Concern over translocation of tigers in Maharashtra, as conditions in new areas ‘unfavourable’

Image shows 4 tigers bathing in a pond in India
  • Two female tigres from Chandrapur district’s Bramhapuri division in Maharashtra will be translocated within the state, to Navegaon Nagzira Tiger Reserve.
  • Conservationists are concerned that Navegaon Nagzira does not have favourable conditions for these tigers.
  • The forest department will use radio collar and thermal cameras to ensure the tigers are monitored and stay away from villages.

Conservationists have raised concerns after the Maharashtra government gave a go-ahead for the translocation of tigers within the state, from Chandrapur district to the Navegaon Nagzira Tiger Reserve (NNTR). This move is a step to tackle the increasing human-animal conflict in Chandrapur district, where the population of tigers has increased substantially.

According to the All India Tiger Estimation (AITE) 2018 report, Maharashtra has 312 tigers. This study is conducted every four years. However, according to the 2021 report by the state forest department, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), there are at least 352 tigers in the Vidarbha region of the state. Of these, 200 are in Chandrapur district alone. At present, the NNTR has eight or nine tigers and two sub-adults. It is an important part of the Vidarbha tiger landscape, as it connects the major tiger reserves of Kanha, Tadoba, Pench, and other important wildlife areas.

In the first phase of the translocation, two tigresses from one area of Chandrapur’s forest division, Bramhapuri, will be translocated to the nearby NNTR. Subsequently, five to six more tigers will be translocated. A few forest officials and wildlife biologists believe this move will help Bramhapuri be free from potential human-animal conflict. However, a few others have raised questions about NNTR’s readiness to accept new tigers, especially those coming from conflict zones.

Image shows a tiger walking through a forest
A tigress in Nagzira. Photo by Anant Shahane/Wikimedia Commons.

A set of unfavourable conditions such as fragmented habitats dotted with human settlements, low prey base, and significant presence of weed and inedible plants, are making conservationists and forest officials apprehensive about the translocation exercise.

However, the forest department has decided to go ahead with its move after the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) expressed confidence about the viability of the translocation exercise. “The translocation operation has been planned following a detailed study by the WII,” Mahip Gupta, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (wildlife) said. Conservationists or the public may say the WII study is wrong, but the authority has the final say in these matters, Gupta said, adding that WII is the authority on research for operations such as translocation of animals and its decisions are what the department will follow.

Read more: Tigers return to Gadchiroli forests after 30 years, human-animal conflict spikes

Translocation process finally takes off

The translocation operation will be carried out by the joint team of forest officials and WII scientists, headed by NNTR director and Deputy Conservator of Forest Jayarame Gowda. “We have identified two tigresses, who are sisters, from Bramhapuri,” Gowda said. “We expect the process to start by mid-November and complete by the month-end.” He also added that the new tigresses will be radio-collared for monitoring. “We are going to form dedicated teams that will monitor the movement of these tigresses round-the-clock. It will help us understand their behaviour and if they are venturing close to human settlements,” Gowda said.  The core area of NNTR is 654 square kilometres, which encompasses four wildlife sanctuaries of Nagzira, New Nagzira, Koka, Navegaon, and erstwhile Navegaon National Park. The buffer area surrounding the core area is 1,242 square kilometres, which has over 184 villages. The NNTR is roughly divided into two parts and is connected through a corridor that is intersected by one state highway and one national highway.

Reduction in conflict in Bramhapuri

Chandrapur’s Bramhapuri forest division has become a major conflict zone as tigers there mostly survive on stray and domesticated cattle. Several people have died in encounters with tigers. Frequent protests by angry villagers compelled the forest department to find a solution. This ultimately led them to decide that translocation was the right move. So, tigers from Bramhapuri and other parts of Chandrapur district, which have not become problematic, will be translocated to different forests where there is no or dwindling tiger population. However, there are concerns if translocation is a permanent solution since the space vacuum created by the translocated tiger would be filled by new tigers, as Chandrapur is overpopulated with tigers. “While translocation is no permanent cure for human-animal conflict in Chandrapur, it prevents normal tigers from turning problematic, Bandu Dhotre, wildlife activist and former member of Maharashtra State Wildlife Board said.  “This also gives authorities time to come up with new measures.” Dhotre was also part of the committee formed by the forest department to check the feasibility of the translocation project.

Image shows a farm with a river next to it
Farms surrounded by forests in Bramhapuri. Tigers from Bramhapuri and other parts of Chandrapur district will be translocated to different forests where there is no significant tiger population. Photo by Saurabh Katkurwar.

Concerns over poor forest management

Conservationists and a few forest officials are of the opinion that the NNTR is not in good shape for the release of these tigers. The major concerns they have is low-prey base, fragmented habitat, heavy presence of wild dogs, growth of weed, extremely dense patches, and biotic pressure exerted by human activities in the buffer zone. The Nagzira area, which, two decades ago, had a substantial tiger population, is now struggling to sustain its tiger population in accordance with its potential. “NNTR is still recuperating from the damages that occurred due to poaching activities, Sawan Bahekar, Honorary Wildlife Warden of Gondia district, said. “Grazing is rampant in the buffer areas. We know of two cases of tigers dying due to electrocution. There must be more such cases we are not aware of. All these are unfavourable conditions [for the move].”

Inside the core areas, the proliferation of weeds has become a problem for wildlife management. “There are several types of weeds, especially the growth of mahador (Pogostemon purpurascens) is rampant. Mahador covers one-fourth of Nagzira and New Nagzira ranges,” Bahekar said.

Besides weeds, dense forest patches are another problem. “Weed is inedible and spread across wide areas. So herbivores do not stay there,” said Nitin Desai, central India Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).  “Moreover, tree cover and shrub density is too high in many places, which makes wildlife movement almost impossible. These are reasons why herbivore population and tiger population is less here.

Read more: South Asia needs its own regional plan to sustain Bengal tiger population

Chances of conflict in new area

The NNTR buffer houses 184 villages and the local residents frequently go inside the forest to collect firewood, and for grazing activities. Yet, the region has remained peaceful for years. There has been only one incident of human-animal conflict in 2020, where a person died after being attacked by a tiger.  The Bramhapuri tigresses, who will be translocated, have not attacked humans. Their primary source of food has been stray cattle. Forest officials say that the tigers are likely to go near villages in search of easy food for stray cattle, rather than hunting inside the core area where prey is less.

“The prey base in the NNTR is less. Yet there have been no tiger attacks on humans in the NNTR,” Mukund Dhurve, another Honourary Wildlife Warden of Gondia district, said, adding that apart from the 2020 incident, there has not been a single attack in Nagzira in 30 years.  “What if the tigresses from Bramhapuri frequent near villages and attack people? This will create problems for tiger conservation,” he added.  WII scientist Bilal Habib, who is a part of the translocation process, could not be reached for a comment.

Forest department readies to tackle potential conflict

The forest department has decided to appoint three dedicated teams for each of the two tigresses to be translocated. These teams will be tracking the tigresses by following transmission signals beamed from the collars. Moreover, forest officials are holding meetings with villagers to take them into confidence, as well as resorting to technological solutions. “We are working on strategies that are aimed at preventing potential encounters between Bramhapuri tigresses and villagers,” Kulraj Singh, Deputy Conservator of Forest (Territorial) and District Forest Officer of Gondia, said. “Our aim would be to push them back inside the core area, in case they try to come near the villages.” The buffer zone of the NNTR comes under Singh’s jurisdiction. Singh said infrared cameras will be used to track these tigresses. “We will install these cameras near villages, which will be checked every alternate day to see if the tigresses are present in the area,” he said.

Measures to make NNTR favourable habitat for tigers

Higher population of wild dogs in the Nagzira area is often cited as a reason for the low tiger population. Conservationists, however, called it unreasonable and sought better forest management. “In NNTR, it’s not only that the prey base is low, but the forest is not even uniformly distributed. There is a need to remove weeds, revive water streams, and protect wildlife corridor,” Bahekar said. The forest department had asked the National Tiger Conservator Authority (NTCA) to permit clearing of dense patches to increase wildlife movement. However, the request was turned down. “There is a need to remove the weed, WPSI’s Desai said. “It is a fact that dense forest cover due to the understory forests has made palatable species inaccessible, as well as obstructed animal movement. In case tree cutting is not allowed, weed must be removed to create favourable conditions for animals to stay,” he said.

Read more: The tigers that live in a thermal power plant


Banner image: Tigers in Navegaon Nagzira tiger reserve. Photo by Sushil Bahekar.

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