Friday, 10 June 2011
Wandering tigers; fractured landscapes
A tiger captured recently near Shikaripur had covered an aerial distance of 280 km in a span of 15 months, or perhaps lesser. This was one of the longest ever movements recorded for wild tigers, and offers us insights into the lives of these enigmatic cats, apart from stressing the importance of conserving wildlife corridors, observes Sanjay Gubbi.
An animal cage sat on the back of a mini-lorry, and inside the cage was a young male tiger. Recently, this animal, approximately three years old, was captured in Gama village near Shikaripura and was brought to Bhadra Tiger Reserve to be relocated. As the light started to fade, the door of the squeeze cage was opened by a Forest Department watcher.
Initially showing no signs of hurry, the fine-looking animal sat inside, cautiously watching the dry grassland in front of it. These grasslands were paddy fields a few years ago before people were relocated from this forest village called Hipla. Within a minute, the animal realised that the forests were a better home than the cage, jumped out and bolted into the nearby bushes. Hope it has found a place in the Bhadra to establish itself as a resident male, and with a bit of luck, it will lord over its own territory for the next few years.
One of the longest tiger movements
Experts initially thought the animal had strayed out of the Bhadra Tiger Reserve, but surprisingly, camera trapping results of Wildlife Conservation Society-India Program revealed that the animal originated as far south as Bandipur Tiger Reserve. Nature’s ability to throw up surprises is unmatched.
In a span of 15 months (or perhaps lesser), the animal had covered an aerial distance of 280 km, one of the longest ever movements recorded for wild tigers. In March 2009, another young male tiger, which was initially photographed in Lakkavalli range of Bhadra, was discovered to have traversed over 200 km before settling in the Anshi National Park. Findings of these two dispersing male tigers gave us some insights into the secretive lives of these enigmatic cats.
On the other side, these long-range movements of tigers alert and draw our attention to important issues. These animals are not just dispersing within the safe havens of protected areas; neither are they dispersing only when there is intense competition within their natal areas.
Though Bhadra is yet to reach its optimal tiger densities, animals are already moving out of this protected area. Or, was this a stray incident in which the tiger managed to escape all the conflicts it would face during such movements, and safely landed in another protected area? These questions are complex and may remain unanswered.
These findings highlight the importance of conserving certain forests in the Western Ghats that are currently outside the ambit of protected areas. These reserved forests together with plantations such as coffee that have shade, cover and some food availability, act as corridors for wildlife movement.
Tiger populations in some of the protected areas act as sources, and connecting these sources is central for the dispersal of these wandering tigers. This will also help in genetic exchange and positively contribute to demographics in wild tiger populations. However, these reserved forests have become the target of perpetual development activities.
As clearly evident from these two incidents, our wildlife species need space, space that is wider and longer. The current fractured source populations need to be connected and linked through corridors. When I say connecting corridors, I certainly do not mean human-engineered connectivity, we already possess naturally engineered connectivity.
All we need to do is protect these identified critical areas especially from the current trend of unending infrastructure development. There is a lot of debate about the critical wildlife habitats proposed by the Central government .
Legally, these are areas to be classified within the existing protected areas, based on documentation which shows that human-wildlife co-existence is incompatible. A small geographic area of this country (~four per cent) is declared as protected areas and by default we need to consider these regions as critical wildlife habitats.
Further, we should have looked beyond protected area network and identified forests outside this complex for identifying critical wildlife habitats. This would ensure that incompatible development is kept away from these critical wildlife habitats, but would still meet needs of local communities.
Halting activities that permanently fracture habitats and stop wildlife movement should be of high importance. Biology of wildlife should be the core of land use and development in critical wildlife habitats. Needs of animals that are large-bodied and wide-ranging such as tigers and elephants are critical components of this landscape planning.
Animals do not migrate in a straight A-to-B line, but rather follow a complex route based on various factors which are yet to be understood. Scientific studies take decades to bring out results. Hence, we need to apply precautionary principles and based on available informed understanding, thinking ahead of time would help.
Reversing the trend of habitat fragmentation that’s caused by mammoth infrastructure development is necessary. Eternal growth of highways, mines, power projects, railway lines in wildlife habitats especially outside the protected area system will literally halt these large vertebrates to move to new areas.
Even tourism projects that do not consider wildlife as the core of their business are creating pressure on the natural world. Commercial resorts, vacation homes near Bandipur, Bhadra, Dandeli and parts of Kodagu stand as classic examples in the way they are eating into patches of wildlife corridors.
Luckily, we have a legal provision in the Environment Protection Act that can help us protect corridors. Urgent delineation and declaration of eco-sensitive areas around protected areas and in critical wildlife corridors can bring some restraint in slowing down the onslaught.
Karnataka’s gold standards
Karnataka is known to set gold standards in wildlife conservation, which has been largely rewarded by some of the highest densities of tigers, elephants and other globally threatened and charismatic wildlife species found in the State.
This needs to be continued, to achieve similar results outside our protected area system. Karnataka has over 5,000 sq km of reserved forests that can help connect all the important protected areas. The State Forest Department has already set goals to achieve this praiseworthy task.
With political commitment, bureaucratic interest and appropriate landscape level planning, this aim will be less herculean. If we do not change the way we are looking at infrastructure development we will possibly be spending billions in the future attempting to bring wildlife to areas which would have faced local extinction as it’s currently done in the western world.