Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Kanha's many moods

NITHILA BASKARAN AND SIDDHARTH RAO The Kanha National Park is a happy hunting ground for wildlife enthusiasts, especially tiger lovers.

MEADOWS covered by the morning mist, the persistent call of the Painted Francolin, the emerald green of fresh sal leaves, the quiet excitement when a tiger appears on the meadows. These are lingering memories of the Kanha National Park. Having visited the sanctuary several times over a period of two years we are lucky to have observed the forest in every season and through its many moods.

Located in central India, in the eastern part of the Satpura Hills of Madhya Pradesh, Kanha covers a total area of 1,945 square kilometres. Of this, 940 sq km forms the core area and the remaining 1,005 sq km what is known as the buffer zone; 25 per cent of the park's core area is open to visitors and is called the tourism zone. This is the fabled tiger country of Rudyard Kipling and it was here that he got the feel of the Indian forests. It contains a cross section of the incredible Indian wildlife. This area abounded in wildlife and was a favourite hunting ground during the time of the Raj.

The first evidence of forest protection and management goes back to 1862, when the unauthorised felling of teak, sal, saja, shisham and bija were banned. Around 1865, a part of the present national park was officially designated the Banjar Valley Reserve Forest. In the 1950s, there was widespread concern about the rapidly depleting tiger population and it was then that Kanha was officially classified as a national park. This was nearly 20 years after Corbett became the first national park in India.

In the mid-1960s, the wildlife biologist George Schaller carried out pioneering research into the Kanha ecosystem and published the results in his seminal work The Deer and the Tiger (1967). Schaller, who came to study the chital, ended up studying the tiger and its prey animals. The book sounded the alarm and drew the attention of biologists worldwide to the plight of the tiger and other Indian wildlife. A series of assessments revealed that the situation was indeed precarious.

The Government of India started protective measures and today it is one of the best-managed protected areas in the country.

The forests of Kanha are characterised by four types of vegetation: dry deciduous, moist deciduous, valley meadows and plateau meadows. The park is home to 31 species of trees, 29 species of mammals and about 250 species of birds. The most endangered mammals are the tiger and the hard-ground barasingha (swamp deer), which was rescued from the brink of extinction thanks to the exceptional efforts of the park administration.

Sal forests surround the Kanha meadows. These meadows cover about 12 sq km and form part of the territory of four tigers of the park. George Schaller recorded over 29 species of grasses in the meadows alone. Such valley grasslands account for about 6.5 per cent of the park.

One of the tigers in Kanha is the Churi tigress, whose territory covers the Churi hills and a part of the Kanha meadow. We found it surveying the meadow which was abloom with grass flowers. This 18-month-old female was taking a break from stalking a chital. The tigress has reared three sets of cubs, all of whom it brought down to the grasslands for hunting lessons. The grasslands are ideal hunting ground for a tiger since it is open, easy to stalk and supports a large number of deer and other prey.

The tiger is the only big cat with stripes. The theory is that the stripes evolved over the years to help the tiger camouflage itself while hunting. Stripes, like the spots and rosettes on many other cat species, break up the image of an animal's body in long grass or in the dappled light of the forest. According to one theory, the stripes of tigers are actually elongated spots.

The tiger is at the apex of the food chain. An adult tigress will kill a fair-sized prey once in every seven or eight days. A tigress with cubs will need to kill more often.

The prey range from porcupines and peacocks to barasinghas and gaurs (Indian bison). In spite of a tiger's stealth, camouflage and power, only one in 10 to 20 attempts results in a successful kill. We glimpsed a tiger cub feeding on a full-grown male gaur that was killed the previous night by one of its parents. It is not very common for tigers to kill an adult gaur which could easily weigh up to a tonne.

The tiger is a highly territorial animal and will defend its territory with its life; this is different from the tiger's home range where it will travel through in search of food, water and mates. Typically a male tiger's territory is much larger and will overlap those of several females.

Spray marking is a common means by which a male tiger marks its territory. A mixture of urine and scent from the anal gland is sprayed on to trees, shrubs and rocks. Every individual male tiger has his own unique scent that it sprays. Other tigers that pass will be aware of the presence of the tiger that left the spray marking.

A tiger possesses what is known as a vomeronasal organ, by which it can detect the urine marking of other tigers in the area. The tiger wrinkles its nose and hangs its tongue out in a grimace to do this. This behaviour is known as flehmen; male tigers also do this to sense whether a tigress is ready to mate.

One of the biggest success stories of conservation in Kanha has been the barasingha. On the verge of extinction in 1970, the deer with a population of 66 has now grown in numbers to over 350. This deer gets its name from the 12 tines in an adult male's antlers. The barasingha's habitats are the meadows or valley grasslands.

Winter is the time for `rutting', the period when the barasingha mates, when the haunting calls of barasingha stags reverberate across the meadows. The stags decorate their antlers with grass, exhibit threat displays and fight off competitors for fertile does.

The Kanha National Park is special not only because of the diversity of species but because habitats like open grasslands are ideal for close observation of animals and their behaviour. One can even say without exaggeration that one's Indian wildlife experience is incomplete without a trip to the beautiful Kanha National Park.

Nithila Baskaran is a conservation activist based in Bangalore and Siddharth Rao is a wildlife researcher working on the Malabar Civet in the Western Ghats.

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