Setback in inter-state tiger relocation as Odisha prepares to return Sundari to MP

  • Under India’s first inter-state tiger relocation project, two years ago, two tigers were translocated from Madhya Pradesh to Odisha’s Satkosia tiger reserve.
  • In a setback to the process, one of the individuals survived and now plans are underway to return her to Madhya Pradesh.
  • As the project stands suspended, local environmentalists in Odisha claim that Satkosia is no longer an appropriate reserve for relocation of tigers given the proximity of villagers and chances of human animal conflict.
  • Tomorrow, July 29, is International Tiger Day, an annual celebration to raise awareness for tiger conservation.

Two years ago, the Odisha government welcomed a tiger and a tigress – Mahavir and Sundari – under India’s first inter-state tiger relocation project. Now, only the tigress survives and the state is preparing to return her back to Madhya Pradesh.

In the summer of 2018, the tiger Mahavir was relocated from Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh (MP) to the Satkosia Tiger Reserve of Odisha. A few days later, tigress Sundari was also sent to Satkosia from MP’s Bandhavgarh. Mahavir died some months later allegedly due to poaching. Tigress Sundari meanwhile, after roaming in the wild of Satkosia was kept in an enclosure as she attacked local villagers from the periphery villages. Her attack triggered protests and resentment from the locals. Now, two years later, the Odisha government is preparing to return Sundari to Madhya Pradesh.

“We have not finalised the dates yet but within one month she will be shifted to Madhya Pradesh. A team from M.P. will come and tranquilise the tiger and take her to their state in their vehicle. As she is already in an enclosure there will not be much problem,” H.S. Upadhyay, PCCF (Wildlife), Odisha told Mongabay-India.

Some opposing reports in mid-June this year, hinted that the M.P. government is in fact reluctant to take back the tigress, citing some practical issues and has expressed this to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) too. But Upadhyay said that the Odisha government has not received any such communication from the M.P. government in this regard. “There is no direct communication with us. They have communicated to the NTCA and the NTCA has given them time to take back the tigress and they have agreed to take her back.” The NTCA clarified to Mongabay-India that any issues have now been sorted out and orders have been passed to pave way for the return of the tigress back to M.P.

“Madhya Pradesh informed us that there are some issues in rewinding the project and taking Sundari back. We have held talks with them and taken a decision that tigress Sundari could be taken back in MP in any suitable habitat in the state. If they want to take her to any other place instead of Kanha, they have the liberty to do so,” said Surender Mehra, Deputy Inspector General, NTCA.

NTCA claimed that the return of Sundari from Odisha back to M.P. is planned because the main objective of the tiger relocation plan was not fulfilled. According to the officials of the central government body, the inter-state tiger project as of now stands “suspended” and not been “terminated” as cited in some media reports.

The Madhya Pradesh government meanwhile said that no final decision has been taken on the issue and it is still working out the final plan to import it back to the state. It also claimed that most likely that tigress would be taken to Kanha Tiger Reserve in the state.

“There are some technical issues and we are working on that. If these things are sorted out we don’t have any issues. But no final decision on the matter has been taken yet. Most likely we have planned to shift her to Kanha Tiger Reserve which would be best for her as it has the potential of re-wilding and adequate infrastructure to monitor her movement too. We have apprised the NTCA on the issues,” said SK Mandal, PCCF (Wildlife), Madhya Pradesh government.

Project faced a setback, not a failure

As per the plan, while two tigers were relocated to Satkosia, four others were also expected to be sent to the state. The Odisha government and the NTCA both claim that the plan to relocate the four tigers has not been terminated but suspended for an indefinite period.

Some local environmentalists pointed out that Satkosia was not a good choice for the project. However, the agencies involved in the technical assistance, feasibility study and preparation of the Detailed Project Report (DPR) claim that Satkosia has all that is needed to see proliferation of tigers. They claim that the incidents of Mahavir and Sundari do not indicate that the project has failed.

The Mahanadi River passes through Satkosia tiger reserve. The proximity of the Mahanadi gorge, a centre for fishing activities, makes it susceptible to human-tiger conflict. Photo by Manish Kumar.

K. Ramesh, Scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), which was a technical partner providing technical help in translocation and monitoring, termed the episode a ‘setback’. “I don’t think this (project) has failed at all. These are individuals and translocation is a process. This could be termed as a setback and part of the process. One event should not be used to judge the success of the whole process. If we look at the translocation globally, even in well-established translocation projects only 50 percent have succeeded. It would be a part of the process and this incident can be termed as a setback and feedback to the process,” he said.

He also defended Satkosia as the apt site for the tiger relocation project. “There are clear guidelines of the IUCN and the NTCA on how to decide on the source population and the destination. It is not done randomly. All the norms were complied with and the project was approved with the technical committee of the NTCA. The landscape of MP and Satkosia was almost similar as it was historically connected and there were genetic and geographical similarities,” he added.

Local environmentalists not on board

Biswajit Mohanty, a wildlife expert and environmentalist from Odisha, claimed that the local experts who were well versed with local conditions were not consulted before the relocation of the tigers.

“We had warned the state that the project is never going to succeed as per the existing situations in and around Satkosia. Despite that, they went ahead and now there is no chance of doing this again. Satkosia is now not suitable for tigers anymore. It was suitable 20 years back. It has so many adverse conditions which will not allow tigers to survive there and rather it can lead to conflict with the locals,” he said. He cited that close to 50,000 cattle enter Satkosia reserve every day and there are several villagers living close to the reserve. The proximity of Mahanadi gorge which is a centre for fishermen for fishing activities he said can also make it vulnerable to human-tiger conflict.

Mohanty also expressed his disagreement at the Odisha government capturing a tiger found in Satkosia and sending it to Bhubaneswar-based Nandakanan Zoo and importing tigers from other states. He also said that round the year poaching has posed a massive threat to the tiger population in the state.

Tikarpara village in the periphery areas of Satkosia Tiger Reserve. Photo by Manish Kumar.

Another environmentalist from the state S.N. Patro validated Mohanty’s statement that the local experts were not consulted for the project. Patro explained that compared to Similipal Tiger Reserve, another tiger reserve of Odisha, Satkosia has limited area and the intrusion of tigers outside the core area was likely.

He also alleged that the local community was not well consulted before starting the ambitious project. “I feel the planned project which was expected to go smoothly was overestimated. People were not consulted where the tiger was left. The surrounding areas should have been consulted. The government must learn that such projects should be well researched before implementation,” Patro said.

WII Scientist K. Ramesh said that the level of resentment from the local community was not anticipated when the plan was mooted and the DPR was made. NTCA DIG Mehra also said that tigers proliferate only in those areas where the local community support the projects. The NTCA has also raised the issue of lack of community support to the tiger relocation plan and had asked the state to work on building confidence in the local community for the project in their official correspondences.

Odisha under lens

The NTCA last year ordered suspending the operations and asked the Odisha government to return the tigress to Kanha in MP where she would be sent to re-wild from the enclosure where she was kept in Odisha. The NTCA cited several violations of standard protocol in managing the tigress like small enclosure used for Sundari, non proper utilisation of the central government meant for the project, and others.

Based on a statement given by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Union government has given Odisha Rs. 35 crore for tiger conservation over three years covering 2016-17 to 2018-19 period. However, according to data in the tiger census conducted by NTCA, the tiger population in the state has gone down from the existing 45 in 2006 to 28 in 2018. The state however contradicts NTCA figures based on the methodologies.

When asked if the first attempt of India’s first inter-state tiger relocation failed in Odisha, state PCCF (WildLife) H.S. Upadhyaya said, “Yes (it failed). I can’t comment on that as it was a joint project of WII, Odisha government, and the Union government.”

According to sources in the MP government, the expert committee which visited Satkosia and examined the condition of Sundari concluded that it would be a tough task to re-wild her. “There is no point in bringing her back in MP and keeping her in the same condition as Odisha is keeping her (in the enclosure),” an official from the State Forest and Environment department said.

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Banner image: An elephant crossing path identified by the Forest Department in Satkosia Tiger Reserve. Photo by Manish Kumar.

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