On the tiger trail

Print edition : July 01, 2011

A Ranthambhore tiger cooling off in the Kachida pool. Since Ranthambhore's tigers are habituated to visitors, they do not mind getting into the pool while being watched. -

In Ranthambhore, tigers surprise visitors with their ability to survive in harsh habitats such as thorn forests and barren land of scrub and rocks.

THE oppressive summer heat touched 43C, and the only good that came of it was a chance that we would find a tiger cooling itself at one of the waterholes along the roads in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Tigers living in hot climes are known for their propensity to lie about in water, and the Ranthambhore tigers, habituated to vehicle-bound visitors, even allow themselves to be photographed at their pools.

On the evening of May 6, 2010, we came upon a young male approaching the Kachida waterhole, a rock pool made beautiful by its bluish-green water. By the time we managed a vantage point for photography, it was already neck-deep in the water, panting and lapping vigorously to satiate its thirst. It snarled repeatedly to demonstrate its displeasure at our intrusion. Before long, it got up and ambled off into the forest, back possibly to where it had hidden a kill.

The Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, made famous by the tiger expert Valmik Thapar in several of his books, gets its name from the Ranthambhore fort. The Chauhan Rajputs are thought to have begun construction of this fort nearly a thousand years ago. Rao Hammir (1283-1301) is reported to have been the most successful of the many kings who ruled Ranthambhore. Over the centuries the fort changed hands between the Mughals and the Rajputs, until, eventually, it came under the rule of the Kachwaha Maharajas of Jaipur. Under the Kachwahas, the forests around the fort became royal hunting grounds. Jaipur State acceded to the Indian Union in 1949 and became a part of the State of Rajasthan in 1950. The forests around the fort were declared the Sawai Madhopur Wildlife Sanctuary in 1955. In effect, though, it remained a hunting reserve until 1970.

With the start of Project Tiger in 1973, 392 km2 of forests in and around the Sawai Madhopur Wildlife Sanctuary were declared the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. In 1980, as much as 282 km2 of the tiger reserve was notified as a national park. Protection was further strengthened in 1984 with the declaration of the adjoining forests as the Sawai Mansingh Wildlife Sanctuary (113 km2) and the Keladevi Wildlife Sanctuary (673 km2). In 1991, the tiger reserve was extended to 1,394 km2 to include all the above wildlife sanctuaries and key areas such as the Kualji Game Reserve (38 km2).

The remains of the fort, which are imposing in most places even now, bear witness to Ranthambhore's varied and fascinating history. There is one abiding problem, however, that tarnishes the glory of the fort the accumulation of garbage brought in by the hundreds of pilgrims to the numerous temples (including the most famous one, a Ganesha temple) and a mosque inside the fort. The Forest Department regularly removes the garbage outside the fort, but that inside the fort is an eyesore. It would be most appropriate if the Archaeology Department were to put in place a functional mechanism to secure both the fort and its wild inhabitants from this hazard.

A Nilgai bull feeding on a Capparis decidua bush which is already heavily browsed on. In Ranthambhore, all reachable branches of browsable species show heavy signs of feeding in summer.-

My visit to Ranthambhore with Dr Aparajita Datta, Member, National Tiger Conservation Authority, was to help the Rajasthan Forest Department decide the suitability of two tigers for translocation to the Sariska Tiger Reserve, to augment the reintroduced population of three tigers there. It is well known that the small population of four or five tigers of Sariska had been wiped out by poachers in 2004.

In June-July 2008 and February 2009, the government reintroduced three tigers (a male and two females) into Sariska from the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Regretfully, these reintroductions were done without addressing suitably the enormous problems caused by the presence of numerous villages and increasing traffic and pilgrimage within the Sariska Tiger Reserve, which were steadily and gradually contributing to the decline of the tiger population in the reserve.

There were serious worries that the Ranthambhore tigers translocated to Sariska were too closely related, and there was no sign of breeding even after 18-24 months of the reintroduction. This is, however, a moot point because the Ranthambhore tigers are in any case all descendants of a small population of possibly 10 tigers from the time when Project Tiger was initiated. The population is also likely to have been further inbred because the population was isolated within a small area (c. 300 km2) with little possibility for tigers from other landscapes to immigrate there.

The positive outlook is that problems of inbreeding in tigers and in most other species can often be mitigated by the introduction of new animals, preferably males, from far-off habitats. Therefore, the best way to address the potential problem of inbreeding among Sariska's tigers would be to remove the male, reported to be very closely related to the females, and introduce a suitable, unrelated new male possibly from a far-off place such as the Tadoba Tiger Reserve (Maharashtra).

Our primary task was to explore the feasibility of capturing two tigers that had dispersed from the reserve. The prevalent belief is that such animals may only be related distantly to the animals in the core (national park area) and therefore more suitable for translocation. One of the tigers that had dispersed was reported to be a male and, according to the Forest Department, was living primarily in the Keladevi Wildlife Sanctuary and ranging over a vast area of about 700 km2. The other was reported to be a female, which had its home on the banks of the Kalisindh river, a tributary of the Chambal, about 90 km from the Sawai Mansingh Wildlife Sanctuary from which it was supposed to have dispersed.

At the time of our visit, the female largely confined its activities to the right bank of the river along a distance of about 20 km. The river bank had a dense growth of mesquite, Prosopis juliflora, bordered by agricultural fields. Ten small villages with a sizable livestock population dot the length of the riverbank. The tigress survived on the sparse population of chital, nilgai and wild pigs that inhabit the Prosopis forests while also killing livestock.

Prosopis is an exotic species from Central America that has become an aggressive weed in India. People generally avoid Prosopis woodlands because of the plant's sharp and powerful thorns. The tigress was evidently left undisturbed in its thorny kingdom; an additional attraction for it, undoubtedly, was the presence of the river where it cooled itself at night.

A massive nilgai bull. Although nilgai are as big as sambar deer, they are not as vulnerable to tiger predation as the latter because they often occur in disturbed habitats.-

On the day we were there, we were lucky to see fresh pug marks of the tigress going along a cart road towards the river. The pug marks on the loose, powdery soil looked almost like those of an adult male. It was an eye-opener for us to learn that a tiger could hunt and survive in such a dense habitat full of thorns. The staff who accompanied us made an interesting observation this tigress never returned to its kills. It was also extremely wary of baits and had never taken one. Scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India once attempted to lure it with tied baits, with a plan to wait over the kill and dart it. It did not turn up. As summer was coming to an end and the rains would soon render the area inaccessible, the staff opined that the tigress would not be the most suitable candidate for the proposed translocation, planned for June-July 2010.

If we were surprised by the ability of the tigress to survive in the Prosopis thorn forest, we were astounded to find the male tiger surviving in the Keladevi Wildlife Sanctuary an almost barren land of scrub and rocks devastated by goats, camels and other livestock. We were shown the place where the tiger had first killed and eaten a wild boar in a location of sparse cover; it then moved to a deep, shady gorge with ample water its daytime retreat. The Keladevi Wildlife Sanctuary reportedly has 17 such gorges. The tiger was thus able to range over the sanctuary and nearby areas preying on the nilgai and the wild pig, both of which occurred at very low densities, and on livestock, and sheltering safely in the gorges between meals.

The staff, who had tracked this male for two years, felt that it would be a tricky one to catch. We were also convinced that the Kalisindh tigress and the Keladevi tiger were difficult animals to be tranquilised over bait. We were also convinced that these tigers were vulnerable to poaching, as protection would not be as good as in the core of the reserve.

In addition to these two field visits on the trail of the Kalisindh and Keladevi tigers, we had several opportunities to visit different parts of the tiger reserve and observe the habitat and the wildlife. The summer was at its peak and the forest was exceptionally dry and brown. The only green relief was the ficus species Bengal fig ( Ficus bengalensis), sacred fig ( F. religiosa) and cluster fig ( F. glomerata). Many of the F. glomerata trees were fruiting and langur monkeys feasted on their unripe (green) and ripe (red) fruits. Chital deer readily ate the fruits dropped by the langurs.

The sprouting leaves of tendu trees ( Diospyros melanoxylon) shone with many hues. Several of the tendu trees were laden with golden-yellow fruits, and both sambar and jackal made quick meals of the fallen fruits.

We saw several sloth bear tracks near fruiting Diospyros trees. Sloth bears are especially partial to Diospyros fruits. Among the preferred forage species of ungulates, the velvel ( Acacia leucophloea), mountain ebony ( Bauhinia racemosa) and Hawaiian caper ( Capparis sepiaria) were beginning to turn green with the season's first leaf flush. All the lower branches of A. leucophloea had been neatly cropped of leaves by the ungulates. Common langurs perched themselves on B. racemosa trees, feeding on the tender leaves. Each and every Capparis bush had either a sambar or a nilgai nibbling at the leaves, carefully avoiding the powerful curved thorns. The most abundant forage species, Dhok Anogeissus pendula, was without foliage although the trees growing near water courses were beginning to sprout leaves.

A FIVE-STRIPED PALM squirrel cooling off on wet ground.-

All the ungulates appeared to be in good health except the adult sambar stags, which looked worn out because their skins were losing hair. They were at the end of the rutting, or breeding, season and many were growing velvet antlers. Yet, some of the stags in hard antlers were still wallowing in the mud an indication that they were still breeding. Nilgai, an antelope adapted to the arid areas, seemed little affected by the dry season. The bulls, in particular, were in superb condition.

While the bird life of Ranthambhore is not very rich, almost all the birds were surprisingly unwary of visitors whether it was the dancing peacocks watched by the peahens or the painted sand grouses with their chicks, preening by the side of the road.

On the management front, what is impressing is the ongoing efforts to declare the 1,394 km2 tiger reserve a Critical Tiger Habitat by making it free of human settlements and as disturbance-free as possible. There is sufficient information to prove that across the country tigers thrive only in undisturbed habitats having abundant large ungulate prey.

A PATCH OF Diospyros melanoxylon (tendu trees) in a valley. Such cool valleys are vital for tigers to rest in summer.-

The National Tiger Conservation Authority has approved an incentive-driven voluntary resettlement programme, with a provision of Rs.10 lakh for each adult male (over 18 years) in the family. The forest officials, under the leadership of R.S. Shekawat, Deputy Director of the reserve (now Field Director, Sariska Tiger Reserve), are encouraging the families to move out of the reserve. This will, naturally, be a long-drawn-out process because 10,000 families in 61 villages have to be convinced to relocate. Since January 2009, officials have received the consent of 600 families for relocation and overseen the moving out of more than 100 families. They seem confident that the entire Critical Tiger Habitat will be free of settlements within a decade or so.

The livestock here mainly cattle and goats that are a scourge of natural habitats across north-west India will also move along with the people. Places like the Keladevi Wildlife Sanctuary will then recover naturally, transforming into habitats that can support enough wild prey, thus paving the way for the reserve to eventually support a population of at least 50 adult tigers.

Footnote: After we left, a tiger and a tigress caught in the national park were translocated to Sariska on July 20 and 28, 2010, respectively. A tiger translocated on June 28, 2008, died, possibly of poisoning, on November 12, 2010. In February 2011, one male tiger that had strayed from Ranthambhore to the Bharatpur National Park was translocated to Sariska. Now Sariska has five tigers (three tigresses and two tigers, all from Ranthambhore), and the conservation community is earnestly hoping that, encouraged by the village relocation that is being carried out by the Forest Department, they will breed soon and establish a population.

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