With growing number of tigers, India faces the challenge of accommodating them, what with conservationists claiming that the country can accommodate a few thousand more big cats.
One of the ways to do it is build corridors to connect many island-like forests that currently don’t have tigers due to lack of connectivity to source populations in existing tiger-bearing areas.
Maharashtra’s Forest department is faced with a test case scenario in a lesser-known sanctuary that had its first tiger arrival in December last year — the radio-collared “Walker”, who traversed a world-record 3,000 km from Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in Yavatmal district to Dnyanganga Wildlife Sanctuary in Buldana district between June 2019 and March 2020 to finally settle down in the latter.
The department is weighing many options to take the story of Walker, aged about three years, forward in terms of making it the centrepiece of a conservation initiative that would be the first of its kind in the country.
TWLS T1C1 (Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary cub C1 born to tigress T1) was named Walker by forest officials who tracked him through his epic journey. Having settled down in Dyanganga, Walker seems to be just doing fine — killing wild boats and blue bulls and leading a solitary life in the 205 sq km sanctuary.
The sanctuary’s tryst with tiger has excited not just conservationists but also local politicians, who are looking at a job-creating tourism opportunity and are hence rooting for providing Walker with a mate to populate the sanctuary with tigers.
A committee headed by Srinivas Reddy, Field Director, Melghat Tiger Reserve, who supervises Dnyanganga too, has also recommended that a female tiger could be translocated to Dnyanganga but the challenge is much bigger than that.
“Dnyanganga is like an island. Unless it has some connectivity to other tiger-bearing areas like Melghat in Amravati district and Muktai Bhavani in Jalgaon district, it makes little sense to facilitate growth of Walker’s progeny in Dnyanganga. Because the question would be where do they go and how do we ensure their genetic plurality,” says Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) Nitin Kakodkar. “We need to first facilitate connectivity before letting Walker’s tribe grow,” he adds.
Two forest areas which can provide a larger area for any future tiger population to move about in are the 74 sq km Katepurna Sanctuary in Akola district and 18 sq km Karanja Sohol Sanctuary in Washim district. “While Katepurna is just a degraded, thorny forest, Karanja Sohol is a grassland. They won’t be ideally suitable for tigers. I thought Walker might walk in the direction of MTR or Muktai Bhavani in search of a female since that area does have some tigers. But it has so far not gone that side,” Kakodkar says, adding, “I hope it goes there this winter, which is supposed to be a breeding season.”
Says Wildlife Institute of India senior scientist Bilal Habib, who had radio-collared Walker in Tipeshwar, “If Walker travelled in search of a female, it is a secret that only he can unravel. For a tiger, the top priorities are having his own space and sufficient food. He became stable only after getting space and food. Now, whether he would prefer to go out of his way, literally, to get a female is again something only he knows. Providing a female is the easy option — we can do that — but for long-term conservation we need to ensure proper channels for the tigers to move in and out of Dnyanganga. That’s a tedious and challenging proposition. So we have to be very sure about what and how we are prioritising,” he says.
For now, political clamour is growing for protecting Dnyanganga as a tiger area to facilitate tourism. Buldana Shiv Sena MP Prataprao Jadhav has even suggested a 10-km elevated corridor between Botha and Warvan villages to replace the existing stretch of 50 km Khamgaon-Buldana road cutting through the sanctuary to ensure safety for Walker and his possible future progeny. Also on the cards is relocation of Dewhari, the only village inside the sanctuary.
Kakodkar says, “It’s for the government to decide if it can build such a long elevated corridor. But there are two alternative routes already available. That option is easy and cheap. People need to be convinced to take the detour that’s about 25 km longer. For Dewhari relocation, we have sought Rs 57 crore from the government.”
“If nothing is done to take the Walker story forward, its epic journey would end up as a footnote in India’s tiger conservation success story,” says Nitin Desai, central India director of Wildlife Protection Society of India.
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