On the afternoon of 15 July, passengers in a state transport bus plying between Armori and Desaiganj in eastern Maharashtra were surprised to see two young tigers ambling on the highway. The place—near Kondhala in Gadchiroli district—was far from  any tiger reserve or national park. How did they reach there?

Tigers popping up in places far from their habitat is not new in central India, though. Mines, dams and  development have fragmented vast swathes of forest and destroyed tiger corridors, sending the big cats on cross-country journeys in search of new homes. The luckier ones settle in distant lands to start new, happy families. The others are run over by trains or buses on the way, or shot dead by poachers.

At a time when a spate of clearances from India’s top wildlife body is rapidly shrinking living space for its national animal, there may be little for us to celebrate on International Tiger Day, observed every 29 July since 2010.

Mines, dams and  development have fragmented vast swathes of forest and destroyed tiger corridors, sending the big cats on cross-country journeys in search of new homes. Photo: Steve Winter
Mines, dams and  development have fragmented vast swathes of forest and destroyed tiger corridors, sending the big cats on cross-country journeys in search of new homes. Photo: Steve Winter

It was in 1952 that the central government, concerned about the declining wildlife population in the country, set up the advisory body Indian Board for Wildlife (IBWL). Chaired by the Prime Minister, its mission was to conserve flora and fauna. In 2003, it was renamed the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). However, its recent decisions have gone against India’s most successful conservation effort to save the tiger. 

The board’s recent decisions threaten to hit the Panna tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh, which had recovered since poachers almost wiped out the park in 2008. The Ken-Betwa river-linking project cleared by NBWL will effectively drown 200 sq. km of tiger habitat. At its last meeting in June, the board cleared the Kutku Mandal dam, which will submerge over 1,000 hectares of forests in Jharkhand’s Palamau tiger reserve. Earlier this year, the board  also cleared a project to assess the possibility of uranium mining in Amrabad tiger reserve, Telangana. It is a no-brainer that part of the tiger reserve will be soon denotified. 

Other controversial decisions include denotifying the core area of Satpura and Pench tiger reserves for commercial fishing, Achanakmar tiger reserve for bauxite mining and construction of roads through Corbett, Dudhwa and Katarniaghat tiger reserves. With the decisions of NBWL, which has noted conservationists as members, threatening to erode tiger habitats, where will the animals go? 

“Tigers are territorial and solitary animals. The big cats are constantly moving across the fragmented central Indian forest landscape in search of a territory—a forest patch to settle down—a place it can call home," says Subhoranjan Sen, field director of Pench tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh. The reserve straddles Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Experts say around 35% of India’s tiger population live outside tiger reserves, although the number of tiger reserves has increased exponentially in the last decade. Photo: Himanshu Vyas/HT
Experts say around 35% of India’s tiger population live outside tiger reserves, although the number of tiger reserves has increased exponentially in the last decade. Photo: Himanshu Vyas/HT

To illustrate the case of these homeless tigers, Sen says, “One prime example was a male sub-adult tiger which disappeared from Pench in 2008 only to be spotted in the Mukki range of Kanha tiger reserve in 2011. Here the tiger reigned as the dominant male for over three years and sired several cubs. This tiger used the well-documented Kanha-Pench corridor, which is now threatened with blockage with a plan to broaden National Highway No. 7. The highway runs through the Pench tiger reserve. Another male tiger from Nagzira tiger reserve (Maharastra) made his way to Pench (Maharashtra) and eventually into Pench (Madhya Pradesh) in 2015-16. In recent times, four tigers have migrated from Pench in Madhya Pradesh to the Bhandar reserve forests to the west of Nagzira in Maharashtra. Until now, it was believed that tigers migrating across long distances were exclusively males. But two of the four tigers that successfully negotiated the over 160km were females." 

Experts say around 35% of India’s tiger population live outside tiger reserves, although the number of tiger reserves has increased exponentially in the last decade. If one goes by the last all India assessment presented in 2014 by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the number of homeless tigers would be around 800. These are sitting ducks for poachers. The mean average (average of lower and higher range) of total tigers as per the 2014 assessment was 2,226 tigers.

On the eve of yet another International Tiger Day, we are only obsessed and concerned with tiger numbers and not its home, the forest, which is depleting rapidly, says Krishnendu Bose, filmmaker whose ‘The Forgotten Tigers’ won this year’s national award for the best documentary.
On the eve of yet another International Tiger Day, we are only obsessed and concerned with tiger numbers and not its home, the forest, which is depleting rapidly, says Krishnendu Bose, filmmaker whose ‘The Forgotten Tigers’ won this year’s national award for the best documentary.

The Forgotten Tigers, this year’s national award winning documentary by environmentalist-film maker Krishnendu Bose, tells the story of these homeless tigers living in ever-shrinking habitats and forest corridors. “On the eve of yet another International Tiger Day, we are only obsessed and concerned with tiger numbers and not its home, the forest, which is depleting rapidly," says Bose.

Environmental lawyer Ritwik Dutta says on average, India loses 333 acres of forest every day to development projects.

“The forest corridors which hardly have protection or conservation attention are like umbilical cords, without which the tiger won’t survive in the long run. Our tiger reserves are increasingly becoming isolated islands which are crippling the gene pool flow," says Rajesh Gopal, secretary general of Global Tiger Forum, an inter-governmental international NGO. Gopal was previously member secretary and head of NTCA.

“Most tiger reserves are too small to harbour demographically and genetically viable populations of tigers over the long term and conserving areas outside the current tiger reserve network may be important for continued connectivity," comments Prachi Thatte, wildlife biologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru. 

When the who’s who of tiger conservation, including some members of NBWL, assemble at New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan to celebrate yet another tiger day on Saturday, will anyone think of the tigers wandering in distant lands looking for new homes and the ones dead on the way?

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