India is currently home to 60% of the world's tiger population. With its special series Tiger—Spy in the Jungle, Sony BBC Earth is throwing light on the lives these magnificent predators and the need for their conservation. With World Tiger Day having been observed on 29 July, I join hands with the channel to share an account of how conservation takes place in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.
Finding his large and clear pugmarks in the sandy riverbed of the Banas River proved to be even more fascinating than finding them in his regular habitat. We have been following a "straying" male tiger some 23km outside of the boundaries of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. The field director requested my assistance in monitoring the movement of this tiger, who was drifting away from the reserve, possibly to explore new territory away from the park.
The tiger was moving in a direction where it would take him a few days before he reached the relatively "safe" confines of a forested area. Regular monitoring was the need of the hour. I hastily convened a team of trackers to follow the tiger, but none of us could imagine that it would be an epic journey unveiling the secrets of the migratory corridors connecting the tigers of Ranthambore to other habitats. My two-man team jumped on a motorbike, armed with two motion sensor camera traps and a GPS gadget in pursuit of the tiger. In the next three days, the tiger crossed the mighty Chambal River and reached the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh. Every morning, my team would send the GPS coordinates of the location of its freshest pugmarks or that of a partly eaten cattle kill on the phone to us. I would pin the coordinates of each location on Google maps and share the progression of the tiger's journey with the field director. Days, weeks and a month went by but the identity of the tiger remained a mystery.
The growth of the population of tigers in Ranthambore can be attributed to good monitoring and good anti-poaching work.
After 50 days of hard travel, the team managed to camera trap the tiger as he settled in a forest near Datia district of Madhya Pradesh. In Ranthambore, all tigers have code numbers. This tiger that ventured an unprecedented 235km away from Ranthambore turned out to be T-56.
Today, Ranthambore holds the highest density of tigers ever in its recorded history. It was very different a few years ago when the tiger population dipped to just 18 in the entire reserve. It was a reflection of the state of tiger numbers in the country which fell to 1411 in 2006. Now it stands at approximately 2500 in 2017. The total forest area under all the 50 tiger reserves in India is around 70,000 sq.km and according to Dr Ullas Karanth, India's foremost expert on tigers, we have 300,000 sq.km of forest area available, which can hold tigers if we manage them well—it can increase the population of tigers by four to five times.
Tiger numbers have shown remarkable progress, but the reality is that their habitats have been hit hard. The 50 tiger reserves of the country are surrounded by connecting landscapes, which are constantly under destruction. These reserves have 600 rivers, which ensure water and food security for this country and many other ecological services. However our leadership still feels that the tiger is an encumbrance.
The growth of the population of tigers in Ranthambhore can be attributed to good monitoring and good anti-poaching work. In 2005, we at Ranthambhore submitted a report stating that half of Ranthambore's tiger population was missing and the official census figure of 47 was false. The Forest Department did not agree with us. In fact, the system tried very hard to discredit us. But pressure by the media forced both state and national governments to investigate the matter and they finally vindicated our findings. We also started a rigorous joint anti-poaching intervention in partnership with the state police force of Rajasthan. We helped them identify all the local poachers and traders and they pursued the case and put paid to the entire organised syndicate.
Community conservation is the key for this over-populated country, especially considering the pressure on resources.
We caught 70 poachers, local traders and an international kingpin with 34 leopard skins from the congested Mughal-era marketplace of Chandni Chowk in Delhi. The operation was the most crucial step in securing Ranthambore's tigers. The local poaching gangs mainly comprise a traditional semi-nomadic hunting tribe called the Mogiyas. Their bushcraft has no equal in the region and they are deadly hunters. They stay under the radar by working as crop protectors, silently poaching all kinds of animals for their own consumption or the international market. Their crackdown by law enforcement agencies made it difficult for them to earn a livelihood. They live below the poverty line and have no anthropogenic allies due to secrecy and their self-inflicted alienation from the mainstream.
To curb the problem permanently, we endeavoured to bring them into the mainstream, rehabilitate and reform them. Community conservation is the key for this over-populated country, especially considering the pressure on resources. We need to offer new skills, education and employment opportunities to such communities. Tiger Watch started an education program for the next generation of the Mogiya community—this has made it to its 12th year. There are currently 40 boys who are sent to schools/ vocational trainings & colleges. Besides this, Dhonk craft is a social enterprise working for the betterment of men and women here which includes Mogiya families too. To tackle the larger problem, we need many such programs running honestly and diligently in tiger habitats to bridge the gap between the tiger and its human neighbours. Only then will Tiger protection be a success.