The Return of the Yellow Striped Beast!

From zero to 17, in just about three years, the great success story of Panna Tiger Reserve can become a fantastic role model for tiger conservation across the Indian landscape 

Akash Bisht Hinauta Gate, Panna           

While lovers across the world celebrated Valentine’s Day with great passion, a unique love story created history in the wilderness of Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) in Madhya Pradesh. On February 14, 2012, the forest administration confirmed the successful breeding of an orphaned, hand-bred tigress (T4) in the dense forests of PTR. Two of the four cubs were spotted by the forest department on this happy day that would go down as a path-breaking date in the history of tiger conservation. Gladdened by the success of the tiger relocation programme in PTR, a relieved forest department declared February 14 as ‘Orphaned Tigers Cub Day’. Most forest officers and guards, their eyes shining, narrate the vivid details of this unique love story that unravelled in this unfolding, hilly, treacherous, yet untouched and pristine terrain. 

With great pride, forest guards recall how the reclusive T4 kept wandering in the periphery of the forest, maintaining no contact with other tigers and causing panic among officials. After much brainstorming, the forest department decided to lure the male tiger (T3) into a honey trap. “We sprayed tigress urine in T4’s territory and it worked; T3 followed the trail and spotted T4. Soon, the two began mating that lasted several days. Interestingly, like a typical lover trained with the ways of the jungle, T3 shared his forest wisdom with the tigress and taught her crucial lessons on hunting and survival that she lacked,” says a gleaming MP Tamrakar, Assistant Conservator of Forests (ACF), PTR. 

The forest department has every reason to smile. It was part of the historic programme that led to the reintroduction of tigers in PTR after its entire tiger population was wiped out in 2008. In the process of relocating and rehabilitating tigers, the reserve got into the record books after three of the four relocated tigresses gave birth to healthy litter. Another historical milestone was reached after two semi-wild tigresses were ‘rewilded’; they quickly and comfortably adapted in the rugged forests of the wild PTR terrain. 

'T3 is the Mr India of Panna. He presses a button and disappears in seconds and we fondly refer to him  as a man in disguise'

Trekking through the dusty trails of the forest, Tamrakar reveals that in 2008 the PTR had gone tigerless. The tiger count was a deathly zero. Just like Sariska in Rajasthan, Panna too lost all its tigers to poachers for their valued body parts. The mining lobby too allegedly played a role in the total wipe out of tigers, eyeing the vast, untouched mineral resources, including diamonds, in these forests. This was a major setback for the much hyped tiger conservation programme that was yet to recover from the Sariska shock. Intense deliberations to repopulate PTR followed this bloody massacre and it was then decided to reintroduce tigers to restore the reserve’s erstwhile glory. Additionally, R Sreenivasa Murthy, Field Director, PTR, was specially called in to change the fortunes of the ailing reserve and also submit a report on the reasons for the total wipe out of tigers. (See box

In the last couple of years, PTR’s management has impressed observers with its astute handling of complex issues that plague the reserve. What has been noteworthy are the steady and steadfast efforts to crack down on poachers and other rogue elements that pose threat to wildlife, especially tigers. However, despite the big initial success, Panna has some distance to cover before tigers find a sound footing in this wilderness. 

An ideal habitat for tigers, with a flourishing biodiversity, medicinal herbs, flora and fauna, including Saal and Mahua trees, Panna is bustling with prey base and more than 500 permanent water bodies/holes, an unpolluted, pristine Ken River and gorgeous waterfalls that not only quench the animals’ and birds’ thirst, but also provide a cool refuge during peak summers when temperatures go beyond 50 degree centigrade. Leopards, bears, crocodiles, ghadiyals, sambhars, deer, chinkaras, neelgais, wild boars, jackals, langurs, cobras, kraits, russell vipers, peacocks, jungle fowls, among a diverse spectrum of animals and birds, crowd the open grasslands, dense forests and river front. They offer an endless buffet meal to the predator. It was in the wake of such favourable conditions that relocating tigers was considered as a viable option. 

In a rare experiment, two enclosure bred tigresses were succesfully released in the wild to be 'rewilded'

‘Panna Tiger Reintroduction’ took birth in March 2009 when two tigresses (T1 and T2) were released to offset the skewed sex ratio in the reserve. Officials confirm that till the end of January 2009, a male tiger was seen roaming the forests and that was the reason for introducing only tigresses. But, by the time the tigresses were released, the tiger had fallen victim to poaching. “The male tiger left the reserve in search of a female and once he was out of the reserve, the poachers must have eliminated him,” says Murthy. Citing these complications, the MP forest department in consultation with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and Wildlife Institute of India (WII), in September 2009, decided to import two more tigresses and the same number of male tigers. “The total number of tigers to be relocated jumped to six instead of the two planned earlier,” reveals Murthy. 

However, despite the gloom, life has now turned a full optimistic circle in PTR in a short span of three years. The tiger population of the reserve has risen from zero to 17. The forest that had gone tiger bare is now reverberating with the slow roar of the tigers, sounds of mating, and cries of tiger cubs, bringing joy and relief to the resilient and hardworking forest department and environmentalists across the world. 

The beginning of this remarkable turnaround was relentlessly opposed by various stakeholders, often for dubious reasons. Soon after tigresses T1 and T2 from Bandavgarh Tiger Reserve and Kanha Tiger Reserve were relocated, the Kanha tourism lobby opposed the move to shift T2 and even dragged the forest department to court. The opposition bore great resemblance to the one witnessed in Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan where the tourism lobby opposed tiger relocation to Sariska and even fed fabricated stories to the media. 

The mining lobby allegedly played a role in the total wipe out of tigers, eyeing the vast, untouched mineral resources, including diamonds in the forest

Once the dispute was settled, wildlife authorities started to look for a male tiger from the other reserves in the state. It was then decided that the male would be brought from Bandavgarh, but scientists from Wildlife Institute of India (WII) opposed the move citing genetic complications. They didn’t want to repeat a Sariska-like controversy where the relocated tigers have failed to produce litter. It was later reported that the relocated tigers in Sariska are siblings – the reason for their failure to breed. “The sibling theory, many believe, is the reason for the tigresses not producing any litter despite mating on several occasions. However, we are yet to ascertain the real reasons for the delay. But PTR is a huge success story and we should be rejoicing with the results,” says SP Yadav, DIG, NTCA. 

Eventually, to avoid any uproar, the MP forest department then decided to import a male tiger from Pench Tiger Reserve to ensure genetic viability. This was just the beginning of the list of roadblocks that threatened to derail the entire tiger reintroduction programme in PTR. After 23 days of intense search, the forest department was successful in locating and tranquilizing the wild beast. On November 2009, T3 was released in an ‘enclosure’ in PTR and radio collared on a later date. The tiger was then released in the wild. But this wasn’t the happy ending that the authorities were looking forward to. Soon after the release, T3 remained in PTR for just 10 days and started to move southwards – towards his original, imagined homeland: Pench. 

“He trekked for 450km plus towards Pench, displaying the ‘homing instinct’ of the predator. I was determined not to lose one more tiger to poaching and adopted every measure possible to protect T3 and get him back to PTR,” says Murthy. He adds that once T3 was located, the team was in a dilemma about whether to tranquilize it as it had already been sedated twice. “Frequent tranquilizations can have an adverse impact on the tiger’s health. But once T3 started to venture in the hostile and inhospitable terrains of Chhatarpur, Sagar and Damoha, we were left with little choice. He faced serious threats from gunshots, poisoning and electrocution, and I didn’t want to take any chances,” says Murthy. For instance, as Tamrakar informed Hardnews, to stop the tiger venturing out into hostile territory, they put the entire work force on one side of the river, with flash lights and jeep lights criss-crossing, to stop the tiger. The tiger was finally brought back to PTR after 50 days of relentless search and daily action. 

It is widely believed that notorious mining lobby, with patronage of lobbies in the state government, is opposing the notification of the buffer area. This can spell disaster for tigers

Once back, the forest department took a calculated but imaginative risk. It decided to go against the scientific protocol of releasing T3 in a closed enclosure. Instead, it was released in the wild. “We didn’t want to cause any more trauma to the tiger even if it raised eyebrows,” adds Murthy. 

However, that T3 could still wander out of the forest, stalked the field director’s mind. To avoid such complications, the forest department devised an innovative method to restrict his movement. Interestingly, in an innovative and out-of-the-box move, the authorities decided to use tigress urine to allure T3. “We had 1.5 litre of tigress urine that we got from a Bhopal zoo. We sprayed it around and the smell kept T3 interested,” reveals Murthy. Also, the park management improved on its monitoring and patrolling skills, and put in place a full-proof mechanism of 24x7 monitoring across the length and breadth of the forest. 

Within four days of release, T3 stumbled upon T1 and they mated for five days. This resulted in the birth of the first generation of reintroduced tigers. It was a unique, first of its kind breeding success story of reintroduced tigers in this century. 

However, T3 and T1 fought frequently, and two cubs tragically succumbed to these skirmishes. The surviving cubs (two males) of T1 are now 23 months old (P1 and P2) and have begun hunting on their own. Both P1 and P2 are big, healthy tigers, and forest guards talk about them with great pride. Besides, T1 has again given birth to four more cubs, ushering a miraculous baby boom in the reserve. “T3 is the Mr India of Panna. He presses a button and  disappears in seconds and we fondly refer to him as a man in disguise,” says Murthy. 

Meanwhile, even T3 and T2 also shared a ‘strained relationship’ and would break into fights frequently. But, T3’s persistence finally paid off and the two mated frequently. A reclusive T2 then delivered four cubs, but without any credible evidence, the number of cubs was clouded in mystery. Eventually, the forest department relied on pugmarks to ascertain the number. It was soon revealed that T2 had four one-year-old cubs (two males and two females), who have established their own territories. T2 is presently pregnant. 

Indeed, the Panna miracle didn’t just stop here. In a rare, one of its kind experiment, two enclosure bred tigresses (T4, T5) were successfully released in the wild to be ‘rewilded’. The ‘orphan sisters’ had lost their mother in a territorial fight in Kanha when they were only 15 days old. Hand-bred for less than two years by the forest department, the tigresses were released in a bigger enclosure where they were fed live baits. “We didn’t have much choice and went ahead with the semi-wild tigresses. It was a gamble of sorts. If any of them had succumbed, then the entire experiment could have been in jeopardy. But the gamble and hard work paid off, and it’s a wonderful feeling,” says Tamrakar. 

For me Tiger is god and god should prevail. I would go to any extent to protect my god

After being released in PTR, the two tigresses had difficulty adjusting in the wild. The forest department was in a fix over the possible behaviour of such semi-wild tigresses when on their own. However, much to everyone’s surprise, the two tigresses were as ferocious as any wild tiger and have often tried to attack forest guards. Tamrakar reveals that T5 is the smart one, whose first kill was a wild boar – a difficult feat even for wild tigers. She used to be thin earlier, but has now gained weight owing to the buffet of prey base available to her. 

“It is for the first time in the history of animal reintroduction that enclosure-bred tigresses have been successfully able to adapt in the wild,” says Rajesh Gopal, Member Secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). He adds, “I give credit to Murthy and his team that have been able to successfully repopulate the region. However, the security of bigger cubs, who often camp in the periphery of the reserve, remains a great challenge. They could easily fall prey to the trigger-happy people of the region.” 

There are other forebodings, deeper fears. The rising tiger population can become a cause of concern as the 543 sq km reserve forest cannot sustain more than 20-25 tigers. If the numbers increase, more and more tigers could fall prey to infighting, and the ones dispersing out could fall prey to poachers. Additionally, the MP government’s reluctance to notify the buffer area has added to the forest department’s woes. It is widely believed that the strong and notorious mining lobby, with the patronage of lobbies in the state government, is
opposing the notification of the buffer area. This can spell disaster for the future of tiger viability in the region. 

Like a typical lover trained with the ways of jungle, T3 shared his forest wisdom with the tigress and taught her crucial lessons on hunting and survival

Reportedly, politicians and other powerful groups have stakes in mining through benami contracts and often pit locals against tigers. “It is these individuals that blame the forest department for every ill. But sometimes you do have to deal with these individuals with an iron hand because for us it’s a do or die situation,” says an official. 

However, Murthy is optimistic that the state government would notify the buffer in six months, and that would turn the tilt in favour of tigers. The other worrisome aspect is the state of corridors that connect PTR to the adjoining forests. The fragile protection in these patches of forests is in doldrums. Though officials claim that the tiger presence in the Bundelkhand landscape has improved and often tigers have been sighted, lack of organized and non-stop protection and patrolling has put a question mark on their survival. 

Another feather in PTR’s cap is its successful village relocation programme that has helped in making the reserve free of human intervention. The MP forest department has one of the best relocation programmes that other states, who otherwise struggle to relocate villages from the several tiger reserves across the country, are now trying to emulate. Out of 16 villages, 12 have been successfully relocated with no confrontation of any kind. “People are voluntarily moving out and soon Panna district in the reserve would be free of human habitation,” says Murthy. 

Much of the credit for this turnaround in PTR should be attributed to Murthy and his team, who have camped out in the open and spent sleepless nights in these forests to ensure that tigers can roam freely in this beautiful landscape. Sheer dedication, stoic resilience, round-the-clock monitoring and patrolling, and solid determination of the PTR forest department against poaching have yielded happy results. The entire forest is gleaming with life. 

The roar of the tiger is back in the wild. Its presence is felt all across the landscape. Under the leadership of Murthy, every movement of every tiger and tigress is being monitored with intelligence, passion and dedication. “The park has more than 33 watch towers which help track any suspicious movement or individual throughout the year, night and day,” says Manu, a forest guard. 

True, monitoring each and every tiger has become an arduous task for the forest department; surely, there are signs of fatigue. However, for Murthy, the work has just begun since tigers are under constant threat. He says, “Our job is to provide security and nature can recover by itself. For me, tiger is god and god should prevail. I would go to any extent to protect my god.”

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2012

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