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Beyond Ranthambhore – The Western India Tiger Landscape

Beyond Ranthambhore – The Western India Tiger Landscape

On a field trip across the Western India Tiger Landscape, at the heart of which lies Ranthambhore, Dr. Jimmy Borah, Sunny Shah and Sailaja Nayak discover potential tiger habitats that could sustain dispersing tigers… if we work to restore the health of these forests.

In Ranthambhore, a tigress leads her cubs to water. The national park was historically contiguous to other PAs within the Western India Tiger Landscape, but today, fragmentation and degradation have drastically severed the connectivity of corridors, which nevertheless continue to hold great potential to allow the movement of tigers looking for territories away from natal areas. Photo: Saran Vaid/Entry-Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2015.

The dry arid Ranthambhore landscape treated us to a numbing cold wave when we started our field trip into the Western India Tiger Landscape (WITL) in the winter of 2014. While the summer had racked us with heat waves and dehydration, the winter cold and warm sunshine provided a welcome contrast. We were on a ‘recce’ to understand where and how animals such as tigers disperse from their natal areas, to establish themselves in this landscape.

The WITL has been conceptualised across a network of Protected Areas (PAs) that includes two tiger reserves, the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve (RTR) and Mukandara Hills Tiger Reserve (MHTR). Other national parks and wildlife sanctuaries that complete the landscape include the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary, Madhav National Park, National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary, Ramgarh-Vishdhari Wildlife Sanctuary, Ghatigaon Wildlife Sanctuary, Van Vihar (Dhaulpur) and the Karera Bustard Wildlife Sanctuary.

The Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve is a source site for tigers in the Western India Tiger Landscape, despite being under immense anthropogenic pressure. Photo: Sunny Shah.

The Scope of Kailadevi

After traversing around 110 km. via Gangapur city from Sawai Madhopur, we reached Kailadevi, the northern extension of Ranthambhore, part core, part buffer of the tiger reserve. The 647 sq. km. sanctuary, is located in the Karauli district of Rajasthan within the Karauli and Sapotra blocks. The sanctuary is bound on the south by the Banas river and to the east by the Chambal river. The sanctuary continues to be home to several pastoral and agricultural communities that are dependent substantially on its resources for their livelihood. The vegetation type is dry deciduous, with a predominance of Anogeissus pendula, locally known as dhok. There are three altitudinal levels to the sanctuary with distinct vegetation types. The uppermost tabletop is dominated by dhok. The lower tabletop by Euphorbia sp. and Zizyphus nummularia. The lower-most level is characterised by ravines, with flat land near the banks of the Chambal largely studded by Anogeissus pendula, Acacia nilotica and Prosopis juliflora. It is these ravines in Karanpur, Gota and Maharajpura that enable tigers and other wildlife to move from one area to another, proving to be a vital facility for dispersing carnivores.

Locals refer to the terrain of valleys and river gorges, as khos. Possibly on account of higher moisture retention and cooler temperatures, these khos sustain a wide variety of flora and fauna. During our journey, we also observed four species of vultures – White-rumped, Indian (Long-billed), Red-headed and Egyptian – in the gorges of Mahadev in Kailadevi. This is truly an amazing place for researchers working on vultures, and should definitely be on their list of sites to visit.

Transient tigers have occasionally been reported from Kailadevi, which is used by the cats to disperse across the landscape. One of the recent tigers reported was identified as T-71, the cub of tigress T-30 from Ranthambhore. It might be worthwhile to explore assisted management of this habitat as well as to augment prey base in the area. Studies across different countries in Africa, and in India too, have provided evidence that augmenting prey in properly managed habitats, which includes managing grasslands, can be beneficial to the large flagship species. Areas like Garhi ka kho in Kailadevi, which is surrounded by hills on three sides and has a perennial source of water, can be converted to suitable habitat for prey. This would, however, require major effort from all stakeholders involved. The Rajasthan Forest Department has taken this up seriously, and is positive to the approach of restoring the area. We feel that the desired interventions and management inputs currently missing from Kailadevi, if implemented can change the entire picture for the better.

The Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve is a source site for tigers in the Western India Tiger Landscape, despite being under immense anthropogenic pressure. Photo: Jimmy Borah.

A Tiger River

Continuing our rendezvous, we drove one murky morning towards the Chambal river. Gliding over the gleaming river, with their wings spread, and adjusting themselves against the winds, River Terns and skimmers were a sight to behold. A spontaneous boat ride in the Palighat belt of the Chambal was equally exhilarating.  We were not fortunate enough to sight the world famous gharials, but were still left in awe of a riverine ecosystem that Ranthambhore’s tigers use to disperse towards neighbouring Protected Areas.

The National Chambal Sanctuary (NCS) is one of the most important habitats in the region, where several globally-threatened fauna still survive. Despite being one of the last remaining rivers of the greater Gangetic Drainage Basin with high conservation values, the Chambal faces severe extractive and intrusive pressures. Anthropogenic influences include dams, sand mining, shore-side cultivation, fishing and sundry domestic use. Major hydrological modifications have been inflicted by water impoundment and extraction. For their long-term survival, such ecologically fragile parcels of land need recognition from the World Heritage Convention and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. This might help to check the numerous threats to the river. The way forward should also be for the Forest Department to engage with local communities and win their involvement and support for the conservation of the area through education, communication and outreach programmes.

The Apolitical Cat

The Chambal acts as the natural boundary, in part, between the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Crossing the city of Sheopur, the famous Palpur-Kuno beckoned! It was supposed to be the new home for both lions and cheetahs, which for different reasons have not yet materialised. The tiger, however, is unmoved by human politics. It has therefore traversed a matrix of landscapes to occupy Kuno for good reason. The area supports a high density of prey species. Good management in Kuno has enabled palatable and perennial grasses to stock the habitat with sustenance for herbivores. Weeds and unpalatable grasses that grow at relocated village sites are being slowly replaced by edible grasses including Dichanthium annulatum, D. caricosum, D. tuberosum, Cynodon dactylon, C. barberi, Chloris virgata, Heteropogon contortus, Cenchrus ciliaris, Urochloa mutica and Themeda triandra due to active management practices. The dry deciduous forest, interspersed with grasslands, with the river Kuno flowing through the sanctuary has turned this into one of the greatest potential Protected Areas in India. Kuno’s south-eastern boundary is contiguous, albeit patchily, with the Panna Tiger Reserve through the Shivpuri forest. Looking over the vast expanses, it occurs to us that Palpur-Kuno should really be highlighted as a model to demonstrate how to rewild areas once-dominated by humans and how proper grassland management can be carried out successfully, which would be very useful for the long term understanding of ecological changes taking place.

We stayed at the beautiful Palpur Forest Rest House, which overlooks the Kuno river and offers astonishing views of its associated forests. As darkness fell, the night sky was lit by a mesmerising blanket of stars, to the accompaniment of the sound of the flowing Kuno. We were at once at peace with the serene environment and wondered how people imagine they are in a position to ‘negotiate’ terms with nature. In the present context of our nation’s development, we seem to ignore the fact that a solid economic base can only be built on a solid, healthy ecological foundation.  A country with a shaky ecological base is destined to remain poor, both materially and spiritually.

Kuno had more delights in store for us, revealed while driving through the forest. Apparently, feral cattle left behind by the relocated villagers are being preyed upon by large carnivores including leopards. Sighting one of those elusive cats was consequently a major highlight of the day.

Interestingly, tigers have begun to discover safe haven in the Madhav National Park too. A tigress with cubs was recently reported, which suggests that tigers have functional migratory routes from other breeding areas. A previous study indicated genetic mixing between tigers of Ranthambhore and Madhav in the recent past. This augurs well for the striped carnivores that are struggling to hold their own in the face of fragmentation, and poaching. Clearly the sporadic dispersal of large cats might be happening even today from Ranthambhore to Madhav National Park.

The Chambal’s riverine ecosystem supports the dispersal of Ranthambhore’s tigers to nearby Protected Areas and also populations of the critically endangered gharial. Photo: Sunny Shah.

A Matter of Time

South of Ranthambhore lies Rajasthan’s third tiger reserve, after Ranthambhore and Sariska – the Mukandara Hills Tiger Reserve. Though there are no tigers reported from here, this forest is a natural extension to Ranthambhore and must be recognised as a potential tiger-recovery zone, given the presence of grasslands, woodlands and perennial water sources. As we drove around the park, we saw ‘Coming Soon’ signages with tiger portraits that spoke volumes of the optimism and determination of the Rajasthan State Forest Department. This bodes well for the vision of developing landscape-level conservation initiatives to support large tiger areas under common conservation authority and management. Field studies have further broadened our understanding of the landscape now, and we are fairly sure Mukandara will indeed soon be occupied by dispersing tigers.

Mukandara derives its name from two continuous flat topped, almost parallel hills with narrow central ridges, forming part of the Vindhayan range extending from the Chambal river to Kali Sindh, a length of roughly 80 km. with a width ranging from between two and five kilometres.

At the Raontha range, we met the Range Officer and Flying Squad staff (the equivalent of the Special Tiger Protection Force in other tiger reserves). They are still on a learning curve in terms of experience and expertise, but they more than made up for this with enthusiasm and pride that the area in their charge has been declared a tiger reserve. We also visited the Laxmipura and Kharli Bawdi villages located inside the tiger reserve (both were relocated in April 2016 after opting for voluntary relocation). With effective habitat management this will gift tigers with productive grasslands, on which herbivores will flourish.

This defines the very future of tigers – our ability to develop pastures that can enhance and support a prey base in the long run.

We were offered tea by hospitable locals, who confirmed that most land owners had moved towards cities in search of better livelihoods. At a time when droughts and floods, the handmaidens of climate change, are crippling India, we found ourselves reflecting on the prospects of future generations. It is ironic that in the name of securing their tomorrows, we think fit to devastate the very forests on which their fate hinges, all in the name of economic development.

Such were the thoughts that ran through our minds as we wound our way back to camp. Suddenly the evening calm was shattered by the bellowing alarm calls of both chital and sambar. We stopped our four-wheel-drive vehicle, and waited with baited breath as the silence enveloped us. We knew it could not be a tiger, but still were on tenterhooks. More alarm calls followed, to the accompaniment of the cackle-barking of langurs. That was when we heard the unmistakable sawing sound of a leopard, out of sight, but within earshot. This was one occasion when being there, without laying eyes on what you were in search of was possibly more exciting than an actual sighting.

The map depicts crucial tiger dispersal routes within the Western India Tiger Landscape.

Protection and Dispersal

For decades now the question uppermost in the minds of all those who have worked steadfastly to protect Ranthambhore has been: “Where will the park’s dispersing tigers go?” Undoubtedly for the Western India Tiger Landscape, Ranthambhore is a source site for tigers, despite being surrounded by a human-dominated landscape. Everyone is well aware of the enhanced risk of human-tiger conflict problems and of poaching pressures that have continually hampered even the most dedicated conservation efforts. This plan to assure dispersing tigers safe haven could be just the game-changer that Ranthambhore was waiting for. Apart from the potential rise in tiger numbers, we can look forward to more vibrant genetic diversity, a core-critical priority to avoid eventual inbreeding.

Palpur-Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary and Madhav National Park are located relatively close to Ranthambhore, and Mukandara Hills forest is connected to Ranthambhore through the Ramgarh Vishdhari Wildlife Sanctuary. Each of these places has the potential to hold reasonable tiger numbers that could serve as meta-populations. It is vital, therefore, that our national conservation strategy recognises the need for intensive management, protection and sensible ecological restoration measures. Monitoring such Intensive Conservation Units (ICUs) and making them the sites for long term studies that seek to enhance connectivity between PAs, controlling poaching and involving villagers who would then become the primary beneficiaries of biodiversity regeneration is an exciting challenge for officials, scientists and young conservationists who will soon take charge.

Undoubtedly, historically, these areas were contiguous. Their linkages were snapped through human actions, and fragmentation is now the order of the day. Solve this and reduce the incidence of poaching pressures and we have a potential tiger-recovery miracle on the horizon. Studies suggest that the incidents we have discovered of ‘forced migration’ of tigers, points to the dispersal of only a small fraction of young animals from Ranthambhore. Many more must have attempted unsuccessfully through this landscape. Indirect evidence in the form of pugmarks and livestock kills, however, proves that such migration attempts are still ongoing. In other words, following instincts and imperatives, the expanding populations of Ranthambhore tigers are risking their lives by negotiating passage through hostile terrain in search of new territories such as the Madhav National Park. Multiple such instances of tiger dispersal are on record since 1999 and by now we know the dispersal routes of choice fairly well.

The Kuno river flows through the wildlife sanctuary that bears its name. A healthy prey base thrives here in a mix of deciduous forests, interspersed by grasslands. Photo: Sitaram Taigor.

The tigers are literally telling us what to do. Which areas to protect. Where our conservation investments should be focused. If we are not to lose the potential for one of the world’s most significant wildlife victories then without further ado we must put intensive and extensive efforts in place with one singular goal… to improve the connectivity between RTR and all the surrounding PAs listed above. Similarly, the ring of protected forests that tigers are trying to reach, must themselves also have stand-alone corridors linking one PA to another. This would involve collaborative efforts between the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, a task that should not be thwarted by either politics, or narrow parochial interests. In the process, it is not merely tigers that would benefit. Wolves to caracals, kingfishers to cranes, bees and bats, plus the grasses, wetlands, forests and riverine ecosystems that lie along this western India arid zone landscape would all benefit, as would the people of Rajasthan, who so well understand the worth and value of water. They will be blessed by the recharge of aquifers that will stock their wells with pure, life-giving water.

Triggered by the tiger, which in truth is more than a metaphor for all of nature, this, to our mind, would constitute real national development for India.

With an interest in understanding large carnivore population dynamics and movement at a landscape scale, Jimmy currently leads the tiger conservation programme of WWF-India.  A conservation practitioner who believes in holistic approaches to conservation, Sunny presently leads the WITL programme of WWF-India as the Landscape Coordinator in Rajasthan and North MP. An award-winning wildlife biologist, Sailaja has been instrumental in following the dispersing tigers in human-dominated landscape, and has generated significant information on dispersal routes and corridors for tigers in the WITL.

Authors: Dr. Jimmy Borah, Sunny Shah and Sailaja Nayak, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 6, June 2016.

 
 
 

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