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Conservation

Saving the tiger in Sathyamangalam

Print edition : Feb 11, 2022 T+T-
The tiger’s survival depends on a healthy, balanced and biodiverse habitat.

The tiger’s survival depends on a healthy, balanced and biodiverse habitat.

The Sathyamangalam forest acts as a corridor for the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, linking the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats.

The Sathyamangalam forest acts as a corridor for the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, linking the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats.

Tigers are extremely shy animals. More often than not, the tiger spots us before we spot it.

Tigers are extremely shy animals. More often than not, the tiger spots us before we spot it.

Tigers often rub their face on tree trunks or scratch trees with their claws to scent mark their territory.

Tigers often rub their face on tree trunks or scratch trees with their claws to scent mark their territory.

The tiger  landscapes in India are vast and hold great potential for recovery or restoration of its population.

The tiger landscapes in India are vast and hold great potential for recovery or restoration of its population.

The Moyar flowing through the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve.

The Moyar flowing through the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve.

The tiger is a solitary and highly territorial animal.

The tiger is a solitary and highly territorial animal.

A radio collar fitted around a tiger’s neck to help track its location.

A radio collar fitted around a tiger’s neck to help track its location.

Tigers are called “indicator species” because they can help measure the health of the ecosystem they inhabit.

Tigers are called “indicator species” because they can help measure the health of the ecosystem they inhabit.

The Sathyamangalam reserve is also an important elephant corridor. Elephants of the Eastern and Western Ghats stock have a healthy exchange and passage through this area.

The Sathyamangalam reserve is also an important elephant corridor. Elephants of the Eastern and Western Ghats stock have a healthy exchange and passage through this area.

The smooth-coated Indian otter (Lutra perspicillata), a critically endangered species endemic to the Indian subcontinent.

The smooth-coated Indian otter (Lutra perspicillata), a critically endangered species endemic to the Indian subcontinent.

The Sathyamangalam reserve is also an important elephant corridor. Elephants of the Eastern and Western Ghats stock have a healthy exchange and passage through this area.

The Sathyamangalam reserve is also an important elephant corridor. Elephants of the Eastern and Western Ghats stock have a healthy exchange and passage through this area.

White-rumped and red-headed vultures with their kill.

White-rumped and red-headed vultures with their kill.

The shrubs and grasslands of Sathyamangalam support a healthy population of spotted deer, which are natural prey for tigers.

The shrubs and grasslands of Sathyamangalam support a healthy population of spotted deer, which are natural prey for tigers.

A pair of four-horned antelopes.

A pair of four-horned antelopes.

The Sathyamangalam forest is predominantly tropical dry, part of south Deccan dry deciduous vegetation. About 65 per cent of the area under forest cover is protected.

The Sathyamangalam forest is predominantly tropical dry, part of south Deccan dry deciduous vegetation. About 65 per cent of the area under forest cover is protected.

The unique location of the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, straddling the valley where the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats meet, holds great potential for the recovery and restoration of the tiger population in south India.

“Tyger, tyger, burning bright, in the forests of the night”—William Blake’s famous lines resonate in the mind as one watches the mysterious black-and-yellow striped form making its way through the forest. Stalking a deer, it steps gently on the twigs of the forest floor so as not to produce any crackling sound. The forest falls silent; its denizens are on high alert. The unsuspecting deer continues to graze on the meadow. It is not alone; other members of the herd are grazing nearby. Suddenly, the silence is shattered by the shrieking call of a langur perched high on a tree. At once, the deer stops grazing and looks up, ears twitching. Then a doe issues a warning call and the entire herd takes to its heels, scatters and disappears into the forest.

This is a sight in the Indian forest that every wildlife film-maker waits eagerly to capture and showcase. Indeed, sighting the elusive tiger tops the wish list of every tourist, animal lover and nature lover visiting India’s national parks.

The question of why such a fearsome carnivore needs to be saved at all needs answering. This article tries to shed some light on why the government and animal conservationists advocate the saving of the tiger, and how our own well-being depends on this magnificent black-striped, saffron-coated animal.

The tiger’s survival depends on a healthy, balanced and biodiverse habitat. Other species in the forest also thrive along with the tiger. Remove the tiger, and they too would be lost forever. While cataloguing and understanding every single unit within a biodiverse ecosystem is next to impossible, we seed the hope of a balanced ecosystem simply by ensuring that there are tigers in the forest.

Being an apex predator, the tiger keeps the food chain in the forest intact. Grass grows on the forest floor; it is consumed by grazing herbivores like the deer; the deer is hunted down by the tiger; when the tiger dies, it is consumed by the same forest floor where it was born. Essentially, the tiger ensures that the forest ecology is healthy and well maintained.

Also read: Tiger at home

Tigers are called “indicator species” because they indicate whether the forest we depend upon is healthy or not. We shall soon see how humans are dependent on the forest and the tiger even in this day and age.

Let us understand what makes the tiger unique. It is a solitary and highly territorial animal. A tiger’s territory comprises adequate hiding and resting areas, plentiful prey, waterholes and potential mates. Tigers are often associated with dense evergreen forests, thick mangrove swamps and areas covered with tall elephant grass. There are eight tiger subspecies recognised worldwide, and the royal Bengal tiger ( Panthera tigris ) is native to the Indian subcontinent.

A female tiger’s territory may be as extensive as 15-20 square kilometres. It patrols the territory, often scent-marking by urinating on branches and tree stumps to ward off intruders. Male and female tigers are seen together only during the breeding season, when the male mates with the female several times in a day. The pair stay together for a couple of days and then part ways.

A tigress gives birth to a maximum of five cubs and takes care of them at least for 10 to 12 months. Both the mother and cubs are extremely vulnerable during this time. Lone bachelor males often hang around close to the territory, looking for an opportunity to take over from the resident male. It is not good news for the cubs as the new male usually kills all the cubs which the resident male had sired so as to bring the female back into oestrous and mate again. This behaviour is known as infanticide and is done in order to ensure that only his [the new male’s] genes are passed on.

Tiger dens are extremely difficult to locate, even for researchers who spend years studying them in the wild. The cubs stay with their mother from birth until they are 18-24 months old. Once they are strong enough to fend for themselves, the mother drives the cubs out of her territory. Male cubs tend to get chased away earlier. Now it is up to the cubs to disperse, locate and establish territories of their own. In this way, the mother ensures there is no inbreeding. The cubs travel along the length and breadth of the forest, negotiating human landscapes, geographical boundaries and, if required, engage in a territorial fight with another tiger to find a suitable territory. Only two out of five cubs born survive to adulthood.

Also read: Grasslands for the tiger

The Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve is a protected area along the Western Ghats, under the Sathyamangalam and Gobichettipalayam taluks, in Erode district, Tamil Nadu. It is a stronghold of tigers in southern India. Initially declared a wildlife sanctuary in 2008, it was expanded to include more area in 2011. The forest covers an area of 1,411.6 square kilometres and is currently the largest wildlife sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. In 2013, it became the fourth tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu as part of the “Project Tiger” initiative.

The Sathyamangalam forest acts as a corridor for the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, linking the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats. This link also establishes a gene flow between four other protected areas adjoining the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve: the Biligiri Ranganathaswamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, the Sigur Plateau, the Mudumalai National Park and the Bandipur National Park.

The forest type is predominantly tropical dry, part of south Deccan dry deciduous vegetation. There are also tropical evergreen (shola), semi-evergreen, mixed deciduous and thorn forests. Evergreen forests are confined to small patches at high altitudes, between 750 metres (2,460 feet) and 1,649 metres (5,410 feet) in Sathyamangalam. These forests are under threat owing to changes in land use pattern. More areas are used for agriculture and plantations. At mid altitude, along the slopes, the vegetation comprises mixed and dry deciduous forests. The foothills have thorny scrub forests. About 65 per cent of the area under forest cover is protected. Mixed shrubs and grasslands support a healthy population of herbivores, which are natural prey for tigers.

Unique ecosystem

Sathyamangalam is well served by the two perennial rivers, Moyar and Bhavani, which form a unique ecosystem. The rich diversity of flora attracts a host of dependent fauna all year round. This area is also an important elephant corridor, among the 88 identified in India. The elephants of the Eastern and Western Ghats stock have a healthy exchange and passage through this area. Other than the tiger, the forest also boasts of the critically endangered smooth-coated Indian otter ( Lutra perspicillata ), the elusive Indian striped hyena ( Hyaena hyaena ), the four-horned antelope ( Tetracerus quadricornis ), the Gyps vulture and the great Indian hornbill. The strategic importance of the Sathyamangalam Tiger reserve lies in its unique location, straddling the valley where the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats meet.

The forest boundaries and buffer zones of the Mudumalai and Bandipur Tiger Reserves form a “sink habitat” or contiguous forests of two major tiger reserves of south India. The animals migrate to the Sathyamangalam forest when there is sufficient prey or when it is leaner in other zones. Migration is an adaptive behaviour that both improves the survival rate during adverse conditions and reduces competition pressures on a limited resource. It keeps the population of Gyps vultures stable in the area.

Also read: Tiger with a human face

The Sathyamangalam forest is contiguous with the forests of Kollegal and Chamarajanagar in Karnataka, which represent the Eastern Ghats. The Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve is bound by the Chamarajanagar Forest Division to the north and the Nilgiris North Division, which is a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, to the east. Elephants migrate from the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in different seasons in search of fodder and water and use it as a part of their home range. The eastern part of the sanctuary falls in the rain-shadow area of the Western Ghats and receives poor rainfall, so the animals congregate along the Moyar, a perennial water source. The successful control of scrub cattle from Moyar Valley through community participatory programmes conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) India between 2002 and 2005, coupled with the abundant availability of prey, enabled tigers to re-establish their territory in many areas.

A stable environment is vital for the survival of the tiger. Over the years, researchers have been studying the lives of tigers, their longevity, the impact of climate change, their hunting techniques, the issues associated with humans, and so on. Tigers are extremely shy animals. More often than not, the tiger spots us before we spot it. Hence sighting a tiger is considered to be extremely lucky. Researchers use the radio telemetry method to track animal movement and behaviour while overcoming the probability of detection themselves.

Radio telemetry

The tiger is first tranquillised by shooting a dart gun loaded with the required dosage of anaesthetic drug at the soft region in the thigh, where the drug takes immediate effect. Tranquillisation is carried out by an expert, usually a veterinarian who either rides on an elephant back or is on a treetop machan. The dosage varies depending on the age, weight and health of the animal. In case of an overdose, reviving the tiger will become problematic and severely stress the animal. If the dosage is less, chances are that the tiger could awaken well before the parameters are taken by the researcher and is then likely to attack or flee. The parameters to be observed include weight, condition of teeth, claws and signs of any injury. Blood samples can be drawn if required. Then the tiger is fitted with a radio collar, a battery-operated device.

For two years, this collar will transmit radio signals and reveal the location of the tiger. Using an antenna, the researcher can track each activity of the tiger, such as movement pattern, whether it has hunted, when it will return to feed on the carcass, and so on. Similarly, when the prey density is more, the movement will be more centred in the area around the prey. If there are cubs, female tigers will greatly reduce their territories. Extensive radiotelemetry studies are being carried out across India. In southern India, such studies are done in Bandipur and Nagarhole National Parks. The data generated assists the government, policymakers, conservationists and other stakeholders to improve their conservation efforts of both the tiger and its habitat.

Another versatile tool to emerge lately is GIS (geographic information system), which maps animal distribution and movement patterns. Even areas with severe man-wildlife conflicts can be delineated and mapped.

Conservation

During the colonial period, tigers were hunted as big game trophy by the British and by Indian maharajas. They were brutally massacred in huge numbers. Marked as endangered in 1975, the tiger population has been declining rapidly in its natural habitat, and has disappeared altogether in areas where it once roamed freely. It is estimated that only 3,000 tigers are left in the wild. While several State governments have taken action to protect India’s vanishing wildlife, some species are already extinct. The last sighting of a wild cheetah in India was several years ago, though there are references to them in the Mughal period when they were frequently caught and used as “hunting leopards” to catch game. The last of the Asiatic lions survive in the Sasan Gir forest of Saurashtra, where they are meticulously protected.

The British tea planter and naturalist E.P. Gee had once speculated that there might have been 40,000 tigers in the Indian subcontinent at the turn of the century, and that there were only about 4,000 in 1964. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared that in order to maintain a genetic pool of sufficient variety in a population of animals like the tiger, it is essential that a contiguous cumulative population totalling at least 300 exists. All known data point to a tiger population in India less than this figure.

Also read: The 21-day operation to capture tiger T23

Historical accounts from India illustrate how tiger populations can rebound rapidly from substantial hunting losses as long as the habitat and prey remained intact. While prey density is important in sustaining the tiger population, so is the size of the prey. The difference between surviving and thriving is the availability of larger prey in sufficient numbers; tigers cannot survive and reproduce solely on small prey, even if they are quite abundant. There is an urgent need to develop ways of enumerating prey density and determining tiger diet.

The tiger landscapes in the country are vast and hold great potential for recovery or restoration of the tiger population. This requires application of more rigorous and reliable methodologies, and a paradigm shift from traditional approaches to the sampling-based method. If we can develop novel methods of enumerating prey density and assessing the dietary requirement of the tiger in these habitats, we would be better placed to evaluate protection and habitat enhancement efforts. In terms of research, we know how tigers behave in a “pristine” tiger habitat. We have done the comparatively easier part and picked the “low-hanging fruit” of tiger research. What is left is logistically formidable and requires enormous effort and financing to get measurable results. No task can be ever considered “completed” in conservation. Conditions constantly evolve and a crisis may erupt at unanticipated moments. Acting fast is required to halt the rate of species decline.

Saving tigers is a matter of pride for us humans because their well-being directly contributes to ours. They have maintained the wild spaces we marvel at. Their existence in the forest moderates the seasons, keeps the rivers flowing, provides carbon sink areas and feeds us and our families. But to protect these majestic animals, we need to understand their biology and behaviour. Only then can weconserve the habitat they live in so that they can breed and exist peacefully. Tigers are one of nature’s magnificent creations. Nature has also created forests and humans. It is now man’s responsibility to become the guardian of the forest and the tiger because when they thrive, all other life forms around them flourish.

Dr Vait hianathan Kannan is a wildlife biologist who works with the Sathyamangalam Tiger Conservation Foundation Tamil Nadu Trust, Erode, Tamil Nadu.