Sunday, December 31, 2006

India: Tigers are the guardians of Kanha

HUGH AND COLLEEN GANTZER

The survival of this 940 sq km of forest depends on the 128 tigers that live within.

TIGERS are the lure. Even for us, who have seen these magnificent felines in many other wildernesses, the Panthera tigris continues to cast a compelling spell. But, in Kanha, we were looking a little deeper. Was the tiger more than just a symbol of power and majesty? Did it deserve more regard than that accorded to a gravely endangered animal? We had come to suspect that it did; that it was a major contributor to the preservation of the ecological balance of our land. We had decided to test this theory by seeing things for ourselves in this National Park in Madhya Pradesh.

According to the theory, the tiger straddles the top of a food chain. It can survive only if it has enough forest cover to range in and an adequacy of prey species. These prey species, in turn, need extensive self-renewing grasslands to graze in. By preserving such forests and grasslands, rain run-off is prevented, water sinks into the earth recharging the aquifers: the layers of rock and soil able to hold and transmit water. Burgeoning aquifers lead to a growth of natural streams and ponds, the veins and arteries of an eco-system. They spread biological nutrients; sustain an entire web of life. This living web starts from microorganisms that create most of these nutrients by breaking down wastes. The web then reaches up to include more complex forms of life with the tiger at the top of Kanha's food chain.

Welcoming environment

Our theory has sensitised us. The forest impacted on us as soon as we entered it. It was cooler and damper than outside: a microclimate created by leaves that transpire moisture drawn from the soil. It felt fresher: the carbon dioxide that we breathed out was breathed in by plants and replaced by oxygen. Before us a blue forest pond spread, starred with lotuses, hosting a pair of wild ducks. Rainwater had been captured by the forest and a welcoming environment had been created for migratory waterfowl. To our delight, the birds were not disturbed by our presence.

Nor, for that matter, was the delicate chital. In the striated light of dawn, filtering through the trees, a spotted deer stag stood on the road. He did not even bother to look at our jeep. Clearly, he regarded our vehicle and us as just another non-threatening, creature of the forest. In a well-managed National Park, the wildlife accepts humans as a normal part of their existence and not as dangerous intruders.

Kahna, however, has gone beyond this. It has brought the Barasingha or swamp deer of Central India back from the virtual edge of extinction. K. Naik, Director of the Park, told us that, in 1970, only 66 of these animals had been left. Kanha started a conservation project by erecting a protective fence around a large area to keep out predators. The protected Barasingha thrived and increased; a few were periodically released into the wild. Today a basic replenishment stock is still sequestered but now there are 324 swamp deer in Kanha. We got a photograph of one of these beautiful animals in open grassland. He was a little wary but he had, very obviously, acquired enough survival skills to avoid becoming a tiger's dinner.

World's greatest predator

Tigers, however, are still threatened by the world's greatest predator: man. Rich Tibetans in Lhasa like draping themselves in tiger skins; Chinese medicine men do a thriving business peddling parts of tigers as cures for all sorts of diseases and disabilities. And unscrupulous Indians are ready to do anything if the price is right. But thanks to an increasingly enlightened policy of the wildlife management authorities of the state, tigers pay for much of their own protection. Park entry fees, charges for cameras and tiger-sighting elephant rides bring in substantial revenues. Contrary to popular belief, animals soon get used to tourists in non-polluting vehicles. In fact, the presence of observant tourists discourages poachers who would, otherwise, find it easy to deal with a few forest guards. In Kanha, the authorities have done an environmental carrying capacity study, which has placed the maximum number of vehicles to be allowed into the Park at 55.

In spite of the other cars in the Park, however, we had excellent sightings of wildlife. The birds were colourful and varied. A yellow wagtail did its little bobbing two-step; a peacock trailed the heavy extravagance of its tail before taking off in a slow flopping flight. A crested serpent eagle raised its crown and looked at us disdainfully and a scarlet minivet was a flame flaring across the forest. A jackal crossed the road and then sauntered along the verge as if we didn't exist. A wild dog ran into the forest, spotted us, and then returned to see if he had missed anything. Only the sambars seemed to be nervous. A pair, grazing at the side of the road, bolted into the forest when we drew near, stopped in the shadows and watched us through a screen of branches.

And then we joined a line of forest vehicles queuing up behind a uniformed official with a clipboard in his hand and an elephant in attendance. A tiger had been located and we would be taken in to see it on elephant back. Our pulses began to race. When our turn came we scrambled up a ladder and sat on the howdah. Slowly, we galumphed into the forest, brushing aside branches and bamboo fronds. And there, below us, bending over a pool, drinking water, was a superb tiger. Time stood still as our cameras buzzed. The tiger turned and looked up at us. And then it was over.

On this animal, and his 128 fellow tigers, depends the survival of the 940 sq. km of renewing, refreshing, revitalising forest. They are the guardians of our great ecological reservoirs. But even if they weren't, we'd still go a long, long, way to see these magnificent felines living free.

Getting There

Air: Kisli gate entrance is 165 km from Jabalpur and 259km from Nagpur.

Rail: Nearest station is Jabalpur.

Road: Taxis from Jabalpur and Nagpur and buses from Jabalpur.

Accommodation: MP Tourism's Baghira Log Huts and Tourist Hostel at Kisli. Also a number of private hotels to suit all budgets.

http://www.hindu.com/mag/2006/12/31/stories/ 2006123100430200.htm

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