A hapless young male tiger strayed away from its already depleted and deeply fragmented original habitat, which once allowed tigers of Malwa to travel far and wide in search of new home and mate, into the outskirts of a rapidly expanding Bhopal city. The tiger entered a fenced compound probably in the night, and when the first rays of the sun struck, he was at its wit's end when he found himself on totally unfamiliar grounds. He couldn’t gather the courage to move away and find his way back home as the clamour of the city and activities of humans had already begun, and soon he was surrounded by a huge crowd and a team of rescue personnel. He knew he was in grave danger, he tried to escape – jumped on to an asbestos roof but his huge frame was too heavy for the sheets – a sheet broke, and he fell into an empty room – trapped.
The rescue team climbed onto the roof and immobilized it. The tiger was then safely transported the tiger to Van Vihar for a health check up The next step after rescue and health check–up was to release the animal into a suitable habitat as a healthy full grown wild animal has no place in a zoo - he/she belongs to his/her habitat, alas habitats are all usurped by humans.
Tiger is not a refrigerator that you can lift, transport and install safely somewhere else - they are living creatures, they are part of a larger system and before they could be rehabilitated one has to find out a safe place ( in terms of intra- specific dynamics, availability of prey, water, and cover). Usually, when a tiger or leopard is rescued and caged the whole town wants to see the poor animal; especially the public representatives, the news reporters and the local mandarins pressurize the forest officials to keep the animal in a cage until the last member of their family takes a peep at the animal. This obsequiousness causes a lot of trauma to the captive animal, and in some cases, the irritated animal damages its canines or loses its claws as while venting its anger on the iron grills of the cage. When this happens, such an impaired animal cannot be released in its wild habitat and spends rest of its life languishing in a small enclosure of the zoo.
The rescue protocol and the law (section 11 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act demands the release of captured healthy animal in habitat suitable for it as early as possible, and under the law, the chief wildlife warden has the exclusive authority to take a decision. The forest staff doesn't keep rescued tigers on display for VIPs, news reporters and public, to save it from further persecution and trauma, – to them, the life of the tiger is more important than satisfying personal needs of individuals and to soothe their inflated egos.
As I said suitable habitats for tigers have become scarce and those areas that qualify as suitable habitats have enough tigers already. Each tiger needs a vast territory where it performs its life functions, and if the resources are scarce, it defends this piece of land with all its might. In areas where food, water, and cover are abundant tigers have been found to tolerate other tigers to a greater extent, but here, this tolerance is fragile – as such tolerance can quickly wither away with any adverse change in the conditions of the habitat. Therefore, when it comes to rehabilitating a tiger into a tiger habitat understanding these factors and finding a suitable place for release is part of the protocol. As I understand, in this particular case the wildlife wing had three choices in mind – Nauradehi sanctuary, Satpura tiger reserve, and Panna tiger reserve. Considering all the pros and cons the wing chose Panna tiger reserve as the safest place as Nauradehi is under heavy biotic pressure from 69 villages inside its boundaries and numerous others just outside the periphery, and as a result, the prey population is insignificant. Besides the staff is not trained and equipped for intensive monitoring of tigers. Reintroducing tiger at this stage may lead to serious man: animal conflict as cattle will become the staple prey.
Satpura tiger reserve has received five tigers from outside in the last three years. These tigers have occupied the relocated village sites and prey on feral cattle and herbivores who have responded well to the restored habitat. Now, at the moment there is hardly a vacant habitat where another tiger may settle down. On the north-eastern side of the reserve a few villages have been relocated recently, the habitat is still recovering, prey population is low and the feral cattle are hard to find as villagers from these villages took away all their livestock when they shifted out, therefore this site, at the moment is unsuitable for releasing tigers. The management is on its way to translocate some chital from Pench tiger reserve to catalyze rapid growth of prey here. I hope that a year from now this particular area may be in a position to sustain one or two tigers.
Panna tiger reserve stood out as the best choice among the three available options, considering the facts mentioned above. This reserve has a huge core area and a much larger buffer with some suitable habitats to sustain tiger. The habitats have improved, and the prey base has responded to this improvement. The Tiger reintroduction plan for Panna tiger reserve, emphasizes the importance of bringing one male from another area to refresh the genetic stock. There is a sound protocol as well as trained professionals for monitoring of tigers, therefore, shifting this tiger to Panna was the best possible option for the wildlife managers. The threat that a tiger might succumb to intra-specific fights, diseases or poaching is omnipresent, the only precaution that a manager must take is to remain vigilant and ready to ward off the external threats such as poaching and human-induced destruction of tiger habitat. We need not be overly sentimental about territorial fights, cannibalism, abandonment of cubs by mother and cub mortality as this is the way nature works. Even interfering too much in the case of an injury caused naturally is uncalled for, the manager should resort to such an intervention only when the tiger is incapable in cleaning and licking the injured part, or the injury is such that it needs immediate surgical intervention.
The issue of tigers in Bhopal
Next morning all the Bhopal dailies were blaming the tiger for coming to the city – Berasia mein tiger - log dahsaht mein". How callous of them. It was not the public who were being terrorized by the tiger but this poor tiger that was shivering with fear of the thousands of humans who had gathered in large number - shouting and jeering.
The News papers reported that the Hon'ble – NGT has asked the government to keep the tigers within their habitat and to see that they don't enter areas where humans live. Is it not ironical to erroneously believe that the tigers are the intruders? I wonder who the encroacher is – man or tiger?
About a 100 year ago the City of Bhopal was an extensive wild land extending in all four directions but within last six decades the expanding township began eating into nature’s strong bastion that once teemed with wild animals. The onslaught of development accelerated and in last 15 years, the city ate into the remaining wild habitats brining humans into a direct conflict with wild animals. The concrete jungle fragmented and destroyed the homes of the wild inhabitants. Look at the maps below to comprehend the situation.
Today, just a thin garland of forested habitat surrounds the city. Though the human habitations and developmental infrastructures have fragmented this habitat at places, the wild animals, especially those who need larger home-range still can move throughout this garland taking advantages of the nalas, and riparian vegetation (along the river banks). But these fragile corridors, too, are in danger as developers and builders have begun to encroach on the water courses - from some places the Kaliasot river has already become invisible under the maze of skyscrapers and homes popping up like toadstools.
Just at the south-east fringe of this garland lies the Ratapani sanctuary. Ratapani is the only secure habitat left in this tract where tigers have been breeding. Over the years the habitat has improved, and the number of tigers has increased, necessitating young tigresses and tigers to move out from within the sanctuary boundary to the forests outside the reserve to find suitable breeding and foraging places. My personal knowledge is that tiger’s movement in Kerwa has been reported every year since 1996, while a recent survey by WWF –India, in which they interviewed some village elders reveals that the tigers have been using the Kerwa-Kathotiya tract from time immemorial. It is another matter that in those times neither the media was so proactive to seek out tigers and nor the Kerwa area was so full of academic institutions, human colonies, and a heavy tourist inflow. The only change in the behavior of tigers that we see now is that some tigresses have begun using Kerwa and Smardha forests for breeding and raising cubs.
Tigers make news especially when they appear near the cities; only a little commotion precipitates in media when the large cats wander around a village. Is it an elite abhorrence of tigers? The facts that stare in our face is that the city dwellers are under real threat from rising number of criminals in Bhopal. And from among animals the city residents are more prone to contracting rabies from a huge population of stray dogs as well as their pet dogs and cats or they may get a deadly bite from the snakes that have become more active as their dwelling holes and crevices are being dug out and destroyed by colonizers ; on the other hand the tigers around Bhopal pose a marginal threat, in fact, they are themselves seriously threatened by humans.
Possible Strategy that may resolve the problem:
1. Plan the expansion of the city rationally to preserve the garland of the extant green belt around Bhopal.
2. Identify all movement paths that a tiger might use to stray into human dwellings, fence these areas off with a combination of mesh-wire and solar power fence. Both types of fences would need intensive upkeep and monitoring.
3. Train and place at least six professional teams to monitor and report tiger moment 24X7 outside Ratapani sanctuary, and issue timely alerts.
4. Identify suitable potential tiger habitats outside protected areas (in territorial divisions and buffer zones), carry out required habitat augmentation work to enhance prey base, build the capacity of the staff and equip them in a way to combat wildlife crime and monitor tigers in their areas. Once this is achieved the wildlife wing may be able to rehabilitate tigers straying out of natal areas into towns in such potential habitats.
5. Improve habitat protection and development of grasslands in Kerwa, Kathotiya Ratapani, Badi and Samradha forest and augment water sources where necessary in these areas. Once the habitat improves, translocate chital from PAs with surplus chital population.
6. Implementing this plan will entail a huge capital and recurring expenditure, but in a state that is committed to conserving its natural heritage, this is the only logical way to protect the Bhopal tigers from vanishing into oblivion.
I would emphatically say 'No' to any suggestion that involves relocating all tigers inhabiting Kerwa and Samardha forests to other areas. The reason is obvious, but people don't want to see reason – As soon as the managers remove a tiger , the dispersing tigers from Ratapani will occupy the vacant territory. Secondly, at the moment, we do not have any area left where we may safely release tigers from outside. As I said earlier, we have to create such safe release areas to accommodate tigers that are threatened by human intolerance.
Note : Views expressed above are solely my personal opinion based on my experience of managing wildlife and guiding the management of wildlife in Madhya Pradesh.