Highway for tigers

How a team of conservationists made Karnataka’s forests a freely navigable haven for tigers, elephants and leopards


A tiger at the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, Karnataka. Photo courtesy: Mithun Hanagund
A tiger at the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, Karnataka. Photo courtesy: Mithun Hanagund

That fellow has walked all these ranges, navigated these gorges and bounded in these trees. He has hiked right from there to there,” says Sanjay Gubbi, stretching his arms, pointing out the expanse from fingertip to fingertip. The fellow that he speaks of is a leopard, nicknamed Benky by his six-year-old son. A leopard that Gubbi’s radio-collaring reveals has an astonishing home range of 170 sq. km, an area almost twice that of Manhattan.

We were standing on top of a watchtower on a hill, and day was just about breaking on the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) in Karnataka. I tried to do what I do every time I am in an unfamiliar place—situating myself through sounds: the increasing urgency of traffic and the rhythmic swoosh of a street sweeper in a city, the crowing roosters and cowbells of a village, the mausoleum-like silence of a plush hotel room. Here, in the wilderness, the silence was alive with the hoot of a monkey, the shimmy of a partridge, the clamour of a flock taking off in unison.

Gubbi, 44, a conservation biologist with the Mysuru-based Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), has walked and watched this terrain for years. He stands gazing out over the rugged landscape of layers of hills that fade into the distance and periodically raises his scruffy 21-year-old binoculars, his arms taut with expectation. It is this landscape of more than 1,400 sq. km, spread over the CWS and the Malai Mahadeshwara Wildlife Sanctuary (MM Hills), that Gubbi felt needed to be conserved. But this is just a part of it.

Sanjay Gubbi at the sanctuary. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Sanjay Gubbi at the sanctuary. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Since 2010, Gubbi and his team have helped secure 2,385 sq. km for wildlife protection, an area almost three and a half times that of Bengaluru. Over five years, Gubbi helped create what he says is India’s largest contiguous landscape for tigers (around 9,500 sq. km, including 7,038.2 sq. km of protected area and 2,500 sq. km of reserve forest area) by connecting 23 discrete protected areas (PAs; tiger reserves, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries) through corridors and new sanctuaries. It is the largest expansion of conserved landscapes India has seen since the 1970s. Today, Karnataka has three large protected area complexes, which extend from the Bhimgad-Anshi complex that borders Goa in the west to the Nagarhole-Bannerghatta complex in the south, bordering Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Across the country, protected areas dot the land—tiny, lonely islands untouched by the frantic human development and activity at its edges. The map of protected area networks in India reminds me of a time-worn piece of muslin, so threadbare that light would pass right through except for a few stubborn patches. It is this tattered map that Gubbi is desperately trying to hold together—to connect the dots, even if by delicate threads, so that Benky and his ilk can roam a land with some semblance of true wilderness.

Deer at the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Deer at the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Cages in the wild

We bounced and rumbled on forest roads through the CWS. The Cauvery, or Kaveri, river, which abounds in otters, crocodiles and the critically endangered humpback mahseer, was to our left as we headed south towards the MM Hills sanctuary, 900 sq. km of forest and fable—the land the late forest brigand Veerappan reigned over. Golden grasslands rose up to our right, ending in rocky cliffs. Quails skittered away from our Jeep. A car in a forest is a repelling force field—spotted deer, a brown fish owl, langurs and a giant sambar deer vaulted away in alarm. “This truly is Karnataka’s glory,” says Gubbi. “The best savannah grasslands are here. Except that people don’t know it. But that’s probably for the best.”

Gubbi, however, understood its importance. The expansion of PAs in southern Karnataka means that right from Bannerghatta to Nagarhole, wildlife can move across more than 7,000 sq. km, an undisturbed chunk of land.

Determining land use in India is probably one of the most contentious jobs. Land is a resource that holds the key to other resources—metals, water, agriculture, power. Hoping to set aside land for animals in this climate is a daydream. To do this, one needs to navigate a more fraught landscape, one that is interwoven with basic human needs, political aspirations and profitable futures, none of which a tiger can offer. “Wildlife conservation is the hardest sell. How do you market an elephant, an otter or a frog?” asks Gubbi.

Connectivity is critical, not just to maintain healthy populations of tigers, but to ensure that such far-ranging species can disperse into newer areas. It is a bit like controlling the flow of water—to use forest cover and corridors as gentle nudges to ensure wildlife scatters into other protected areas and not into human habitations. They ensure a safe journey into a new home.

The Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple (BRT) Tiger Reserve has already reached its carrying capacity, with 55 tigers, and newer populations will need to move out into new ranges. Animals are driven by food and ecological needs, but the new areas may not offer the same protection. “It is like building one house, and soon you have grandparents, then children, then grandchildren. There is habitat available in reserve or state forests that, if given better protection, can hold more animals,” says Gubbi.

India’s last large-scale expansion of protected areas was in the 1970s. From 2000-15, even though the number of sanctuaries increased from 489 to 531, the area actually decreased by about 275 sq. km. This translates into greater fragmentation of habitats and diversion of forests for non-forestry purposes.

When it comes to tiger conservation, there are three main areas in India, which is home to the world’s highest number of tigers in the wild and is critical to the survival of the species—the Western Ghats, central India, and the Terai region.

“These corridors (the central Indian landscape) are extremely effective in maintaining gene flow and the integrity of landscape,” says Sandeep Sharma, a wildlife biologist with the US-based Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Sharma has been studying whether moving tigers can lead to healthier populations. “These corridors are maintaining the diverse network we had 2,000 years ago. Most PAs are so small that they can’t hold a sufficient number of breeding females (10-15) for it to be resilient,” he says. He mentions the 138.12 sq. km Bor tiger park in Maharashtra, which holds just one breeding female. “One poaching incident can wipe out the entire landscape.”

And so, over 2010-11, Gubbi and his team set about the jungles of Karnataka to find real estate for wildlife—decent forest patches that were still categorized as reserve forests. Gubbi’s interest in such areas goes back to 2002, when he was tramping through the forests around the Dandeli and Anshi national parks in northern Karnataka. His mapping showed that there was good potential for large mammal conservation, and he decided to propose that the reserve forests be declared as sanctuaries. The first expansion of this landscape resulted in the Bhimgad-Anshi complex that now connects nine protected areas. “We lobbied with the government, pushed the file from 2002-05. Seven years later, it was finally declared (a sanctuary) in 2009,” says Gubbi.

Gubbi, H.C. Poornesha, a GIS (geographic information system) expert, and his team looked for areas with high tree cover and no human settlements. Human habitations were left alone in enclosures, a more socially acceptable alternative because of restrictions on human activity inside PAs. Of the 4,700 sq. km that was identified, 2,385 sq. km is protected today. “These forest areas were threatened by encroachers and politicians. These habitats would have deteriorated as our misdeeds have gone on eliminating the tiger, but now they can grow into better habitat,” says B.K. Singh, a former principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) for Karnataka.

Right to passage?

“Animals don’t understand human barriers,” says Gubbi, peering into his computer. He is clicking through Google Earth images of southern Karnataka from 2005 and 2011. When you slide the time-lapse scale from left to right, the image is like a fast-moving GIF of the land’s evolution. In seconds, trees get gobbled up by agriculture, private lands get fenced in, resorts shoot up like popcorn and the forest turns into a trickle. “Elephants that were passing through were walking into agricultural lands and villages, leading to conflict,” Gubbi says. In the MM Hills-Cauvery landscape, 1,765 incidences of elephant conflict were reported from 79 villages, from 2008-11, with more than Rs.46 lakh paid as compensation by the government.

A camera trap captures an intimate moment. Photo courtesy Sanjay Gubbi
A camera trap captures an intimate moment. Photo courtesy Sanjay Gubbi
One of these narrow necks, the Doddasampige-Yediyaralli corridor, connects MM Hills and BRT. Recently, Gubbi’s team found three tigers common to these two areas, confirming cross-usage. Barely a kilometre wide, the corridor sweeps down the hilly edge of BRT to meet MM Hills in a hearty handshake. “If we didn’t have MM Hills protected, the spillover of BRT would have nowhere to go. We need to see these far-ranging species from a landscape perspective. Elephants move over vast distances. One collared elephant in Mudumalai (the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park in Tamil Nadu) walked over 580 sq. km. That’s the kind of space they use,” says Gubbi.

The edges of this forested knot, though, are perpetually in danger of fraying. Driving towards the corridor, we regularly bump over bushels of the season’s ragi crop, which is spread out on the road. Passing vehicles help thresh the crop. Livestock often blocks the highway. Firewood collection, agricultural expansion and grazing are ever-present pressures on the narrow lifeline. Gubbi says alternatives to firewood and fodder need to be offered—it’s the only way to ease the burden.

The politics of ecology

By now, Gubbi has spent as much time in political corridors as he has finding corridors for wildlife. When we met in November in Delhi, he had said: “I am here to meet lawyers, wait for people and make hundreds of phone calls to get one appointment. It is frustrating and horrible but you have to do it.”

Gubbi grew up in Karnataka, and his love for nature began through a Scout group in school which took them camping and hiking. Soon, birdwatching became a hobby; it was not till much later that he decided to work in conservation.

Today, Gubbi’s gaze on the land cannot be just that of a scientist. He has to occupy the minds of a politician, a forest department official and a villager dependent on the land, understand their motivations and their reasons for valuing a forest. Without social and political acceptance, declaring sanctuaries and sustaining them is untenable.

“Most of the time in science, you build your data first—there are tigers here, so you declare it as PA. But here, we did it the other way around. We first looked at social acceptance and political viability rather than ecological quality,” says Gubbi.

The seven years it took to declare Dandeli-Anshi a wildlife sanctuary/protected area taught Gubbi an important lesson, “You have to follow your file from table to table and see it off to the last mile.” A PA declaration is a complex juggling operation involving bureaucrats, local politicians, the state government and forest department—a tangle of egos, political compulsions and vested interests.

The tale of how MM Hills got declared as a sanctuary is nothing short of dramatic. Around the time of the May 2013 Karnataka state election, it was feared that vested interests in quarrying might be able to use the situation to their advantage—if they did, it would be difficult to preserve the landscape of MM Hills. The new PA, then, was declared ahead of the assembly election. “We were lucky it went unnoticed. It was done practically between governments,” says Singh, laughing.

Changing others’ minds is sometimes about forgetting your own objective completely. “With politicians, I didn’t talk about science or tigers,” says Gubbi. “I talked about water.”

And C.P. Yogeshwar, a former state minister of forests and a five-time MLA from Channapatna, a water-stressed taluka (administrative division), listened. One of his long-term projects was to recharge the groundwater, filling 150 dry tanks in the taluka by lifting water from the Cauvery. “It was the only way to improve irrigation in my area, to develop economically. I got the connection between protecting nature, forests, water and farmers,” says Yogeshwar. Today, he claims, these tanks irrigate 75% of the taluka.

Land lines

Driving through the MM Hills sanctuary, where the landscape changes from savannah woodland to dry deciduous to moist deciduous to semi-evergreen, Gubbi is like a film director showing off his pièce de résistance. He keeps saying, eyes agleam, “Wait for the best part.” At almost every corner of the road that twists to the top of ridges and precipitous gorges, he regales me with gory stories of Veerappan’s time.

Over 2014-15, Gubbi and his team of nine other scientists camera-trapped the sanctuary at 809 locations to catalogue the wildlife. “We have a baseline for tigers in the Cauvery-MM Hills landscape. Most sanctuaries never had this baseline study,” says N.S. Harish, a research assistant in Gubbi’s team. So, now we will look at what protection status does to conservation,” he says. The team recorded 27 mammal species, including 12 tigers, three cubs, sloth bears, barking deer, leopards, pangolins, dholes and elephants, among others.

A tiger trips a camera trap at night. Photo courtesy Sanjay Gubbi
A tiger trips a camera trap at night. Photo courtesy Sanjay Gubbi
“We were so surprised. Even now this area has more tigers than many other TRs (tiger reserves) in India. These were unexplored tiger populations. Imagine, there are still pockets in this country of 1.2 billion people that have tigers and we don’t know,” says Gubbi. The 2015 NCF report concludes that the Cauvery-MM Hills landscape area can host approximately 200 tigers with suitable protection. Since the area’s declaration as a PA, more than 60 anti-poaching camps have been set up in the MM Hills and Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. MM Hills has a front-line staff strength of 221 and Cauvery, 195. Guards and watchers patrol on foot and in car. Cases of poaching being reported have doubled in the MM Hills and quadrupled in the Cauvery wildlife sanctuary since the expansion of the PA.

Honey badgers on a nightly stroll. Photo courtesy Sanjay Gubbi
Honey badgers on a nightly stroll. Photo courtesy Sanjay Gubbi
Tigers are Gubbi’s first wildlife love, but what really gets him going is the subject of honey badgers, or ratels, which are shy, nocturnal creatures. His camera traps recorded ratels for the first time in Karnataka. When the first one was caught on camera, a field assistant had called Gubbi to tell him of a “strange animal”. Gubbi’s voice always has an even pitch, except when ratels come up in conversation. “I can’t believe that in Karnataka, with a 5-6 crore (more than 60 million) population, we are still documenting new species”.

Watching the watchmen

At every forest camp I visited in the Cauvery area, watchers and guards rushed to Gubbi and Harish with their problems. Most of the ground-level staff consists of local tribals desperate for some extra employment. At the Holemuridahatti (“where the river takes a sharp turn”) camp, water is scarce. It has to be carried up manually from the river because there is no power here, so Gubbi is mulling over setting up a small solar pump.

Staff recruitment, retention and motivation are critical to the kind of protection a park gets. “Medical and life insurance, direct debit of salary into accounts, we need all these interventions,” he says.

C. Sadasivam, range officer at the Palar forest division range office, tells Gubbi about the desperate need for more watchers. “It’s a tough land to patrol, steep and hot. We have to walk 6km to even send a message,” he tells Gubbi.

At the Mahseer camp, the guards have just one set of uniforms; they request him for another. Gubbi makes notes in a pocket diary. He says: “You cannot do the science and walk away. You need to keep intervening. You need someone who knows the history of a place.”

“Is this sustainable?” I ask. “You have to wait for them to grow up. It may not be sustainable, but they need someone who listens to them,” he says.

This camp is special to Gubbi. It is 100m from here that he saw a tiger pug mark for the first time. It was a winter evening. “We were driving to this camp. For some reason we had stopped, and I saw a pug mark. The animal had passed the camp and walked on the road for about 2km. I was crazy happy. As soon as I got a signal, I called B.K. Singh to tell him that it had all been worth the trouble.”

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