Photograph by Navya R.
For three months, the young tigress refused to leave my mind. How could she share her space with so many humans? How did she manage to survive in such a landscape? The only reason I knew she was there was the GPS collar fitted on her.
Resting close to human habitation, in dense thickets or forest patches close to villages, she even chose to stay out of sight near a temple that received hundreds of visitors. On one occasion, she walked past an open, unprotected cowshed.
We called her ‘Kala’ and she is the first tiger to be collared in Maharashtra. She had fallen in an irrigation canal, was rescued by the Maharashtra Forest Department, treated for her injuries, collared and then released on November 27, 2011, close to where she had been captured. I undertook the monitoring work two months after Kala was collared. Even though Girish Punjabi, who had monitored her earlier, had told me that she moved close to villages at times during the night, it was only after I followed her that I truly comprehended how close.
Kala was released in the forests of Bhivapur area and after a month, she began heading towards the human-use landscape of the Bramhapuri Forest division, 30 km. from the eastern edge of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. This is where she stayed the entire time that I monitored her. And it would appear that many tigers and other wild animals live like this, close to humans. A century ago, this landscape was one of the finest forests in Maharashtra. Today, it has been carved up by vast croplands and human habitations.
Collaring and tracking the tigress
We used a GPS-GSM collar, which records the location of the animal at intervals that we set, and then transmits the data by SMS to the server (www.nina.no) from where we download it. The same server was used for a leopard-collaring project in Maharashtra, a collaboration between the Indian Institute of Science, NINA (Norwegian Institute for Nature Research) and the Maharashtra Forest Department.
On the first day, a forest guard and I, along with a friend, set out to check the locations (multiple GPS locations were bunched together) where she had spent the last week. At one of the locations, we found a wild pig kill, and where she had rested (a small, clear patch in the leaf litter), we could see her pale, long hair on the soil. We could also detect the VHF (very high frequency) signals from her collar, through a hand-held receiver. I was amazed by the technology that allowed us to go to the exact location and get a glimpse into the life of this secretive animal. The next three days were spent in checking the signs she had left behind –pugmarks, hair, scats, scrapes and kills.
Meanwhile, I was trying to acclimatise myself to the new place, people, food and language. On the third day, I received a call saying “her GPS locations are very close to the highway.” We left instantly for the location, a small patch of grassland surrounded by agricultural fields 230 m. from the Major State Highway (MSH) 9. This was one of her night points!
She regularly crossed SH 9 and other main roads during the night, and easily walked through barren agricultural fields (most people practice rain-fed agriculture and this was the peak of summer) and quarry hills where people worked during the day. Three of her GPS locations were less than 100 m. from villages, but she was clearly avoiding human contact, though she moved and even rested close to human habitation during the day.
Kala used both forested and non-forested areas, but her behaviour was decidedly nocturnal and she preferred to rest during the day in dense areas. In the four months since she was released, she had traversed 454.65 km. (354.98 km. at night and 99.66 km. during the day).
Several questions continued to plague me. Was she new to the area? As a young female, was she probably a disperser, looking for a territory? When she moved from one forest patch to the other through agricultural fields at night, how would she know exactly where the next forest patch was, that she had to reach before daybreak? Did this indicate that she already knew this area? Could she have been here before with her mother?
We were able to make other interesting observations: One day I received Kala’s signals from a lake outside the forest. As I approached, the beeps got louder and it turned out she had sought refuge in the lake reed bed of tall Ipomea plants. This was surrounded by open ground on one side, crisscrossed by dirt roads used by vehicles, people and cattle. I sat in one corner of the open ground where I could still get her signal and I watched many people and vehicles on the move – in a span of two hours, I counted four bullock carts and three tractors. I saw a bullock cart emerging from a dirt road, which cuts through the reed bed, which I had not noticed earlier. I followed that road and the beeps got louder and louder. I badly wanted to see Kala, but sense prevailed… the reed bed was very dense. We did not want to disturb her. Nor did we want to alert people to the tiger’s presence. I left the location and went to check the lay of the land from her readings of the previous day. But then, I returned to where she was later in the evening and found her right where I had left her. I sat on the opposite side of the lake for another two hours and watched 30-40 goats with two herders, plus three women walking and one bullock cart passing the road. As the night set in, I had to leave and Kala, too, left the reed bed for the night. The next day, on checking her GPS locations in the reed bed, I found that she was just 80 m. from the dirt road used by people. It was truly incredible!
Another time she had chosen to rest in a forest patch close to a village, 140 m. from a road frequented by humans. She even killed a wild pig in a field two kilometres away, 470 m. from a village, feeding on it at night then returning to the forest patch to spend the day. When we located her kill, only the head remained and though we set up camera traps, we doubted she would return just for the head. But she did! And in the process, we obtained her first image and video clip post-collaring. The skull and jaws of the pig were clean without a piece of meat left in them, and I realised how important the meal was to her in such a landscape.
On another occasion, she killed a wild pig in the reed bed outside the forest, 320 m. from the main road and she stayed there for three full days! We also observed some of her locations just 10 m. and 70 m. from cowsheds, yet she did not attack any livestock. The forest patches were small and she had to move doggedly through human-modified landscapes in search of prey and water. As one day led to the next, summer progressed and the heat was getting unbearable for me. I wondered how Kala managed with few or no water sources in the small forest patches where she rested all day. These patches also faced anthropogenic pressures, as people collected firewood and mahua flowers, Madhuca longifolia, used for food and to brew a local alcoholic drink.
Note: This map is used for visual effect only. It is neither accurate nor authenticated.
Where is Kala?
At the end of the fourth month, we received no GPS locations for three days and later discovered that the GPS collar battery had drained. While we could not get GPS, the VHF battery was still working and we decided to track her by visiting all her previous locations. We visited area after area she had used for three months without a signal. Occasionally, I got a tiny beep, but then it would stop and I wondered if I was hallucinating. The area was vast – about 400 sq. km. – and the heat was brutal. Most of the forest looked dry and I could hardly see any green.
As we were thinking of winding up the project, I continued trying to raise her on the VHF. On the fourth day, I stopped near a hillock behind a village for signals and I heard a faint beep. I asked the forest guard who accompanied me every day, if he too had heard it and he confirmed that he had. As I moved towards the hillock, the beeps got louder and louder. I was ecstatic. She was right there, between two hillocks. Though the forest was dry, it had dense undergrowth and I followed a small trail inside. I could see people on either side gathering firewood. The signals were audible, but there was no sign of her. I even climbed trees to catch some glimpse of her, but the undergrowth was too dense and she was an accomplished cat.
As a wildlife lover and a researcher, it was fascinating to learn about this cat, but there are questions that remain unanswered. This land is home to both tigers and humans. Lives are lost on both sides due to conflicts, although that is rare. I wonder what challenges Kala will face when she has her own cubs and has to take care of them with so many humans around. Living in this landscape could not be easy for humans either. Water is an issue in summer and humans and wild animals must compete for this scarce, life-giving resource. When people enter the forest for firewood, dangerous, accidental encounters are a distinct possibility.
Photograph by Navya R.
We know so little about the cats and that makes it even more difficult to live with them, with minimum losses to both species. Tools like GPS-GSM collars can be extremely useful in understanding these elusive creatures. These were the once-famed forests of Maharashtra but canals, mining and roads are slowly chipping them away. Is it too late to protect what remains of our natural heritage, which is older than our civilisation… with the support of the people?
Note: All tiger reserves have carnivores wandering into human-dominated areas around the fringes. Since we are unsure whether or not the tiger continues to use the areas mentioned in this article, for her protection, we have omitted precise details about her movements. This study was part of a collaborative work between the Maharashtra Forest Department, NINA and the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore, and was carried out under Vidya Athreya’s (WCS-India) supervision.
Author: Navya R., First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, April 2013.