Tiger at home

The Indian subcontinent can support around 3,700 tigers if there is a large track of quality habitat which has an abundance of prey and is free from poaching.

Published : Jul 23, 2014 12:30 IST

In the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.

In the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.

AT the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in southern Karnataka the summer had set in. The deciduous trees had shed their leaves and in most places the forest floor was ankle-deep in dry leaf litter. No animal, small or big, could walk silently. It was midday in April 1977. I was looking for kills along the right bank of the Ministerguthi nullah, a favoured haunt of the tiger, with two of my Kuruba tribal assistants. My study on dholes necessitated the collection of kills of large predators—dholes, leopards and tigers. Whenever I had spare time, I walked alone or in the company of tribal assistants, looking for kill remains. Jungle crows were of immense help in locating leopard and tiger kills, which were usually hidden under bushes. I was lucky. During the two-year study period, I had a record collection of 301 dhole, 58 leopard and 19 tiger kills. I removed the lower jaws from the kills to determine the age of the animals on the basis of the eruption and wear of teeth.

The dry and brittle leaf litter crackled underfoot as we walked along the banks of the nullah. I was in the lead and my assistants were just behind me. Unexpectedly, at one location, I saw the large, round face of an adult male tiger peering at us through a bush on the left bank of the nullah, barely five metres from me. The tiger, hearing our footfalls, had approached to investigate, possibly at the prospect of some prey. I stopped dead in my tracks as soon as I saw the tiger, looked behind to alert my assistants, and immediately turned back to face the tiger, but it had disappeared. I remembered the story of Jim Corbett as a boy creeping up to a plum bush ( Zizyphus mauritiana ) with a tiger on the other side looking at him with an expression which said as clearly as words, “Hello, kid, what the hell are you doing here?”, and, receiving no answer, turning around and walking away very slowly without once looking back. Such instances have earned the tiger the sobriquet “large-hearted gentleman”. During my two-year study in Bandipur, I had 12 sightings of the tiger, either from treetops or while on foot.

It is well established now that tigers evolved in China, and two-million-year-old fossil remains were found in Central Asia, eastern and northern China, Siberia, Japan, Sumatra and Java—not very different from the modern range of the tiger. The continuous unbroken tiger habitat then with low human population and an abundance of prey enabled the tiger to occupy a wide range of landscapes in the areas around the Caspian Sea (Caspian tiger, Panthera tigris virgata ), Siberia and northern China (Siberian tiger, P.t. altaica ), central and southern China (South China tiger, P.t.amoyensis ), the Indian subcontinent (Indian tiger, P.t.tigris ), mainland SouthEast Asia (Indo-Chinese tiger, P.t.corbetti ), the island of Bali (Bali tiger, P.t.balica ), the island of Java (Javan tiger, P.t. sondaica ), and the island of Sumatra (Sumatran tiger, P.t. sumatrae ). All the subspecies are distinguishable on the basis of the differences in the colour and striping of their coats and the skulls. The three island subspecies were once connected with the mainland species when the climatic conditions were much colder and there were ice bridges.

At the end of the last glaciation, the climate warmed, the sea level rose and the islands became isolated. This isolation led to the evolution of small-sized tigers—island tigers that are half the size of mainland tigers. Today, this phenomenon is also seen in the Sundarbans tigers, as the approximately 10,000-square kilometre Sundarbans has remained isolated from the mainland tiger habitat for at least a century now. Perhaps the small size of the Sundarbans tigers is an adaptation for living in the marshy mangrove habitat.

One can easily guess that nearly 200 years ago, all the subspecies were doing well and there are guestimates that 100 years ago there were 100,000 tigers in an approximate area of 169,27,300 square kilometres. E.P. Gee, an English tea planter who lived in Assam and devoted his energy, time and money to the study of Indian wildlife, estimated that the tiger population in India in 1900 was around 40,000. In 1947, Jim Corbett wrote in Man-eaters of Kumaon that in the Himalayan foothills, he had seen 10 times more tigers when he was a boy (ca 1890) than when he was a middle-aged man (ca 1940). The reasons for the disappearance of the tiger from its vast range are well known—human population increase and associated development which brought in more areas under agriculture and human habitation, resulting in loss of tiger habitat (93 per cent of the original habitat is lost, so the existing area is approximately 1,184, 900 sq km); hunting of the tiger (according to Mahesh Rangarajan, in India alone 80,000 tigers were slayed between 1875 and 1925) and hunting of its prey, which became unsustainable when people began using firearms and motor vehicles; pesticides that were used to poison cattle-lifting tigers; man’s fancy for tiger skin; and increased use of tiger body parts in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

To give an estimate of scale, two youth in Nagpur were arrested when they tried to sell a tiger skin for $400,000 ( Times of India , Nagpur, March 17, 2011), one bowl of tiger penis soup costs $300-400, and one kilogram of tiger bone sells for $2,000. Countries that use tiger parts prominently are China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand. Such threats led to the extinction of the Bali tiger in the 1940s, the Caspian tiger in the 1970s, and the Javan tiger in the 1980s and an overall decline in tiger numbers all through its range.

In India, poaching of tigers for their bones came to light only in the mid-1980s when forest officers in Madhya Pradesh found poached tigers whose bones had been removed and skins left behind. John Seidensticker, who studied the Javan tiger before it became extinct, concluded that the main reason for the extinction of the Javan tiger was the decline in the abundance of large prey such as sambar and banteng. Although the Chinese are unwilling to accept that the South China tiger is extinct, it is a fact as its habitat has been heavily poached for prey for decades. During Chairman Mao Zedong’s period, 4,000-5,000 tigers were killed in China as they were considered a pest.

One can safely conclude that at present there could be a population of 400 Siberian and Sumatran tigers, and fewer than 1,000 Indo-Chinese tigers, including the tigers in the Malay peninsula, which now belong to the subspecies P.t. jacksonii , named after Peter Jackson, who served as the Chairman of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group for nearly 20 years. The tiger habitats in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh are connected to one another and should be thought of as one conservation landscape for the Indian tiger. In this promising landscape, there may be a maximum of 2,000 tigers, and the chances of saving the tiger for posterity are much better here. In addition to the numbers, a few factors are in favour of the tiger here—the Forest Departments are well organised compared with those in other countries in South-East Asia; there are numerous dedicated non-governmental organisations (NGOs); and the scientific community is actively involved in tiger research and conservation. India has also seen the pioneering scientific study on the tiger by George B. Schaller, and excellent scientific publications by Ullas Karanth, Abishek Harihar, Bivash Pandav and Uma Ramakrishnan. More recently, an effort by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) resulted in a detailed and comprehensive scientific status report on the tiger and its co-predators authored by Y.V. Jhala, Qamar Qureshi and Rajesh Gopal. There are passionate tiger spokespersons like Valmik Thapar and undercover agents like Belinda Wright, who have been fighting against tiger poaching and the trade in tiger parts. Tigers in this landscape have much smaller home ranges, 10-20 sq km for tigresses and 50-150 sq km for males, due to the availability of prey. This is in contrast to the Russian far east, for example, where tiger home ranges can be several hundred square kilometres due to the low density and the migratory nature of prey because of the extreme cold climatic conditions.

Predators and prey Yet, saving the tiger for posterity is going to be difficult, even in the Indian tiger conservation landscape. One tiger needs 50 chital-sized deer in a year to sustain itself, and if it is a female raising cubs, then 70-80 chital-sized animals are needed in a year. A hungry large male tiger can eat 15-20 kilograms of meat at one go but it can also go without food with no apparent ill effects for up to 10 days. In Corbett, Kanha, Nagarahole, Ranthambhore and Tadoba Tiger Reserves, tigresses often raise four cubs each, and in such a situation, their annual requirement will be even higher, say 100 animals. These animals can only be harvested from a prey population of 500 or 1,000 animals as a maximum of 10 per cent is taken to be an ecologically prudent harvest. Then there are other large predators in the landscape, leopards in almost all tiger habitats except in the Sundarbans, and dholes in most places (exceptions being Corbett, Kaziranga and Ranthambhore).

Theoretically, therefore, in order to have 10 tigers and associated predators, the habitat would need 7,000 to 10,000 chital-sized prey animals. This in turn means the need for a large track of quality habitat with an abundance of forage plants, mostly free of weeds, clean and copious amounts of water, no livestock, no poaching and no stealing of kills by the people. It should be noted that stealing of kills by bhabar grass cutters is the main reason for the decline of tigers west of the Ganga, where the Shivalik hills dominate the 2,000 sq km tiger landscape. This essentially means that the area should be free of people or inviolate. Creating such inviolate areas, even in tiger reserves, is a challenging task as India’s 44 declared tiger reserves have about 750 villages with a total population of nearly 56,500. Of these, so far 155 villages (10,000 people) have been resettled. The NTCA is vigorously pursuing the programme of voluntary resettlement of people with appropriate incentives, but it needs a minimum of Rs.5,000 crore to resettle the rest of the villages.

The sex ratio in tigers at birth, like in most animals, is even. In general, as tigers grow, the females stay near the place of birth but the males leave the native area, and as a result more males die for various reasons such as stress, conflict with other males, and conflict with humans. In a large tiger population, this results in an adult sex ratio of one male to three-four females. As many of the tiger habitats are becoming isolated, and as there are not many opportunities for the males to move out, they remain near their place of birth, resulting in more even sex ratios in the adult population. This is seen, for example, in the Ranthambhore and Melghat tiger populations.

Why does a normal tiger avoid a human being? Two reasons are often cited. One is that tigers visualise a standing human as being larger than them, which is a potent deterrent to attack, but the situation can change if a person is crouched among the bushes and a tiger may attack mistaking the crouched person for a prey. The second reason is the tigers avoid eye contact with humans and, therefore, if an attack is launched it is often from behind. This concept was made use of in the Sundarbans, where people going into the forest were asked to wear masks with prominent human eyes at the back of the heads to baffle the tiger. But the Sundarbans people, who have more faith in Bon Bibi—their guardian spirit of forests—gradually stopped using the masks.

Can a human armed with either a knife or a sword kill a tiger, which is more than double the size of a normal person, more strongly built and powerful, ferocious, faster and equipped with 12 short daggers—eight claws on the forefeet and four canines, each two-three inches long? The unbelievable story of the Mughal emperor Akbar killing a tigress with five cubs in one stroke of his sword and feature films showing actors such as Amitabh Bachchan, M.G. Ramachandran and Russell Crowe killing tigers with a mere knife convey the wrong message to people about the tiger. An amazing story of a large-framed man who survived an attack by a man-eating tigress is narrated by Corbett in the chapter “The Chowgarh Tigers” in Man-eaters of Kumaon . The man was left with a terribly disfigured face because he had thrown the tigress up in the air, tearing away its hold on his face and head, and he aged prematurely.

Human-tiger conflict How many tigers can India support in the present context of biotic pressures on the habitat and continuous poaching episodes? Some may say that India can support a population of 10,000 tigers, but we should be happy even if we are able to maintain a population of 2,000 tigers. First of all, if there is a significant increase in tiger numbers, it will increase the levels of human-tiger conflict to a much greater level, which the government, meaning the Forest Department, will not be able to handle. In an episode in the Nilgiris, where a man-eater was shot dead on January 23, 2014, the 20 or so villagers who had been living in fear of the man-eater had grown increasingly belligerent, even though the District Collector and the forest officials were in regular contact with them and did everything possible to capture the tiger. After three incidents of man-eating and the killing of two expensive cows, the people became angry with the officers over the government’s failure to catch the tiger even after 20 days. However, on the day the second cow was killed, personnel of the Tamil Nadu Special Task Force, guided by the anti-poaching watchers of Mudumalai and Anamalai Tiger Reserves, managed to kill the tiger. The Badaga woman who lost her cow on that day cried as if she had lost her own child. In 2013, three people were killed by a tiger in separate incidents when they ventured into the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. The local villagers became restive and, although each death was immediately compensated with Rs.5 lakh, an irate mob of nearly 1,000 people damaged Forest Department property and were about to assault the forest personnel. Immediate compensation was possible as the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, like other reserves in the country, has a foundation where tourism revenue is deposited (the annual tourism revenue of Bandipur is close to Rs.3 crore) and the Field Director has the freedom to use the money for such exigencies.

What then is the future of the tiger in the Indian landscape? Despite a ban on trade in tiger bones and their derivatives in China since 1993, studies reveal that the demand still persists, with a strong preference for wild products over farmed ones. With China wanting to lift the ban on trade in farmed tiger parts, a surge in demand on wild products would easily be traded on a legal market, leading to disastrous effects on wild populations across the range of the species. As long as China and countries such as Taiwan use tiger products, the threat to the survival of the tiger will linger. The common method of killing a tiger is by placing jaw traps along its jungle trails. There is some amount of patrolling by the forest staff but it is not humanly possible to patrol all the jungle trails, particularly in hilly terrain with thousands of nullahs where poachers can hide and operate from. One gang of poachers arrested on the Nepal border in Uttarakhand confessed that every year it killed 20-30 tigers in the Corbett landscape, considered one of the strongholds of the tiger.

In the south, at the tri-junction of the three States of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, there may be close to 350 tigers. Their habitat is threatened by invasive plant species such as Cassia spectabilis, Eupatorium adenophorum, Lantana camara, Opuntia dillenii, Parthenium hysteroporus and Prosopis juliflora and the lack of regeneration of palatable species. This situation may affect the wild ungulates, resulting in poor prey densities, eventually affecting the large predators. A similar situation is seen in many other tiger habitats. There are also disturbing reports of the threat of poaching encircling south Indian tigers. Although the subcontinent has the potential to support around 3,700 tigers, it may not be possible to achieve this number if the problems of prey and tiger poaching and habitat degradation continue. A.J.T. Johnsingh is with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India.

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