Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tracking tigers in India's Tadoba Andhari reserve

Tuesday, February 27, 2007 00:45 IST

Fellows at Wildlife Institute of India are camera-trapping tigers at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. DNA’s Ashwin Aghor takes a safari in the wild.

With the major Project Tigers like Ranthambore and Sariska in Rajasthan proving to be big failures, the tiger has fewer jungles to roam in. Sadly enough, noted environmentalist and Tiger-Man of India, Valmik Thapar, who once boasted the success of Project Tiger and grabbed every opportunity to promote Ranthambore as a success story, was one of those who learnt about failure of Project Tiger rather late in the day.

However, before the striped majestic animal can fade into oblivion, the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) is proving to be the silver lining.

In fact, the real land of the tiger in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra is one place that has seen a consistent rise in its tiger population over the last decade, especially after being included in Project Tiger. The population of the big cat in TATR has increased manifold over the years, courtesy dedicated and whole-hearted efforts put in by forest department officials and positive support they have got from people of the region.

The tiger population in TATR — in 1995 when it was declared a Project Tiger — was around 27. As per the Census conducted in 2006, that has gone up to 41. The biggest achievement of TATR is that the big cat is not only moving freely inside the protected area, but also outside it. This is proved by the fact that the tiger population in the non-protected area adjoining TATR is 49. According to the first and only Review of Tiger Reserves Assessment Report prepared by IUCN—the World Conservation Union, Asia Region Office at Bangkok, published in 2005, TATR ranks 9th among 28 Project Tigers in India. Sariska ranks 28th while Ranthambore is on 26th place.

The concern raised following the sharp decline in the tiger population in the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and its extinction from Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, the Ministry of Forest and Environment along with the Government of India jumped into action and began assessing tiger density in the country. The outcome of marathon high-level meetings was the All-India Major Carnivorous and its Prey Assessment and Evaluation of Habitat Programme. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehra Dun, was chosen for the project as the institute was the best agency to take on the mammoth task. The WII is a part of this programme started a massive study that began in July 2005 with the training of forest officials and preparation of a model for the programme.

The programme is now in the final stage of camera-trapping which began in the state at two major Project Tigers — at 104 sq-km Dhargarh range in Melghat Tiger Reserve (MTR) in Amravati and at 210 sq-km of Tadoba Range in Chandrapur districts of Vidarbha.

Camera-trapping is also proposed at Pench Tiger Reserve in Nagpur and is scheduled to begin in the first week of March. A team of research fellows from WII are camping in these tiger reserves and have set up their motion sensor cameras at various places with maximum tiger movements. According to forest department sources, camera trapping will be completed on February 28 and the scientists at WII will compare data collected during three phases to arrive at approximate range of total number of tigers in the state and country.

The main objective of camera-trapping is to collect data about the tiger’s presence, its prey base and habitat in the protected areas in the country, explore possibilities of tiger growth and to submit scientific report about possibilities of existence and growth of tigers in non-protected areas.

Photographs of tigers trapped on cameras will be compiled and every tiger coded for identification depending upon pattern of strips. Like in humans, every individual has distinct finer prints, every tiger has distinct strip pattern. Cameras are set on both sides of roads to take pictures of every tiger from both - right and left sides - so as to prevent any error in counting.

According to the assistant conservator of forests, TATR Girish Vashishth, “Two cameras are necessary because there is a possibility of the same tiger being counted twice if it repeatedly comes in the camera’s range.”

The WII is likely to submit a final report of the programme to the Ministry of Forest and Environment by July. The institute will also provide scientific guidelines about measures to be taken to establish tiger in those parts of non protected areas where it dose not exist today.

“Major areas in the non-protected areas are favourable for the tiger’s dwelling and growth. The final scientific report by WII will enable the state forest department to initiate steps to ensure this,” Vashishth said. “The hope of tiger growth outside protected areas is high and encouraging results can be expected if the entire process is based upon a scientific report,” he added.

However, fate of the WII report hangs in balance. Given thtat the state has yet to act on a similar report submitted by noted environmentalist and tiger expert Ullah Karanth, who also carried out camera trapping at TATR, MTR and Pench Tiger Reserve between 2001 and 2003. Karanth had submitted his final report to the state in 2005.

Apart from the camera trappings, Karanth had also provided an approximate picture of tiger population and the prey base in these projects. But policy makers seem to have lost the report mid-way.

Honorary Wildlife Warden, Chandrapur Uday Patel feels, “The state should have acted on Karanth’s report. The hard work put in by Karanth and his team has gone down the drain due to lake of political will.”


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