practice.

Successful translocations/reintroductions need painstaking planning, well-coordinated effort and mutual trust between professionals of different disciplines. The choice of immobilising drug, its antidote, emergency and supportive drugs, darting guns and other instruments, use of customised vehicles and the crew’s responsibilities, the schedule of field activities, and actual transportation route and release mode need to be discussed thoroughly and checked and rehearsed before the actual operation. The same amount of planning is required even in the case of non-invasive physical capture and translocation operations in which only calming drugs may be used before the translocation begins,

Post-release monitoring by researchers and veterinarians is equally important. There have been instances when the animals safely translocated and released into the wild died within days of release. Depending upon the resilience and versatility of the species involved, its physical condition, the climatic conditions and habitat variability at the relocation site, wildlife managers may choose between a “hard release” (animals released directly into the wild) and a “soft release” (animals first kept under observation in an enclosure, then released into the wild) to ensure a successful relocation. These conservation translocations have to follow a detailed protocol prepared following guidelines and advisories prescribed by either the State or Central government to avoid criticism and disapproval. In a project involving the capture and translocation of wild animals, mortality during an operation beyond the acceptable limits is a serious issue that may lead to severe criticism and eventual abandonment of the project.

The restoration of the endangered and endemic hard ground barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii branderi) was one of Kanha’s projects. It involved assiduous management of native grasslands and water distribution for this exclusively graminivorous species. Large chunks of habitat were reclaimed in the late 1960s through village relocation. The sensitive and difficult task of resettling the residents to areas outside the park required gentle persuasion and confidence-building measures. This is regarded as the first relocation programme for wildlife conservation in independent India. Now, with the relocation of 35 villages, an impressive number of different wildlife populations enjoy perfect tranquillity in the core zone. Through committed proactive measures, the barasingha is now also back from the verge of local extinction from a mere 66 animals in 1970 to around 1,000 now.

The Kanha management recognised the importance of conservation science in wildlife management a long time ago. Quality in-house research, monitoring and inventorying of wildlife resources became the basis for effective decisions about resource use and manipulation. A research wing started in the late 1960s with a field laboratory was strengthened gradually to the extent that today Kanha is a centre for wildlife studies that also welcomes researchers from national and international institutes/universities.

With the deep conviction that Kanha has tremendous knowledge to offer on nature and wildlife conservation, reserve developed an excellent park interpretation programme, the first of its kind in India, in the early 1990s in collaboration with the United States National Park Service. This popular programme proved ahead of its time and was upgraded in 2005 and again in 2019 to integrate conservation history, new research findings, scientific management practices and new trends in wildlife management, and national and international tiger conservation perspectives.

In the recent past, the Kanha management has taken up projects that it did not attempt earlier because of hesitancy and lack of technical expertise. Good veterinary support also became available for conservation when the State wildlife wing established good veterinary support by inducting veterinarians into tiger reserves and training them in wildlife health management and rescue and translocation operations.

The first such important undertaking was the reintroduction of the gaur (Bos gaurus gaurus) into the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve from where the species went extinct in the mid 1990s. After many intensive consultations with some South African experts, preparation of customised vehicles, procurement of veterinary drugs and equipment and training of a multidisciplinary team, the reintroduction operations were accomplished under a meticulous protocol. A total of 50 animals were darted, restrained, captured and transported to Bandhavgarh in several trips in 2011 and 2012, where they were kept in a specially designed in-situ enclosure for some time before being released into the wild.

Natural biological and ecological constraints have resulted in the low population growth of the barasingha. Besides, this small population faces a grave risk from an unanticipated epidemic at Kanha. In view of this, it was decided to relocate some animals to a geographically separate habitat. The Satpura Tiger Reserve (STR), some 400 km away in Hoshangabad district, met this requirement, and as a former distribution range of this cervid, it was considered safe for the reintroduction and multiplication of the barasingha. The boma method of South Africa, which involves using a large makeshift funnel-shaped enclosure of iron sheets and opaque cloth, was employed for capture operations. Connected to the tapered end of the funnel was a customised transport truck. The target animals were lured into this large boma over some days and were gently driven into the truck.

In this way, a total of 46 barasingha were translocated to the Bori Wildlife Sanctuary, which is a part of the STR, between 2015 and 2020. They were first kept in a specially designed in-situ enclosure and later released gradually into the wild. At present, there are around 90 barasingha at Bori.

The Kanha of the late 1970s had a different landscape, with several villages and agricultural fields dotting the landscape. It also had a population of around 100 blackbucks (Antilope cervicapra) that gradually declined and became locally extinct, which was considered a blow to the concept of biodiversity conservation.

A plan was made to capture some animals from a nearby district and release them into an in-situ enclosure for safe multiplication and future release into the wild. Around 50 animals were captured from agricultural fields over several nights. Several men with lights fitted on their heads and buzzers fitted at their waists and carrying long nets would move together towards a blackbuck herd. The animals would get dazed and confused by this combination of light and sound and would stand as if frozen, making it easy for them to be captured and shut in specially designed crates for transport to Kanha. While some animals died of capture myopathy after release into the enclosure, the rest survived. Around three years ago, 27 animals were released into the wild, and now there are around 60 animals in the enclosure.

Kanha is visualised as comprising two ecological entities: the Banjar valley and the Halon valley, named after the respective rivers. While the Banjar area supports a good population density of chital (Axis axis), the Halon area has a low population. The low density of chital also results in a low number of carnivores, especially tigers. Therefore, to rectify the skewed density distribution and expedite population build-up, some relocated village sites were developed as good grasslands, and chital were captured and translocated from the Banjar area for release into the Halon area to supplement the existing population. So far, around 1,300 chital have been released in these operations.

The core zone of the Kanha Tiger Reserve is a well-monitored high tiger density area. The dynamics of this population affect some individuals. For instance, sometimes, a resident male kills a mother tigress in fierce infighting, orphaning all her cubs. The Kanha management thought that instead of sending these cubs to a zoo they should be reared and trained for rewilding in a low tiger density area. This idea paved the way for keeping orphaned cubs in a quarantine house for some time and later shifting them into a specially designed in-situ enclosure that is completely fenced with grass so that neither the animals inside can look out nor can people outside look in. This ensures minimal disturbance to the animals. Besides all provisions of security and tranquillity, the 35-hectare enclosure also has a mechanism that allows prey animals to be driven into it for predation.

Young tiger cubs are given a diet of goat milk, eggs, poultry and mashed meat. Gradually, they are given ample opportunity for predation by way of the ungulates driven into the enclosure. Once they are the right age and after meticulous monitoring of natural predation, these cubs are translocated and released into a low tiger density area outside Kanha. So far, nine such orphaned tigers have been rewilded, including two famous tigresses credited with producing several litters that restocked the Panna Tiger Reserve in northern Madhya Pradesh, once totally bereft of tigers.

Rakesh Shukla is a Research Officer at the Kanha Tiger Reserve.

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