Maharashtra is now tiger's own country

Jai and Veeru, sons of the tigress matriarch Mai, were born among the bamboo-lined forests of Nagzira about three years ago. Ever since, the magnificent beasts have been the star attraction at the wildlife sanctuary. In October, however, Jai decided to leave the abundant lakes of Nagzira, wandering off about 120-130 km to reach Paoni range of Umred-Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary. The handsome young tiger had left in pursuit of a tigress.
“Nagzira has a larger male population. Mai is probably one of the only tigresses in the sanctuary,” explains Chandrapur-based naturalist Shalik Jogwe. With a scarce female population, migration could be a constant worry. And although no harm has been reported, a tiger wandering out of the jungle is a perilous prospect.

A tiger at the Nagzira sanctuary. The formation of the Nagzira Tiger Reserve will create a corridor allowing the tigers of Tadoba and Nagzira to mingle without risking the lives of the tribals inhabiting the jungle’s periphery. Pic/Shalik Jogwe

Reserve to the rescue
The formation of the Nagzira Tiger Reserve, which brings together four compartments: the Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary, New-Nagzira sanctuary, Navegaon National Park and Koka sanctuary, will create a corridor allowing the tigers of Tadoba and Nagzira to mingle without risk or disturbance to the life of the tribals inhabiting the jungle’s periphery. “The 660 sq km dedicated to the tiger reserve will also allow a better genetic pool and a diverse tiger population,” explains Praveen Pardeshi, principal secretary, Revenue and Forests Department (Forests), who has been demanding the formation of the reserve for the past two years.

Naturalists feel that the 660 sq km dedicated to the tiger reserve will be favourable to a better genetic pool and a diverse tiger population. Pic/Shalik Jogwe

Hopefully Jai will soon be homebound, for the reserve will also serve as home to two orphaned tigresses who had been rescued from the Tadoba region about four years ago and sent to Pench. “When they were found, their mother wasn’t with them, and they had no chance of surviving in the wild. They have been kept in a 10-acre enclosure at Pench and are now going to be left in the wild at Nagzira. This will help equalise the number of males and females here,” says Jogwe.

In Tadoba, loans have been provided to farmers and some have opted for vocational training. Pic courtesy/Harshawardhan Dhanwatey

“Similar experiments are being conducted in reserves such as Sariska in Rajasthan, where orphaned tigers have been reintroduced to the wild. Recently two cubs were reintroduced to Kanha in Madhya Pradesh, too,” reveals Srinivasa Reddy, Field Director of Pench Tiger Reserve. The orphaned tigresses at Pench, however, are being touted as being too old to be able to survive in the wild, where they would have to hunt for prey. Luckily, Nagzira has an abundance of prey with a relatively smaller existing tiger population, which will make it easier for the tigresses to orient themselves to the wild.

In Tadoba, about 40 to 60 per cent of the funds earned by the reserve are used by the peripheral villages for plantation, to set up homestays, for fencing and so on. Decisions are made by the people, and not by the management. Pic courtesy/Harshawardhan Dhanwatey

A win-win situation
While tigers in the area will certainly benefit with the beefed up security at the newly-formed reserve, Poonam Dhanwatey, trustee, Tiger Research and Conservation Trust and honorary Wildlife Warden, Chandrapur District, insists that it is a tiger reserve only in name. “The tiger is a flagship species; it survives only if the pyramid is intact. To protect the tiger, it is essential to protect the entire ecosystem surrounding it — its habitat, the water bodies, the other animals in the forest, including the chiltal, leopard, sloth bear,” she explains.

Besides, the stamp of approval from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) gives the park a better status, brings in more funds from the Centre, more staff and therefore more protection. “The mentality of the staff changes, they are always on their toes. Their main concern is protection, paper pushing takes a backseat,” adds Jogwe.

 Poonam Dhanwatey: Trustee, Tiger Research and Conservation Trust and Honorary Wildlife Warden, Chandrapur district

A foundation is set up in the name of the reserve, which looks after eco-development even in peripheral areas. “Earlier, funds would go to the state treasury, but now they will be utilised by the villagers. For instance, in Tadoba, about 40 to 60 per cent of the funds earned by the reserve are used by the peripheral villages for plantation, to set up home stays, for fencing and so on. Decisions are made by the people, and not by the management. In several cases, loans have been provided to farmers, some have opted for vocational training, or learning how to drive,” reveals Dhanwatey, explaining how empowering it could be for the villagers living around the area.

While Pardeshi claims no villages are present within the boundaries of the tiger reserve, Dhanwatey points to Thatezari. “It has a population of about 700-800 people,” says Dhanwatey, who has been playing mediator between the state and the villagers living within Tadoba. “Most villages within Tadoba have been relocated, with the exception of Palasgaon, Ram Talodhi and one fourth of Kolsa. Thatezari will also have to be relocated. It is a must — within the forest they have no access to medical aid, no schools, no roads, no electricity. Relocation will bring them better employment opportunities,” she asserts.

Tiger tourism
Dhanwatey and Jogwe are both working towards the empowerment of villagers living along the forests. The development of tourism is a good option.
Despite a growing population of tigers, always willing to parade to an audience, Maharashtra’s tiger reserves have a relatively low tourism graph. “All these years the state didn’t really push wildlife tourism. Revenue from the parks wasn’t coming back to them and no one seemed keen to improve. Tadoba, for one, has always been this beautiful. But it has only begun to garner attention in the past decade thanks to its fantastic managers and field directors. I think Maharashtra has learnt its lesson from the example of other states. We are now slowly catching up with them,” states Dhanwatey. Pardeshi seconds her adding that there has been a drastic improvement in tourism over the past few years. “This year wildlife tourism brought in Rs 3 crore, while in 2010-11 we made only Rs 17 lakh,” he reveals. Even with a smaller tiger population, Nagzira Tiger Reserve has an upper hand over the others, believes Jogwe. “Nagzira will be the only tiger reserve in the state to have accommodation inside the park. I stayed at the government lodge in March and the experience was unforgettable. You can hear chital calls just behind your log cabin and one night I actually managed to spot a leopard walking around the property,” exclaims Jogwe. With Jim Corbett National Park being the only other tiger reserve that allows you to stay within the sanctuary, hopefully Nagzira will find a suitable place on the Incredible India map soon enough.

‘Tiger conservation has had dramatic success in Maharashtra’ Bittu Sahgal, editor, Sanctuary Asia

Bittu Sahgal, editor, Sanctuary Asia

Why is it important to declare a fifth reserve in the state of Maharashtra? And what does it signify for Project Tiger?
Maharashtra has proven to be a critical global hope for the future of tigers. A fifth reserve will help consolidate the success the state has already achieved. The cubs of successfully-breeding tigers in Tadoba use fragmented corridors across railway lines, national highways and farms from Tadoba to Nagzira. Declaring Nagzira a tiger reserve will help deliver better protection for virtually all of Vidarbha’s tigers. This will also minimise man-animal conflict.

Does Project Tiger’s goals include an increase in the number of tiger reserves?
Project Tiger’s success in the 1970s and 1980s can be attributed to its ‘leave the tiger alone’ strategy, which resulted in such a dramatic tiger and biodiversity recovery. Today we have more tiger reserves, but less than half the 3,00,000 sq kms. tiger habitat that existed the day Project Tiger was declared in 1973. Much of this has been lost to dams, mines, roads and commercial monoculture plantations. And possibly an equal amount to encroachments and agriculture.

A recent report has stated that the population of tigers at Tadoba has crossed 100. Apparently this year has seen a record number of cubs births at the reserve. Some of the tigers from Tadoba will be transferred to Nagzira. Tiger numbers are always approximate. It is vital that the forest to which tigers are being moved are very well protected, monitored and managed such that prey populations are dense enough to support tigers. Spillover population of tigers are often lost outside our protected areas and strengthening the corridors leading to Bhivapur, Navegaon and Bor is possibly even more vital than moving tigers about.

What makes the eastern region of Maharashtra so conducive for tigers?
Geology and climate. Over millions of years, the thickly-forested catchments of the Narmada and Tapi rivers, have offeredtigers and their co-inhabitants safe refuge in the forests of the Satpura ranges.

How would you rate Maharashtra’s existing reserves in terms of management and conservation?
Tiger conservation has had dramatic success in Maharashtra. Tiger numbers have risen. More than 1,200 vacant forest guard and frontline posts have been filled. A Tiger Protection Force has been established with two battalions of 180 persons. Tiger corridors have been strengthened. 500 sq km of inviolate forests have been declared as sanctuaries. Above all, in the process, the relationship between people and parks has significantly improved. But all this could be negated if coal mining and thermal power plants rip up the buffer and corridor areas of Maharashtra’s tiger reserves.

Wikipedia gives a count of total of 1706 tigers in India in 2010. Do we have a more recent count?
The number game can be misleading. Exact counts are, in any event, impossible. The bottom line is we have fewer tigers than we had when Project Tiger was launched. That is hardly a matter of pride. But we can double this number merely by following the prescriptions laid down by Maharashtra for tiger habitats in the past two years. And we have to guarantee the tiger space, isolation and protection from its principle threats: poaching, dams, mines, linear intrusions including canals, highways and railway lines, and encroachments at the hands of both rich and poor.  

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