How the Indian Tiger Scripted a New History in Wildlife Conservation

On the occasion of World Tiger Day celebrated on July 29, retired forest officer MN Jayakumar shares his experiences of tiger conservation in India as well as some of his iconic pictures of the Lord of the Indian Jungle.

Due to relentless poaching in the past, the Indian Royal Bengal Tiger almost vanished from Indian forests. Its obituary had been written as poaching was rampant. The returns on tiger skin as well as its bones and body parts were huge and Chinese traditional medicine even believes it has therapeutic value leading to a large scale murder of tigers.

However Project Tiger came to the rescue to script a miraculous save, says M N Jayakumar. With the announcement of the latest census data on tigers, Karnataka is the second state in the country in tiger numbers.  Madhya Pradesh is the top state and both these states have more than 500 tigers.

How has India protected the tiger in natural habitats rather than in manmade artificial habitats?

Historically India had over 40,000 tigers at the beginning of the 20th century and the number started coming down drastically because of loss of habitat and hunting and poaching. The number became alarmingly low in the early 1970's. At this point of time "Project Tiger" was launched in 1973 identifying 9 Tiger Reserves in the country encompassing 9115 sq km of forests.  Bandipur N P was the only reserve selected from Karnataka.

This project is a landscape-based project keeping the tiger at the apex and carrying out all activities such as habitat improvement, water conservation, providing salt licks for herbivores, creation of water holes at critical spots and anti-poaching measures. The main purpose was to give complete protection and create favorable conditions for the tigers to breed and prosper

Over a period of time new tiger reserves were getting added periodically and as on date we have 51 tiger reserves in the country covering about 72000 sq km of forests.

We have five tiger reserves in Karnataka now - Bandipur NP, Nagarahole (Rajiv Gandhi) NP, BRT Wildlife Sanctuary, Bhadra tiger reserve and Anshi-Dandeli tiger reserve.

Project Tiger is rated as one of the best conservation efforts in the whole world. The tiger population is steadily increasing and with more than 3000 wild tigers, India is accounting for nearly 70% of global tiger population.

Karnataka is a very unique state comprising of vast stretches of the Western Ghats, the Eastern Plains and a portion of the Deccan Plateau. Consequently, the varied biotopes found in the state present a vast and rich biodiversity.

A variety of agro-climatic, soil, altitude and rainfall patterns seen in the state has been responsible for declaring more than 30 Protected Areas in the state including 5 National Parks, and more than 25 Wildlife Sanctuaries and Conservation Reservations to give protection to a multitude of flora and fauna found in them.

The forests of Karnataka are home to nearly 100 species of mammals, 600 species of birds and a large number of reptiles and amphibians. The endemic nature of some of these species make the state unique as one need to come here only to watch them.

The onset of monsoons make the forests lively and vibrant with a number of water falls becoming very active. Jog falls in Shimoga district, Abbe and Iruppu falls in Kodagu district, Cauvery falls in Mandya district, Sathodi falls and Dhoodhsagar falls in Uttara Kannada district and Gokak falls in Gokak are some of them. Jog falls is undoubtedly the best of the lot with the river Sharavathi cascading down to a depth of 850 feet during the rainy season and it is a must see place for any one.

Photos by M N Jayakumar

How has India managed connectivity corridors, prey availability and man animal conflict?

The Tiger is at the apex of the Biological Pyramid in the above reserves whereas in the Sanctuaries and Conservation Reserves situated in the Eastern Plains and the Deccan Plateau,  the Grey Wolf is at the apex of the Biological Pyramid. Tigers feed mostly on Chital, Sambar and Gaurs whereas the Grey Wolf mostly feed on Blackbuks and sheep and goat found grazing in the grass lands. The abundance of prey in the TRs is responsible to support the three major predators- Tiger, Leopard and Wild Dogs in these forests which is very unique.

Karnataka has earned the Distinction of being called the “Tiger State of India “since the last couple of years with a population of over 400 tigers. Large cats are always charismatic and the sighting of a large cat in our forests is exciting and awe-inspiring. We do have the forests where there is a high probability of sighting tigers. In fact, tigers are being sighted almost every day in Bandipur and Nagarahole TRs from December onwards.

The Kabini backwater area is an undisputed paradise for both Asiatic elephants and leopards, as well as for the area’s main predators – the tiger and the wild dog. The wildlife biomass of this National Park is stated to be second only to the legendary Serengeti in Tanzania. In order to sustain the three main predators, our forests will have to support a very strong prey base. This calls for a healthy habitat to be created and protected with equilibrium maintained to sustain the natural food chain. Fortunately, as of today, the forests of Karnataka are vibrant and brimming with a much higher proportion of large mammals and ungulates which provide food for the predators.

Is sighting a tiger rare today. What has been your experience?

Tiger sighting has improved phenomenally over the years. Before 2000, one had to be really lucky to sight a tiger in the forests of South India whereas it was possible to see them in some of the Central and North Indian forests. But now tiger sightings are very good in many forests of India. This is largely due to the fact that tigers have bred, they are fairly well protected and improvement in infrastructural facilities around the tiger reserves

Since tigers are highly territorial, each forest has its own carrying capacity to support this big cat. The excessive population starts moving away and find their own territory either in the adjoining forests or the closest sanctuary or National Park. Corridors linking these forests and sanctuaries are vital for their free dispersal. In the process, there could be some man-animal conflicts and they could be easily resolved by educating the people living around the forests and creating an awareness. We have, therefore, created ecodevelopment societies involving local people through which the dependence of local villagers on forests is minimized and this would also help in reducing the conflict situations.

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, for example, has the largest number of tigers in a single landscape in the world, and recent population trends bodes well for the future of tigers.

What are the other rare creatures in this biosphere?

The Eastern Plains and the Deccan Plateau also offer an opportunity to see wildlife of a different kind.  Daroji Sloth bear Sanctuary, situated adjoining the world famous Hampi ruins, a world Heritage site declared by UNESCO, is an outstanding place to see the elusive Sloth bears. In my opinion, this is, perhaps, the best place in the world to see these animals. The Painted Spur-fowl, another beautiful bird, is a certainty in this sanctuary. The endangered Yellow-throated Bulbul could also be seen in Hampi.

We do get a large population of Bar-headed geese coming down in winters. One of the best places to see them is Magadi Kere (tank) in Gadag district where one can see upwards of 10000 of these winged beauties in good times. This large tank also supports a good variety of birds and has been recently declared as a bird sanctuary.

Basur Kaval is another phenomenal area in Chikmagalur district where one can see a lot of Blackbucks, Indian foxes, the endangered Grey wolf and more than 60 species of birds and is a declared Conservation Reserve now.

I have had the pleasure of visiting most of the major National Parks and Sanctuaries of India and if someone asks me to name one district or place which is a must see place and to be included in one’s bucket list, then,  I would say without hesitation that it would be Mysore. This is because, within a radius of about 100 km, we have so many beautiful natural places to see like the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, BRT TR, Bandipur TR, Nugu Wildlife Sanctuary, Nagarahole TR, Arabithittu Sanctuary, Ranganathittu and a number of wetlands and lakes. Barring the Asiatic lion and the One-horned rhino, all the major mammals of India and a variety of birds could be seen here. The additional advantage in Mysore is that being the capital of the erstwhile  Mysore Kings, who were keen Shikharis (hunters ) in the past, most of these forests had been scientifically managed and protected for over a century and the legacy was carried forward by foresters post independence. The method of capturing wild elephants by ‘ Khedda ‘ had become famous all over the world. Development of good infrastructure and tourist friendly initiatives taken in the last 3-4 decades has made Karnataka a dream destination for all the nature and wildlife lovers of the country and a real paradise for wildlife photographers

(Dr Jayakumar, forest officer from Karnataka belonging to the 1979 batch of the IFS, retired as the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Karnataka. A nature and wildlife photographer he is the recipient of two of the most coveted photographic distinctions of the world – the Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, England (FRPS) and Master of the International Federation of Art Photography body affiliated to UNESCO.)