A SAFE HAVEN FOR THE PREDATOR

Published: Thu, 11/17/2011 - 06:16 Updated: Thu, 11/17/2011 - 07:10

It was only two years back when Kaziranga was declared a tiger reserve. With the highest tiger density among reserves across the country today, it's already a success story
Ravi Shankar Ravi Guwahati

Very few people know that Kaziranga National Park, famous for its one-horned rhinoceros, is a haven for wild tigers too. Wildlife expert Narayan Mahanta believes that Kaziranga is the best habitat for tigers in India. However, agencies working for tiger conservation could realise this only after a long period of time.

Not only Kaziranga, but Manas Tiger Reserve and Nameri National Park too have sizeable wild tiger populations. In Northeast India, Arunachal Pradesh is considered the most prosperous state in terms of its wealth of flora and fauna. More than 80 per cent of its land is covered with forests and mountains, and this life-sustaining habitat is responsible for its diverse flora and fauna.
Moreover, these forests are considered safe for large animals – one of the reasons behind the considerable population of wild tigers here. That is why the Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Changlang district and Pakhui Tiger Reserve in East Kameng district, both in Arunachal Pradesh, were elevated to the status of national parks. Remarkably, Pakhui is also home to the clouded leopard, a rare species.

However, Kaziranga stands out from the rest. The park's ecosystem and geographical location are favourable to tigers, besides a good prey base comprising an abundance of various species of deer. Dense forests spread out from the grasslands, and reach up to the mountains. Natural water bodies are abundant and that is why tigers do not have to venture out in search of water. These core patches are untouched by human habitation – a major factor in bringing down the human-tiger conflict considerably.

Deer are tiger's favourite prey. With a healthy deer population in the park, the tiger numbers here have gone up and Kaziranga today boasts of one of the highest tiger densities in the world, and the highest in the country. Although it was only two years back when Kaziranga was declared a tiger reserve, now there are 33 tigers for every 100 sq km of the park area. This fact was recently corroborated by the camera-trap census conducted by the forest department of the Assam government in collaboration with a local NGO called Aranya. The census report was released by Assam's Environment and Forests Minister Rakibul Hussain at a function held at Guwahati zoo.

This report was released after detailed scientific deliberations by experts proved that modern scientific methods and equipment had been used to ascertain the tiger numbers. Before this report came out, Corbett National Park had the highest tiger density in the country with 20 tigers per 100 sq km.

Hussain declared it a historic moment for Assam as Kaziranga's high tiger density has been achieved at a time when tiger numbers have not shown any remarkable growth in other parts of the country.
"Kaziranga is Assam's 'jewel in the crown', and credit is due to those forest guards who protect these animals in the wild," he said.

Wildlife expert Feroz Ahmed of Aranya, who headed the tiger census in Kaziranga, informed that more than five camera traps were deployed for the exercise that lasted 50 days. The captured tigers were differentiated by their stripes as no two tigers have the same stripe pattern. During the survey, signs of 38 tigers have been detected by the team, and in reality, their number is likely to be much higher. Using this scientific technique, experts have pegged the density at 32.8 tigers per 100 sq km.

Experts agree there is a strong possibility that there are more than 150 tigers in Assam, with Kaziranga hosting most of them. The tiger conservation programme has gathered pace and is being implemented with great care. People in the country have realised that tiger numbers are consistently going down.

However, the people living near Kaziranga National Park rejoice in the fact that the nation's pride is secure in their forests. And that is why they are actively participating in wildlife conservation with the help of NGOs and the state forest department. Ironically, these are the same people who had once opposed the government's decision to declare these forests a protected tiger reserve.

The local people had then believed that the tiger reserve status would be followed by a host of restrictions and tourism would be banned from the park. They had even believed that no vehicles would be allowed inside the park, and even the hotels and local eateries located in the fringe areas would be bulldozed. However, the forest department assured locals that vehicles would be allowed in some parts of the park, and no damage would be done to hotels outside the reserve forest.

Local NGOs and the forest department believe that the support of locals is crucial in protecting the tigers. That would ensure that whenever a tiger strays out of the forest, villagers immediately report the matter to the concerned forest officials. Every time people kill a tiger, it is due to their fear and anxiety, but with growing awareness about the need to protect tigers, more and more people in Kaziranga are taking active part in tiger conservation.

In the interest of the tiger, the Union Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) is working on a special work plan to secure the tigers and wild animals in the park. According to this plan, there will be a ban on all construction activity inside the park, so that the movement of wild animals is unhindered, and the core area will be reforested, ensuring that they would not move out of the restricted forest and run into conflict with local communities.

"Wild animals have the first right to the forest," said Sujit Banerjee, who heads the Union environment ministry's committee on forests, environment and ecotourism. He informed that construction of any concrete structures would be regulated so that the wild animals can roam freely. Dense forests in the restricted area would be a boon for them. "Even the shifting of tourism activity from the interiors to other parts would help in the development of those areas. Although tourism-related activities are taking their toll on the park, they need to be regulated and not banned."

Banerjee believes that wildlife conservation is as important as tourism, and there is a need to balance the two. Evidence of healthy tiger population in Kaziranga has got even the state forest and tourism departments quite excited. Said SS Das, Principal Secretary, Department of Tourism in the Assam government, "Unplanned construction activities are mushrooming near Kaziranga, and they could disturb the delicate ecological balance of the area if allowed to continue in this manner."

He informed that to keep a tab on these activities, a Wildlife Diversity Conservation Committee has been set up. "The committee will keep a check on these lodges and hotels and soon submit the report to the Assam government. There would be space for tourism, but without losing sight of the safety of wild animals, including tigers," he added.

Moreover, with the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) drafting a plan to protect the swamp deer – a project that the public sector behemoth would entirely fund – there's more good news for tigers as deer are crucial for their survival.

The writer is executive editor, Dainik Purvoday, a Hindi newspaper published from Guwahati, Assam

Box: CONSERVATION SANS FRONTIERS

Close on the heels of the Indian government's decision to cooperate bilaterally with the Bangladesh government in saving the Sunderbans tiger and the unique ecosystem that forms its habitat, a team of officials from Ministry of Environment and Forests, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau were in Nepal to discuss efforts that could help save the tiger population in the border areas of the two countries.

India has already signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in 2010 with the Nepal government to curb illegal trade in animal parts, besides other conservation initiatives in the two countries. The Himalayan country is key to India's conservation efforts as it is used as a preferred trade route for smuggling body parts of tigers and other wild animals to China, where they are in great demand.

Five of Nepal's prominent national parks – Parsa, Chitwan, Banke, Bardiya and Sukhlaphanta – share their boundaries with the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. SP Yadav, DIG, NTCA, who had inked the MoU with his Nepalese counterparts, told Hardnews, "The Dudhwa Tiger Reserve shares a 111km-long international border with Nepal. Similarly, the Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar also shares its boundary with the Chitwan National Park of Nepal. This long boundary is very vulnerable to trans-border illegal trafficking and poaching. Joint action and patrolling in border areas is a prerequisite for wildlife conservation, especially for tigers and the rhinoceros."

In the resolution made by the two countries, concerns were raised about various growing threats to biodiversity. India and Nepal resolved to strengthen the National Action Plans under the Global Tiger Forum for tiger conservation with time-bound implementation and capacity-building of personnel involved in wildlife conservation. The resolution also mentioned the need to establish a joint monitoring arrangement using standardised protocols in selected landscapes, to ensure reciprocal actions including restoration of corridors, and to explore funding opportunities for strengthening bilateral conservation efforts. There was an agreement on intensifying regular monitoring of trade hotspots, including Kanchanpur-Tanakpur, Nepalgung-Rupendiya-Nanpara, Bhairwa-Sunauli, Birgunj-Raxaul and Darchula-Dharchula.

Rajesh Gopal, Member Secretary, NTCA, who was part of the Indian delegation, said that the meeting was very useful and would help the two countries in devising strategies to combat the menace of illegal trafficking in animal parts. "Neighbouring areas are becoming a conduit for illegal smuggling of wildlife, including body parts of tigers. We need strong enforcement in such areas with cooperation from all enforcement agencies," Yadav added.

Nepal has seen a rise in its tiger numbers owing to increasing patrol and vigilance on the Indian side of the border. The last census carried out in Nepal pegged the tiger numbers at 155, and experts believe that the number is growing.
Akash Bisht (Delhi) 

It was only two years back when Kaziranga was declared a tiger reserve. With the highest tiger density among reserves across the country today, it’s already a success story
Ravi Shankar Ravi Guwahati

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This story is from print issue of HardNews