Around a decade ago, the chances of spotting a tiger in the Panna reserves in Madhya Pradesh were just slightly more than spotting a human being on Mars. By 2009, the sanctuary had been wiped clean of big cats by a network of poachers, infections, and hostile villagers. Only one male tiger, for some reason, escaped this purge.
These days you run the risk of running into a tiger if you stray from your room in one of the resorts near the sanctuary—well almost. Panna is a good example of the zeal with which India has protected and bred the endangered species. As the numbers released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggest, India’s tiger conservation plan has been a roaring success over the past four years. From just about 1400 tigers, the numbers have more than doubled, according to the 2018 census.
Legend of the fall
India was once home to more than a lakh tigers. Till the 1960s, their presence in large numbers gave rise to a booming hunting industry whose patrons invited people to shoot tigers and pose with one foot over the slain animal with the murder weapon proudly held in one hand.
Though hunting of tigers and the sale of their skin was banned, their numbers kept dwindling. When the first official census of tigers was held—through the unreliable method of counting pug marks—the numbers came as a shock. In the 70s, just about 1800 tigers were left in India, and the species was facing the threat of extinction.
Not much changed over the next three decades in spite of a dedicated project to save the tiger. By the turn of the century, tigers had vanished from Sariska (Rajasthan) and Panna, and their numbers had fallen drastically in Ranthambhore (Rajasthan) and reserves in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
One of the biggest culprits behind their disappearance was notorious smuggler Sansar Chand—also known as north India’s Veerappan. Sansar Chand ran a gang of poachers, runners, and smugglers that carried out illegal trade of tiger skin and bones. Some of his alleged clients were exporters who found novel ways to smuggle skins and bones right up to China through Nepal and Tibet.
When he was arrested and interrogated by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, Sansar Chand reportedly confessed to selling nearly 500 tiger skins to clients across the border. With his arrest, one of the biggest threats to tigers was removed.
Road to Recovery
In the summer of 2005, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh journeyed to Ranthambhore in the midst of an uproar over large-scale poaching of tigers. After Singh’s fears of a complete wipe out of tigers from Ranthambhore were allayed by forest department rangers who managed to snare the previous night a tigress in an area where the PM was scheduled to visit, he sat down with a high-powered task force to discuss a plan to save big cats.
Apart from the threat from poachers, three factors were pointed out for their gradual disappearance. One, conflict with villagers in forests and tiger reserves. Two, pressure on their habitat because of cattle rearers and grazers. Three, infections, territorial fights, and diseases.
Panna became a test case for dealing with all these problems.
In 2009, the forest department relocated two tigresses from Kanha and Bandhavgarh to the reserve spread over an area exceeding 500 sq km. But, their plan hit an unexpected hurdle when the lone aboriginal male tiger disappeared.
To deal with this problem, a male tiger from Pench was relocated to Panna with the hope that he’d mate with the tigresses located earlier. But, the tiger refused to settle down in the new habitat and started making a long and treacherous trek to his original home.
A month later, the forest department brought the tiger back to Panna and made him stay there with an ingenious scheme—they sprinkled urine of female tigresses in Bhopal around him, making him believe that he had company. In a few days, the tiger mated with one of the tigresses. And in April, a litter of four cubs was born in Panna. Since then, their number has gone past 50. (A similar relocation plan however failed in Sariska. But that’s a separate story).
While the tigers were being relocated, the forest department also dealt with the threat of conflict with humans in the forest. Through a series of measures that included cash incentives to families in the forest and interactive sessions for generating awareness, the forest department turned locals into collabarators in tiger conservation.
Similar methods for creating awareness, removing human habitats from tiger territories, increasing their prey base, and a sustained campaign against poachers revived the fortunes of other reserves too, especially in north India. Finally, after decades of failure, the tiger protection plan had started working.
The Road Ahead
If the current strategies for conserving tigers continue, experts believe India can be home to at least 15,000 tigers. In an interview with the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, well-known conservation scientist Ullas Karanth had calculated that India has at least 3,00,000 square kilometres of the type of forest in which tigers can live. “So basically if all these 3,00,000 square kilometers were reasonably well protected and the prey base is brought up, we could have 10,000 to 15,000 tigers.”
The challenge of course would be to ensure that the strategies that have helped India increase its tiger population over the past four years are sustained. A sustained campaign to protect forests, relocate villages nestled deep inside tiger habitats, and minimise conflicts with humans and tigers because of territorial fights would be the key to achieving the coveted target of at least 15,000 tigers in India.