Twists and turns in India’s first inter-state tiger relocation

  • The relocation of two tigers from Madhya Pradesh to Satkosia Tiger Reserve in Odisha has sparked a controversy, with a relocated tigress being linked to the death of a woman in the protected area.
  • The relocation is part of a tiger recovery program to shore up the floundering population of tigers in Odisha.
  • The move was met with violent protests from members of local communities at the edge of the reserve, who apprehended their safety and as well as that of their livestock.

India’s maiden inter-state tiger relocation, from Madhya Pradesh in central India to a tiger reserve in the eastern state of Odisha over 600 km away, has sparked a controversy with a relocated royal Bengal tigress being linked to the death of a woman in the protected area.

A section of experts have said the relocation is a good idea in principle while others have questioned its long-term viability.

The relocation approved by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) kicked off earlier this year with two big cats: a male (T1) from Kanha Tiger Reserve, followed by a female (T2) from Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh. Both tigers were brought to the 963 square km Satkosia Tiger Reserve in June, to shore up the existing tiger population of two in the reserve and thereby in the state.

The Satkosia Tiger Reserve in Angul district and the Simlipal Tiger Reserve in Mayurbhanj are the two tiger reserves in Odisha. The number of big cats in the state ranges from 28 to 40.

T1, the male above three years of age, was released on July 6 and T2, the female around three years old was released in the Satkosia Tiger Reserve on August 17.

A section of the local community residing at the edge of the reserve had protested the move from the start apprehending harm to their lives and livestock. They also alleged they were not consulted before the release of the big cats.

The radio-collared tigers were kept under constant watch. On September 13, a woman was found dead inside the reserve, which triggered violent protests with villagers claiming the tigress, named Sundari, had mauled the woman to death. They demanded the animal be relocated.

“It has been one month since the tigress was relocated and there was no incidence of her attacking humans. Villagers told us that the woman had gone inside the reserve. Post-mortem report is not conclusive. The report says a carnivore attacked the woman. Circumstantial evidence doesn’t point to the tigress,” Satkosia Tiger Reserve director Sudarshan Panda told Mongabay-India.

A copy of the post-mortem report, which is with Mongabay-India, states “asphyxia as a result of constriction of the neck” as the cause of the death and that one of the injuries was “consistent with destruction by carnivorous animal”.

According to Wildlife Institute of India, which is technically supporting the project, the past behaviour data of the animal showed no signs of involvement in conflict situation.

“The male has settled down after initial exploration of one month. The female, which had completed a month, was exploring areas for settling down, and moving largely in the forest, and venturing into agricultural mosaic. So far, the movement and behaviour is not uncommon for an individual that has been released into a new environment,” K. Ramesh of WII told Mongabay-India.

The two tigers are currently in the core area of the reserve within three kms from each other, officials said.

Satkosia Tiger Reserve map. From Google Earth

The translocation plan

The animals were selected for translocation as per the NTCA guidelines. As per the recovery plan for the reserve, a total of six tigers are to be brought to Satkosia, said Panda. Satkosia sprawls out along a gorge over the Mahanadi river. It comprises two adjoining wildlife sanctuaries-the Satkosia Gorge sanctuary and Baisipalli sanctuary. The Reserve is spread over four districts (Angul, Cuttack, Nayagarh and Boudh) and has 523 square km as its core area.

Simlipal and Satkosia tiger reserves fall under areas where “there is a potential for increasing tiger populations”, according to an NTCA report.

“The choice of animal for such translocation is a dispersing young animal which is to find a new home any way, and the adult transient which did not get an opportunity to establish territory yet,” said Ramesh.

As many as 78 tribal households residing in Raigoda in the core were shifted to Saruali on the outskirts of the reserve ahead of the tigers’ arrival.

The tigress is said to have killed cattle in a village near Athmallik forest range border. 

The forest department has also dismissed reports of placing the tigress under captivity.

“We do not want to place the tigress in captivity. For each tiger we have deployed three teams on the ground who are working round the clock. Around 30 to 40 people are just engaged for monitoring apart from field staff. We have also informed the people to not venture inside the forest areas,” Panda said.

Officials have ruled out removing the tigress from the reserve and the stress is on engagement with local communities. “With engaging community, I do not expect conflict concern at this stage,” said Ramesh.

“Around 250 to 300 villagers have been engaged since last so many years by the forest department under its programmes. So they are not the ones creating problems. There are a few villages and they are responsible for creating problems. The trouble-makers are a minority,” Panda said, adding the protests were largely “politically motivated.”

Panda said the remaining four tigers would be brought to the reserve only after the first two “settle down.”

The importance of site selection

Relocation at Satkosia is a good idea in principle but site selection is crucial, according to Nitin Desai of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

“There are so many areas with excess tiger population and also so many areas which historically had tigers but populations crashed due to different reasons. Relocations can serve two purposes, reducing tigers to a manageable level in excess areas and reintroduce tigers elsewhere. Site selection should be based on science and protocols must be followed scrupulously to avoid fiascos,” Desai told Mongabay India.

Adding that controversy should never happen if the site selection is proper, Desai said that one must also consider why tigers vanished from certain areas.

“Biotic pressure is just one cause. Many places which had tigers in the past but have no more tigers there, in those places people are habituated to exploiting/using the forest for so many reasons. With new tigers all such things would stop that is why people get upset,” he said.

Weighing in on the landscape, conservationist Biswajit Mohanty said though the poor prey base in Satkosia has shown a recovery in the core area, it would not be able to sustain a significant tiger population.

“Satkosia had poor prey base earlier. However, there is recovery in the last four years in the core area. However, as a tiger landscape it cannot sustain more than four to five tigers that too only if they stay in the core area and do not stray to the buffer zone. The area has 102 villages in both core and buffer zones. There are villages surrounding it on all sides. At least 50,000 cattle enter the park everyday,” Mohanty told Mongabay-India.

The relocated tigress at Satkosia Tiger Reserve. Photo by Sudarshan Panda.

Relocation of tigers at Satkosia can only be done if locals accept them, Mohanty maintained, questioning the long-term viability of the translocation.

“Without local support it would be impossible for the forest department to protect the tigers. I also fail to understand what the relocation will ultimately achieve for tiger conservation in the long term as there aren’t 100 tigers in the state, which is the minimum required for viability. The two or three tiger pairs will breed but this will be inbreeding and they will die out in two or three decades,” he said.

Census censure

Close on the heels of the discussion and debate over the relocation, came the confirmation of the presence of tigers in three more forests of the state. As per the state government, CCTV cameras have captured images of the big cats in Hemgiri forest in Sundargarh and Debrigarh sanctuaries in Sambalpur districts, while evidence of tiger roars and cattle kills have pointed to the possibility of presence of the animals in Muniguda forest in Rayagada district.

“Simlipal, Satkosia and Sunabeda are the tiger habitats now. Stray lone tigers are seen in Muniguda and Sundargarh forests. These sightings are of zero significance as the lone tigers will die out in the absence of mates. On a landscape level the population has to be at least 100 tigers for viability or there will be inbreeding and the existing population will collapse over two or three decades,” Mohanty said.

Disputed numbers

The entire state does not have more than 30 adult tigers now, Mohanty asserted. Tiger numbers in Odisha have been a subject of dispute.

Their numbers ranged from 45 in 2006 to 32 in 2010 and dropped to 28 in 2014, as per the NTCA’s 2014 All India Tiger Estimation Result. Tiger census data in 2004 put the numbers at 192. In 2015, the Odisha state government had contradicted the NTCA report that said the state was home to 28 tigers. Instead the state government said the Odisha housed 40 big cats.

“Odisha has two tiger numbers since 2007, the NTCA figures and state figures. Both are official figures.The disparity is caused due to the method of census used: pugmark used by state government vis a vis camera trap capture-recapture method used by NTCA. Interestingly, the NTCA depends upon state forest department for data acquisition and camera deployment. It is a curious situation. Though the state forest department participates in the tiger census exercise of NTCA they always dispute the final figures,” Mohanty said.

“Nobody knows the reasons for the drop since there are no poaching or infighting or disease related deaths recorded by the department. The tigers just disappeared,” he said.

The relocated tigress inside Satkosia Tiger Reserve. Photo by Sudarshan Panda.



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