John Whittles Wildlife

Tiger Reserves

INDIA 2006

We visited India on a tiger study holiday organised by Discovery Initiatives. The purpose of the tour was not only to see tigers in the wild, but to study their habitat and prey, and learn about some of the methods used by naturalists to monitor the presence of animals and assess their numbers.

We were fortunate to be accompanied by K S Shekhar, a field biologist who had made a particular study of small cats. Shekhar, as part of his thesis, had discovered that caracals were still present in Madhya Pradesh in Central North India. They had not been seen for about 20 years. The high spot of the trip for him was to spot caracal tracks on a dirt road in Panna Tiger reserve. These were recorded, measured and photographed.
He also had had extensive knowledge of all types of wildlife, including butterflies and birds, and without him we would only have seen a fraction of what we did see.

We started the tour at Banhavgarh reserve. This is a large reserve with a lot of visitors. There is a reasonable number of tigers, although this is a relative term. Tigers are very large predators and densities are naturally quite low. Movement around the park is by jeep and the rules require that each jeep must have a local driver and a local park guide. Visitors are not permitted to leave the jeeps except in designated areas. Although tigers are sometimes seen from the jeeps, they are more commonly heard. At, or before daybreak , a team of mahouts and their elephants go out into the forest looking for tigers that are lying up after feeding. If found one or two stay with the tiger while the others return to the nearest track to rendezvous with the jeeps and take visitors to the tigers.

It is difficult to describe the sight of oneís first wild tiger. We descended through a forest to a rocky gully and came across a three year old female. The elephant reached up to pull aside a branch and the tiger ran off to the left. The elephant also moved left and to our surprise, the tigress returned to her original spot and lay down. She seemed relaxed at our presence. Strangely they look much bigger in the wild that in zoos. I didnít expect that I would be viewing one from about 6 metres.
Three year old tigress

Although the tiger was a high spot, the parks team with wild life and it would be a mistake to concentrate on only one species and ignore the rest. The butterflies alone are magnificent. Bandhavgarh had varied scenery, from high hills, thick forest, large meadows, lakes and swampy grassland, each with new varieties of wildlife to see.

From Banhavgarh, we moved on to Panna Tiger Reserve. This is not as busy as Bandhavgarh and is, I think larger. When Project Tiger was set up by the Indian Government, it was initially a success and tiger numbers increased. In Panna, largely thanks to the conservation work of one man, Raghu Chundawat numbers increased to about 30. In 2004, it was discovered that there were no tigers left in the prestige reserve of Sariska close to Delhi. Project Tiger and the reserve management had claimed that numbers remained high, based on unreliable pug mark census results. Their explanation that tigers had moved up to the hills (for their holidays?) was greeted with derision. At the same time Raghu Chundawat was reporting that tiger numbers had crashed in Panna. He was using more reliable methods including radio collars. He was banned from the park, where he had done so much good work. When we were there, only one tiger was spotted in the whole park in a thirty day period. Fortunately it was on one of our five days there and we happened to be in the right part of the park to see it.

Panna is a beautiful park, situated on the banks of the Ken River. Both wildlife and scenery are varied and there is plenty to see. It is a marvellous place to visit, but if tigers are your priority, I would go elsewhere.

When the reserves were set up, people were excluded to avoid conflict between humans and large predators. There was political will to conserve tiger numbers. Management of the reserves has now been devolved to state governments and rules permitting settlements within the reserves have been relaxed. Population pressure, demand for firewood, incompetence and corruption mean that the future for tigers in India is bleak.