Distress Signals From India’s Tiger Reserves
A tiger patrols its territory. (Photograph courtesy: Aditya Panda / Via Neha Sinha)

Distress Signals From India’s Tiger Reserves

BloombergQuintOpinion

Recently, an ‘it-happens-only-in-India moment’ occurred. A man on a bike (with two, not one pillion riders) crashed headfirst with a leopard in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. A wildlife photographer captured the event for posterity – the leopard crushed under the bike, the men in a flurry of flailing arms, legs, and fear. Each affected party got up and ran off – and as of now, both men and beast seem to be fine.

A leopard looks out from an escarpment of rock in Central India. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)
A leopard looks out from an escarpment of rock in Central India. (Photograph: Neha Sinha)

The picture went on to show though, how protected areas are not protected from mundane issues that can plague animals. And currently, in three tiger reserves, events both bizarre and unfortunate are unfolding.

The lockdown has generally been tough on wildlife, and there has been a reported spike in poaching of several species. It is now revealed that seven tigers have gone missing from a single range in the Ranthambore Reserve, arguably one of India’s best-known reserves. Officials say four tigers and two cubs are missing, but NGOs say the number is closer to seven. This follows from the mysterious death of tigers in Ranthambore’s neighbouring Mukundara Tiger Reserve. While tiger deaths are not always alarming in themselves, they need to be dealt with transparently and their reasons identified.

If the ‘missing tigers’ of Ranthambore have fallen to poaching, then this points to serious lacunae in one of the most famous and visited tiger reserves of India.
In the heat of the Indian forest, tigers will spend a lot of time resting. (Photograph courtesy: Aditya Panda / Via Neha Sinha)

Another star tiger reserve, Kanha from Madhya Pradesh, has now received an unusual cargo. At the end of March, tigress Sundari has been sent back to MP after being sent to Odisha as part of India’s first inter-state tiger translocation. As reserves lose their tigers, forest departments now rely on translocating tigers – flying them or moving them from one reserve to the other. Panna (in Madhya Pradesh) and Sariska (Rajasthan) lost all their tigers by 2009, mainly to poaching. Tigers were brought in from other reserves within the state and the slow process of recovery was started. Now, the Satkosia Tiger Reserve in Odisha is down to its last tigers. For the first time, tigers were brought in from across a state boundary. Mahavir, a male, and Sundari, a female, were taken to and released in Satkosia from Madhya Pradesh.

Tigers are solitary animals that identify and defend territory daily. Here, a tiger looks out over its territory. (Photograph courtesy: Aditya Panda / Via Neha Sinha)
Tigers are solitary animals that identify and defend territory daily. Here, a tiger looks out over its territory. (Photograph courtesy: Aditya Panda / Via Neha Sinha)

But a couple of years on, this has turned out to be a massive failure. Mahavir was fitted with a collar, one that gave out a live signal. When such a signal comes from a single place it can only mean one of two things – either the collar has fallen off, or the animal is in trouble. Mahavir’s signal started coming from a single location, but the forest department was slow to respond. By the time he was found, he had a rotting injury around his neck—caused by a poaching snare—and was long dead.

Sundari was in a part of a reserve that had people, and came into conflict with them, leading to the death of two people. She was then taken to an enclosure, where she remained for two years. Now taken to Kanha Tiger Reserve, she will stay in another enclosure. Moved to an entirely new place in Odisha, the two tigers suffered because of a lack of monitoring and preparedness on the part of the Odisha forest department. What happens to the future of Satkosia and Odisha’s tigers now is an open question.

A tigress rests in the shade at Pench National Park in the Seoni District of Madhya Pradesh. (Adam Majendie/Bloomberg News)
A tigress rests in the shade at Pench National Park in the Seoni District of Madhya Pradesh. (Adam Majendie/Bloomberg News)

But perhaps nothing is more troubling than the question of the future of neighbouring Madhya Pradesh’s Panna Tiger Reserve.

Depending on how one looks at it, Panna is a scandal (for becoming India’s second tiger reserve for losing all its tigers), a success (for repopulating the reserve through a spirited tiger relocation and monitoring plan), and an impediment (standing in the way of a giant water project).

Now that the reserve has tigers in double digits, the Prime Minister has announced a plan to interlink two rivers, Ken with Betwa for agriculture. This has long been promised as an election issue. This will drown 100 square kilometres of the Panna (about 60% of the reserve), submerging the very area that has been built back. Curiously, the figures for the water have not been released, so we don’t know how much ‘surplus’ water Ken has to give the Betwa.

Dead trees in a waterhole in Pench Tiger Reserve, Seoni, Madhya Pradesh. (Photographer: Shalini Ghosh/Bloomberg)
Dead trees in a waterhole in Pench Tiger Reserve, Seoni, Madhya Pradesh. (Photographer: Shalini Ghosh/Bloomberg)

Tigers, for all their qualities, cannot live underwater. What will happen to the tigers of Panna is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, the poaching threat continues. Three tigers have been found dead in three days in Maharashtra, even as it is evident that Odisha and Rajasthan both need to work out anti-poaching stratregies.

If these incidents have shown us one thing, it is that it is fairly easy to kill a tiger. A single wire snare is usually enough, but populist election promises may turn out to be even more effective.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist. She is the author of ‘Wild and Wilful - Tales of 15 iconic Indian species’ (HarperCollins India).

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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