In tiger territory

Published : Jun 29, 2012 00:00 IST

An injured tigress resting on a flat rock at the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve.-DHANANJAI MOHAN

An injured tigress resting on a flat rock at the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve.-DHANANJAI MOHAN

On a visit to the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, one of the few remaining havens of the big cat.

It was a winter dusk and therefore rather late for the tigress to be still sleeping on a flat rock out in the open. We assumed she was absorbing the day's remaining warmth from the rock. Sitting atop Sudarshani, one of the well-trained elephants of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Umaria district of Madhya Pradesh, we were watching the tigress from a distance of a few metres. Only when she got up and limped away did we realise that she had an injury on her right hind leg around the hock. From her flat belly, the mahout deduced that she had probably not hunted for several days. Aseem Shrivastava, field director of the tiger reserve, voiced his concern, wondering if she ought to be provisioned with a bait animal so that she did not starve while she recovered from her injury. Early that same morning, Aseem had tranquilised her three-year-old male sibling. This tiger had strayed into an area some 20 kilometres from his natal area in Tala Range and nailed his own fate by killing and partly eating a man. Aseem had joined us after despatching the culprit to the Bhopal Zoo.

The lame tigress, like most tigers in Bandhavgarh, did not seem to be bothered in the least by our following her. As we watched, she sprayed on a bamboo branch and then padded silently through the tree jungle with its scattered patches of bamboo and clumps of grass. The mahout goaded the elephant to follow her. She was nearing a clump of grass under a dense leafy branch of bamboo when suddenly, and to our utter amazement, she jumped on to the grass like a cat, with her forepaws extended. In the twinkling of an eye, she had pinned a chital fawn to the ground, grabbed the screaming fawn by mouth, and nonchalantly walked away with her kill into the patch of bamboo! Even for Aseem, who had spent three years in Bandhavgarh and spent countless hours on elephant back watching tigers, this was a rare sight. He was relieved that the tigress had been able to make a kill in spite of her injury. The screams of the fawn alarmed a group of chital that had been feeding hardly 50 metres away. They thumped their hooves, burst into a series of alarm barks and ran off in panic.

The Bandhavgarh National Park derives its name from the most prominent fort of the area. Legend has it that Rama gave this fort to his brother Lakshmana to keep a watch on Lanka, hence the name Bandhavgarh (Sanskrit for brother's fort). The 2,000-year-old fort, in ruins now, is on a flat-topped hill with rocky slopes as steep as the walls of a fort. Various dynasties are recorded to have ruled from the Bandhavgarh fort. The Kalachuris occupied the fort until the Baghels took it over in the 13th century and ruled their kingdom from there until 1617. The Baghel king Maharaja Vikramaditya Singh moved his capital to Rewa in 1617, leaving the fort virtually deserted. However, people continued to live here until 1935. The fort was gradually reclaimed by the forest, and today tigers and leopards frequent it along with fauna such as langurs and sambar. Some blackbuck also survived on the hill until the early 1990s. It is believed that the blackbuck may have been introduced here by the Mughals, since the hilltop does not really have an environment that is suitable for the animal.

After the princely states merged into the Union following Independence, the forests faced rampant degradation. Concerned about the future of Bandhavgarh, Maharaja Martand Singh of Rewa put forth a proposal to the government, on the basis of which an area of 105 square kilometres was declared the Bandhavgarh National Park in 1965. The area was increased to 449 sq km in 1982, and in 1983 a further 245 sq km of the forests adjacent to Bandhavgarh was declared the Panpatha Wildlife Sanctuary. In 1993, the whole of this area was declared the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, the country's 21st.

Today, the tiger reserve is spread over 1,514 sq km and includes a buffer of 820 sq km. The 105-sq km Tala Range, the portion initially notified as the Bandhavgarh National Park, is famous for its tigers. It includes the Bandhavgarh fort and the surrounding hills and lowlands covered with dry deciduous forests and grasslands. The Charanganga, which arises from the feet of Sheshshaiya, the statue of a reclining Vishnu, is the most conspicuous perennial stream here. Tigers have found a suitable habitat in the Tala Range, which is also home to the animals that they can feed on, chiefly, sambar, chital and wild pigs. Photographs, stories and films about several tigers such as Charger, Sita and Mohini made Bandhavgarh famous. Sita even graced the cover of National Geographic. The tiger reserve also has a large population of gray langur, which is prey for the predators. The langurs are wasteful feeders, like elephants. They feed on young leaves, flowers, fruits and other tender parts of plants and also drop a lot of it on the ground. The deer and other wild ungulates track the langurs, sweeping up the bonanza that they otherwise would not be able to reach.

There are now 13 villages within the core zone of the reserve, with nearly 10,000 people and 10,000 head of cattle. One village from the national park within the reserve has already been shifted out, and there are plans to relocate the 13 villages as well. There are a further 80 villages within one kilometre of the reserve boundary. With thousands of cattle in and around the reserve, Bandhavgarh tigers count livestock among their prey. Every year tigers kill and eat 300-500 cattle. Cattle kills are swiftly and sufficiently compensated for by the government in order to keep enraged villagers from killing tigers in retaliation, often done by poisoning the kills. Up to Rs.10,000 is given to a villager who loses a head of cattle to wild predators. Although man-eating tigers are rare, every year a few people get killed when they venture into the forest to collect minor forest produce. There is now a proposal to fence the core zone, also notified as Critical Tiger Habitat, especially where the park boundary directly touches the villages, to prevent cattle and people from entering the forest and the tigers from straying out. On some days deemed to be auspicious, thousands of local visitors throng the reserve. Between 10,000 and 15,000 people enter the area on Janmashtami in August/September; an estimated 8,000-10,000 people enter it on the occasion of Kabir Yatra on Aghan Poornima, mostly in December; and another 5,000-8,000 people go in on the occasion of Ramanavami in March/April. The pilgirims go to Kabir Gufa (cave) and the Rama temple in the fort.

The Tala Range and the adjacent Magadhi and Khitoli Range (220 sq km) comprise the tourism zone where nearly 90 vehicles carrying tourists from about 50 resorts are driven into the forest every day. The tiger experience is almost guaranteed to the tourists by the remarkable tradition of tracking the tigers down. Every day, even in winter, a few mahouts set out on their elephants just before dawn looking for tigers. When they have located the tigers with the help of pugmarks or prey alarm calls, tourists are taken to see them. A concession is made for the privacy of tigresses with young cubs and tigers at kills these are not permitted to be displayed. Apart from the entry fee, each Indian tourist pays Rs.200 to see the tiger from elephant back, while a foreign tourist pays Rs.600.

The Madhya Pradesh Forest Department owns 13 working elephants, including some magnificent bulls. Tourists often see tigers from their vehicles. The tigers in the tourism zone are used to both vehicles and elephants. Tiger tourism generates about Rs.3 crore each year for the reserve. Protected areas in Madhya Pradesh have the laudable system of being allowed to retain the money they generate by tourism. The profits are used for management activities, including the welfare of the staff and the villagers who live within the reserve.

Bandhavgarh has a very interesting assemblage of nearly 250 birds. The melodious calls of the yellow-footed green pigeon and the songs of spotted babblers are frequently heard. A small and perhaps isolated population of Malabar pied hornbills is found atop the Bandhavgarh hill, marking the north-eastern limit of its distribution. This is perhaps the driest habitat for this near-threatened bird. Bridelia retusa, Ficus bengalensis, F. glomerata, Diospyros melanoxylon and many other fruit-bearing trees on this hill, which also has the fort, provide enough food for this essentially frugivorous bird. Grey hornbills are much more widely distributed. The red jungle fowl and the peafowl are fairly common, while the woolly-necked and lesser adjutant storks frequent the wet areas in the grasslands. Raptors also abound here, and from a vantage point on the hilltop we treated ourselves to some splendid views of the crested serpent eagle and the Shaheen falcon.

Bandhavgarh is also one of the last confirmed regular breeding areas for the critically endangered Indian vulture (long-billed vulture), with about 80 active nests in the hills. We spent a morning with Dr Patrick Benson and Dr Munir Virani, who were surveying the nests on the cliffs overlooking the Bandhavgarh hill with their powerful telescopes. Their study, funded by the Peregrine Fund, involves nest monitoring every winter to record the breeding success of the vultures. It is well known that vulture populations in India, particularly of the slender-billed, Indian and white-rumped varieties, have declined by over 97 per cent as a result of the use of diclofenac, a veterinary drug.

Aseem Shrivastava has beautifully captured the range of butterflies found in the reserve and also generally in central India in his book A Photographic Compendium of Butterflies of Central India. It has photographs of 141 butterfly species.

Two species of animals, the hard-ground barasingha, or swamp deer, and the gaur, are believed to be locally extinct in Bandhavgarh although there is no confirmed report of the occurrence of the barasingha in the past. Yet there was an attempt to introduce the barasingha in the early 1980s, but it failed. It is believed that the gaur population was migratory, moving between the forests of Amarkantak and Bandhavgarh. Encroachment, degradation and fragmentation of the forest corridor between the two areas may have led to its disappearance from Bandhavgarh.

The Forest Department has started attempts to reintroduce the gaur from the Kanha Tiger Reserve. A total of 19 gaurs were translocated to Bandhavgarh from Kanha on January 21, 2011. They were initially kept in a 50-hectare enclosure. One of the adult females even gave birth to a calf in the enclosure. On March 20, 2011, the gate of the enclosure was opened and the animals wandered out in small groups. The gaurs were later found to be moving within the Bandhavgarh forests in two separate herds of 12 and eight animals. The barasingha also can do well as there are sufficient waterbodies with marshy areas, which are a prerequisite for the survival of this deer.

Months rolled into two years before one of us (A.J.T. Johnsingh) could go to Bandhavgarh in December 2010 and get an opportunity to know more about this reserve. Aseem had gone to the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) on deputation as a faculty member and in his place Chandrakant Patil, another officer trained in the WII, equally knowledgeable and dedicated, was serving as the field director.

One morning, near the Sidhbaba grasslands, in the company of Chandrakant Patil, Johnsingh was watching a jungle cat by the side of the road when frantic alarm calls of chital rang out followed by two chital shooting out of the bamboo grove from the other side of the road. We waited with bated breath. Soon enough, a tigress strolled leisurely out of the grove, went some distance along the road, and approached a dead tree by the side of the road. She stopped to smell the tree and spray on it, gave a deep mourning call, and then walked off into the forest, unmindful of a sambar doe watching her warily. She was most probably in estrus and was looking for a mate. The forests around Sidhbaba, through which the Charanganga flows, are reported to be rich in prey. Tigresses breeding in these forests commonly raise litters of four cubs.

On another day, we travelled about 105 km through different parts of the Panpatha Wildlife Sanctuary within the tiger reserve. We saw the place where the Rewa king Martand Singh shot dead his 100th tiger on March 1, 1954. Shooting tigers was an acceptable pastime for royals in those days, so we did not judge him. He was also responsible for initiating attempts to protect the Bandhavgarh landscape. We shared a frugal lunch with the staff in the anti-poaching camp on the bank of the Son river, which forms the boundary of the sanctuary for 5 km. Beyond the river there is a tenuous corridor for some 50 km up to the Sanjay Tiger Reserve (830 sq km) in the North Shahdol Forest Division. Despite the sanctuary having eight villages inside, we saw tracks of a tiger and a tigress, one jackal, several groups of chital, wild pigs and several Indian foxes, nilgai and chinkara. We did not, however, see any chowsingha (which can be found in the habitat of nilgai and chinkara) and sambar seemed to be rare, too. It is likely that poaching with dogs may have drastically reduced the population of this extremely important prey for the tiger. We also saw a temple dedicated to the tiger and the goddess Rakshi Devi, where the local people pray for protection from tigers, for themselves and their cattle.

The isolated Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve stands as an example for many protected areas in India which remain isolated or at best only tenuously connected with adjacent forest areas. Yet the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, with improved protection and recovery of wild ungulate prey, has the potential to support a maximum of 50 adult tigers, an unlikely target for many tiger reserves in the country.

We suggest a few measures that will help achieve this goal. The entire reserve should be fenced, leaving a gap on the Son river front so that the existing movement of animals to the Sanjay Tiger Reserve can continue. Beyond the Sanjay Tiger Reserve, the large tract of forests in Chhattisgarh comes under the 1,500 sq km Guru Ghasidas National Park, thus providing a contiguous available tiger habitat of as much as 4,000 sq km. The 13 villages from the reserve should be resettled with suitable incentives in order to remove disturbances within the reserve. This is also recommended for the eight villages just on the boundary of the reserve, with fields extending into the forests. These fields are bought by outsiders and used for building weekend homes and resorts, which should not be permitted to operate at the boundary of the reserve.

Control of unpalatable species such as Lantana camara, Phoenix acaulis (now they are being eaten by the introduced gaur), Holarrhena antidysenterica, Sida cordifolia and Chrystella dentata, an unpalatable fern in the swampy areas of the grasslands, should go hand in hand with the establishment of thousands of saplings of valuable forage species such as Zizyphus mauritiana, rare in the reserve; Z. xylopyrus; Ficus spp. and Bridelia retusa, of which there are many adult trees, but no regeneration; and Grewia tiliaefolia, of which several are growing on the Bandhavgarh hill. The Indwar-Tala-Parasi road (32.5 km), which cuts through the reserve and is to be repaired soon, should be maintained as a single-lane road with suitable speed breakers. Night traffic on this road should be banned. Eventually, tourism, with enhanced rates for entering the reserve and seeing the tiger, should be extended to other parts of the reserve so that the tourism pressure on the Tala Range, the prime tiger area, can be eased. The fee for local people should be nominal in order to enable them to afford and appreciate the wild.

The Forest Department is committed to achieving the above goals, and we are sure that with support from the Government of India, Bandhavgarh can soon be held up as the model for effective management to bring back tigers from the brink.

Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh is with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and WWF-India, and Dr Dhananjai Mohan is with Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.

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