A path-breaking experiment on tiger conservation involving breeding of a translocated tigress in captivity has seen its first success of rehabilitation of orphaned tiger cubs in the Panna Tiger Reserve of Madhya Pradesh.
A tigress (T4) was released in Panna in March as a part of the experiment. She had been hand-reared after being rescued at the age of three weeks from Kanha Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. While adapting herself to the ways of the wild, she has recently given birth to cubs.
Panna Reserve field director R Srinivasa Murthy said one cub had been seen so far by the research team, but there would be more, most likely. This development, according to experts, is a yardstick with which to gauge the experiment’s success. The reintroduction was carried out by the Madhya Pradesh forest department, with scientific inputs and intense monitoring by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).
WII scientist Dr K Ramesh, who leads the post-release monitoring programme for tiger reintroduction, said, “It is a landmark development but should not set an automatic precedence for arbitrary release of cubs anywhere.” In a wider context, such a programme involves specific planning and lots of effort and should be followed with utmost precaution and scientific monitoring, he added.
Ramesh further pointed out that the unique landscape of Panna - with adequate prey, cover and less human disturbance — certainly proved favourable for this experiment.
Murthy, one of the main architects of the success story, said, “T4 has barely secured 50 to 60 per cent marks in her re-wilding examination and the final result depends on how she trains her cubs in hunting skills and survival lessons.” However, he added that she had earlier been found to be steadily acclimatising — mating, making and guarding kills and marking her territory.
The tigress T4 was rescued by a research team of WII along with two other cubs way back in June 2005. These new born cubs aged about three weeks were found abandoned in Kanha Tiger Reserve after their mother was killed by a male tiger. They were hand reared in a small quarantine facility near Mukki Gate of Kanha till about 2.5 years old.
After relocation of T4 on March 27, this year, the Reserve management constituted four exclusive teams for round-the-clock monitoring of the animal.
WII looked into finer details of the animal behaviour and movement pattern. Initially, the tigress was also tracked from elephant back every alternative day for assessing health condition. The monitoring also included deployment of camera traps and collection of scat samples to understand associated factors.
The experts are, however, divided on the issue. Pointing to the guidelines of IUCN and NTCA Protocol, they said that any “captive animal considered for reintroduction purposes need to approximate the wild counterparts”.
According to a recent report on Rehabilitation of captive tigers, the major concern is that these animals often show a loss of natural behaviors associated with wild fitness, which is reflected in the deficiencies shown in hunting, social interactions, establishment of individual territory, mating behaviour and successfully raising cubs. Studies have also suggested that projects using captive-born animals are less likely to be successful than projects using wild-caught animals.
Well-known cat specialist Dr. George Shaller agreed to the above apprehensions of the enormous risks involved in such cases, which may ultimately culminate into growing man-animal conflict.
However, tiger experts as Dr. AJT Johnsingh said “in the face of declining tiger ranges and population, such experiments if conducted scientifically may open up new conservation strategies for the future.”