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PANNA : Where have the Tigers Gone?

(With Post Script, 2015)

Suhas
Kumar(originally
written in 2009)

In 2009, two young wild tigresses one from Kanha and another from Bandhavgarh tiger
reserves where translocated to Panna tiger to supplement the struggling tiger population,
which, reportedly, was very-very low or non-existent. And after a gap of several months
a middle-aged male tiger was brought from Pench Tiger reserve to give company to the
reintroduced females.
To find out the reasons for the sudden disappearance of tigers from Panna, the
government of India ordered an investigation by a special team (SIT) headed by a former
director of project tiger and the state government set up a high level committee to
investigate the causes. While the SIT squarely blamed the state government for
mismanagement and its failure to curb poaching, the committee proposed some
ecological perspective saying that the females left the park to safeguard their cubs from
male tigers. In my opinion both these findings are not wholly correct.
That the habitat of Panna, till 2007, did support a number of tigers is undisputable for I
have firsthand knowledge of this fact - during an one day tour within the reserve in July
2007, I had seen fresh pug marks at 3 different locations 10-15 kms. apart and heard
vocalization by a tiger near Madla entry point of the tiger reserve.
The confirmation that the Panna reserve had lost all of its female tigers and from among
the males merely a lone survivor roamed came after several rounds of checking and
rechecking by the experts. This lone survivor was then wandering outside the safe
confines of the tiger reserve; the staff had seen its pugmarks near Panna town in the fields
along the Panna Satna road.
When I learnt all these details in March, 2009 through newspapers, I was totally at loss as
it was difficult for me to understand how in a short span of a year and a half all the tigers
of Panna had suddenly vanished. I was also confused because in the preceding three
years, Panna Tiger reserve had undergone a massive protection facelift? If poaching was
the explanation I was unable to perceive how, in a short span of time, such large scale
extirpation of tiger could go unreported without a whimper in the press for Panna was a
hot destination for media after a researcher had made a series of allegation against the
management.
I devoted some time to search for plausible causes for this sad state of affairs at Panna
and came out with some hypotheses that may be tested in coming days. In my view, the
reason for disappearance of a species is manifold and in most cases it is a combination
of unsuitable ecological conditions and anthropogenic decimating factors like poaching.
When an endangered species suddenly vanishes the so called experts tend to blame it on
poaching alone. And no body cares to find out the other reasons.
Poaching, in and around Panna Tiger reserve is a reality, no doubt, but almost all other
tiger bearing areas face the same threat. Today amply networked and equipped
professional gangs of poachers are involved and in this trade and the local traditional
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hunter communities are their partners. But what are the other factors besides poaching to
explain the mysterious disappearance of all tigers from Panna over a short duration
(between July 2007 to March 2009).
The plausible hypotheses to explain the mysterious disappearance of tigers, which I am
inclined to offer, is based on my knowledge of the terrain and the tigers of Panna, are:
i.

ii.

The habitat had only a few female; some were poached within their territories
that extended beyond the reserve and the remaining few, except one, dispersed
out of the reserve in search of better hunting grounds. Presence of this lone
female with two cubs was noticed in adjoining north Panna forest division in
2009.
Males spread out and moved to other areas beyond the tiger reserve in search
of prey and fecund females.

The above two hypotheses draw support from Dr. Raghu Chundawats Tiger Ecology
Research, which concludes that the male tigers of Panna operate in a much wider area
one of the radio-collared male had a territory as huge as 277 square kms and females of
Panna Tiger reserve have territories larger than those reported for females from any other
PAs (Sunquist, 1981; Smith, 1984; Karanth and Sunquist, 2000). The territory the female
tigers either extended beyond the Park boundary or touched its periphery, exposing
breeding females to external threats (Chundawat,R. 2001).
This also means that the male tigers that are no longer seen within the reserve left the
park after disappearance of the females and moved out into the territorial forests of Satna,
Rewa, Chhatarpur, Chanderi, Sagar, Damoh or Tikamgarh or may be in the forests of
Uttar Pradesh a quick look at the google map of this landscapes reveals the extent of
good and sparse forest cover beyond the tiger reserve which the tigers of Panna might use
as their extended territories. The support to this hypothesis comes from the field reports
of sudden appearance of a tiger in Damoh forest division about180 kms away
recently.
That the tiger from Panna could wander off to far away forests of Damoh was confirmed
again when a male radio-collared tiger, that had strayed out of the reserve, was recaptured
from there. I am also inclined to believe that a tiger and a tigress that have made Madhav
national park their home since 2007 are also refugees from Panna tiger reserve. Habitat of
Madhav national park had recovered from severe depletion resulting from almost 7 years
of mismanagement until a sensible and hard-working officer arrived on the scene in 2006.
Till then it had been more than 25 years for Madhav once a playground for tigers to
have cradled a resident tiger, though pugmarks of transients were seen off and on. The
fresh and continued occupation of Madhav's rejuvenated habitat by two tigers is a case of
occupation of a resurrected, potential habitat by dispersing tigers.
Coming back to Panna, Dr. Chundawats research also points out two major problems
pertaining to natural prey of tigeri.
ii.

A density of 32 prey /km2 is estimated for Panna National Park, which is low in
comparison to other high tiger density areas.
A low ratio of fawn and yearlings per female is observed in the chital population,
indicating poor productivity of the population.
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The research attributes poor utilization of habitat by herbivores to the sparsely wooded
habitats and the absence of water in tiger reserves upper plateau in summer season.
Considering these two constraints that the tigers of Panna were facing, relocation of 9
villages that had a sizable cattle population - an important prey supplement for tigers
had an effect on prey availability. As most families of these 9 villages moved out along
with their cattle in 2008-09 leaving the habitat suddenly bereft of supplementary prey
(cattle). Another management intervention that might have adversely affected prey
availability for the tigers was the translocation of about 5000 feral cattle from the reserve
to cattle pens by the end of 2008. Chital, which usually forms a major portion of tigers
natural prey, are not very productive in the dry-deciduous and water scarce landscape of
Panna, making tiger utterly dependent on supplementary prey like cattle. The restricted
distribution of chital in the undisturbed areas in and around Badgadi, a village that was
relocated about 20 years back, may have been another reason why tigers were forced to
move out of the reserve in search of prey. If the stronghold of chital "Badgadi" and its
immediate surrounds are occupied by a formidable male, other males would find little
courage to prey on chital there.
Some well meaning people who point out that the Panna tiger reserve has a good
population of blue bull and therefore there is no dearth of prey for tiger should consider
that blue bull is not a preferred prey of tiger and compared to cattle it makes a very
difficult quarry as it is much more agile and alert than the cattle, besides it inhabits drier
and sparsely vegetated tracts which the tiger usually avoids for such tracts are water
deficient and provide little ambush cover. Because tiger has evolved as a specialized
forest-edge predator following the cervidradiation in Asia (Sunquist and Karanth, 1999),
its survival and hunting strategies are more cued to cervids than prey found in open
habitat. Tiger is not avoiding blue bull consciously but only a part of the population of
nilgai is predated - that which occupies forest-edge habitat. Moreover, blue bull is less
likely to achieve their optimal densities in these forest habitats. Therefore, in Panna, prey
species like nilgai and chinkara may be playing a limited role in the ecology of tigers.
The Cervid and the bovid populations usually achieve their maximum densities in a
mosaic of forest habitat and in Asia and it is from these habitats that higher tiger densities
are reported.
The research carried out by Chundawat in Panna reveals that the tigers habitat occupancy
is directly linked with water and prey availability and also that the productivity of natural
prey like chital and sambar has been poor in Panna compared to other reserves, even the
fawn to yearling survival rate has been be very low in Panna. Gogate and Chundawat
(1997) report that chital is the most preferred prey in Panna (in terms of number) and
this species is being utilised far in excess of its availability . It is only in the case of Panna
that chital has been reported as the preferred prey whereas in all other cases so far chital
has been reported to be the principal prey. This is probably explained by the absence of
habitats that are conducive to proliferation of chital. Hence in Panna there is a need to
create and maintain such habitats (Mathai Manu Verghese, June 1999, Wildlife Institute
of India, Dehradun). Maintaining the relocated village sites at a seral stage as edge
habitats consisting of grassland juxtaposed by woodlands and create more waterholes
should become the prime focus of management.

If data of cattle kill for three consecutive years (2004, 2005 and 2006), for the villages
that were evacuated in 2007, are analyzed, one may be able to draw some useful
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conclusions. I would also suggest that all the DFOs of the districts which I have listed in
this note may be asked to mount a vigil to locate evidences of tiger in their forests and
immediately report presence of any tiger within their respective jurisdictions. As I have
said earlier the tiger and its remaining non-PA habitats need protection more outside the
PAs than within, the DFOs need to be equipped and made responsible for the protection
of tigers outside PAs - at present they appear to be in a state of denial of the threat of
poaching?

In my view, the management needs to begin a planned intervention to augment water


availability in water-scarce habitats and try to reclaim the abandoned village sites as
grasslands so that the chital , a versatile species, may respond favourably and become
more productive. With better habitats the fawn to yearling survival rate, which is very
low right now, would certainly improve. The another important intervention needed will
be to equip and make the territorial forest officers ,who manage territories around the
tiger reserve, responsible for tigers and wildlife so as to protect breeding territories of the
female tigers that extends beyond the boundary of the tiger reserve.
If we could take these measures without losing time we may hope the return of the
tigers to Panna , or else We may be witnessing the last of the tigers in this unfortunate
reserve.
I hope that the nomad tigers would come back as the habitat and prey base improve, but
I also fear that the hostile conditions beyond the safe confines of the tiger reserve may
have already decimated the wandering tigers. The fate of the vagrant tigers outside tiger
reserve remains uncertain. Outside it is wild-wild west poachers lurk with their gintraps, sticks and iron bars and the upset villagers lie in wait with their devices to
electrocute or poison tigers. With this dismal scene outside the reserves there is but a
flimsy hope that out of 10 straying tigers probably only one would get a safe passage
back home.( P.S. - In 2013, CCMB, Hyderabad published a research paper confirming
that one of the cubs born in Panna after reintroduction carries the genes of a tiger thought
to have been exterminated before 2009- an undeniable proof that one of the resident tiger
that had left PNP had returned to Panna and mated with one of the reintroduced tigresses)
Now in the prevailing situation what the female tigers brought from Kanha and
Bandhavgarh could do remains to be seen. The chances are - the lucky males that have so
far escaped the trap or the live wire will return by the onset of winter when the mating
season reaches its peak. It is time, therefore, to ensure - by putting in place pointed
protection machinery inside and outside the tiger reserve- that the nomads outside the
reserves remain safe and the females within the tiger reserve do not stray out. And by
employing a network of informers in the peripheral villages and by swift preemptive
actions poachers are kept at bay. Pressure on the poachers must never relax. ( P.S.- The
tiger from Pench and the females from Kanha , Bandhavgarh have successfully
resurrected the tiger population in Panna and in 2015 there were around 30 resident tigers
in Panna tiger reserve)
_______________________________XXXXX_________________________________
Note : The views expressed above are solely of the author and not written in any official
capacity( additions made in 2015).
( The original note written on 26.3.2009 was Sent To Dr. P.B Gango padhyaya, the then
CWLW, MP and Shri H.S. Panwar, Member of the Committee constituted by the State
Government to inquire into the issue of Vanishing tigers of Panna.)
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