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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Explained: How shutting parks in the rainy season helps tigers

Uttarakhand has decided to keep Corbett and Rajaji Tiger Reserves open all year. What were the reasons for shutting them during the rainy season so far, and how does it impact tiger breeding and poaching?

Written by Jay Mazoomdaar | New Delhi |
Updated: June 30, 2021 8:40:48 am
A tiger in Corbett, and the Tiger Reserve during the monsoon. (Photo: A G Ansari)

Uttarakhand Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat announced on Wednesday that the state’s two Tiger Reserves — Corbett and Rajaji — would now remain open for tourism round the year. Until now, the reserves would remain closed to tourists during the monsoon for 4-5 months every year. The statement has sparked a debate with many warning that tourism activities in the rainy season will disturb tigers in their mating season.

Until now, Rajaji’s Jhilmil and Corbett’s Jhrirna zones remained open round the year, while the latter’s Bijrani zone closed for four months from June 15 to October 15. The rest of Corbett and Rajaji usually remained shut for tourism between June 15 and November 15.

The dates vary due to variation in forest quality, topography and climate. For example, the peripheral forests of Jhirna remain open throughout. Bijrani is not as affected by seasonal streams as the northern parts, say Dhikala, of Corbett and opens a month early.

In comparison, meagre rainfall in Rajasthan allows Ranthambhore National Park to stay open for 9 months between October and June. And high monsoon in Assam forces Kaziranga National Park to stay practically shut for six months between May and October.

What about tiger breeding?

Contrary to the myth, tigers breed round the year. Except when raising a litter, a tigress comes into oestrus every 21 days. Even in the event of stillbirth or premature death of cubs, it comes into oestrus again within a month.

Clearly, such readiness belies every imaginary seasonal restriction, even though extreme winters of the Russian Far East are known to force a semblance of seasonality in the Amur tiger’s breeding behaviour.

In India, if there is any seasonal bias for mating, observational evidence suggests it is towards the autumn-spring window. The rainy season is not the best time for tiger breeding.

The elephant, the other iconic species of Corbett and Rajaji, does not seem to particularly prefer the monsoon for species propagation either. While elephant breeding is indeed linked to rainfall patterns — they breed round the year in places where it rains likewise — a high number of births are observed in the winter months of November-January in India, indicating a surge in mating in the pre- and early monsoon months of May-July.

A 2009 paper on reproductive behaviour of elephants in Rajaji noted the “musth phenomenon in adult male elephants was mostly observed during February to July, which was dominated by dry period” and peak breeding season in “largely the warm period” starting May.

So, why shut tiger reserves?

It has more to do with humans than tigers (or elephants), really. A tropical forest is least accessible during the monsoons, with lush undergrowth blocking movements and gullies washing away tracks. This is why even the trophy hunters of yore picked the rainy months as the off-season — a window they had to allow the animal population to recover.

In fact, the policy of shutting down a wildlife park is driven by weather across the world. Yellowstone, the first national park in the US, and also the world, shuts every winter in the snow season. Nagarhole and Bandipur Tiger Reserves of Karnataka shut to tourists in the dry summer season to protect animals from stress and the forests from fire.

In the north, the rainy months are the most challenging. Only in 2019, a monsoon spate in the seasonal Dhangarhi nallah that flows across the Ramnagar-Corbett road swept away a tourist car. Inside Corbett, vehicular access is limited to only three (Dhela, Jhirna and Sultan) of over a dozen tourist accommodations during the rainy season when seasonal nullahs carrying boulders wash away roads and even knock down culverts.

“We walk and use elephants to cross the streams for patrolling and supply ration to the guard posts during the monsoons. While it is possible to upgrade the road to Bijrani across two seasonal streams that do not bring too many boulders, strengthening the road network to access the rest of the park will be a challenge. But everything is possible with big investment and mega machinery,” said a forest official who recently served at Corbett.

Why not invest and stay open?

It is difficult, although not impossible, due to the topography. A number of southern reserves, including Nagarhole and Bandipur, have invested in such interventions to stay open for tourists round the year. The scale of construction, however, is not comparable to what is required in Uttarakhand’s forests.

“We also get a lot of rain here but the gradient is such that water channels here stay narrow and regular culverts do the trick. In Corbett, they will probably need bridging structures spanning several hundred metres. We have to decide if we want all that inside a tiger reserve,” said a former top official of the Karnataka forest department.

Besides, tiger breeding is not the only concern. A number of species do breed in the forest during the rainy months and together they maintain the ecological balance, or the food chain, that supports the apex species.

Besides, wildlife deserves a break from noise, light and other pollutions tourism brings to their habitat. And given the logistical challenges it poses, the rainy season is the most convenient period for providing that respite.

A recent study reported high stress induced by tourist vehicles in tigers in Bandhavgarh and Kanha tiger reserves of Madhya Pradesh by comparing a marker in the scat collected during tourism (January-March) and non-tourism (September) months. While a more accurate comparison would be between scats collected from tourism and non-tourism zones the same month (a rainy September could anyway be more relaxing), it is reasonable to assume that a period of low disturbance will anyway benefit wildlife.

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Does opening or shutting parks impact poaching?

While opening parks to tourists in the rainy months will not hamper the breeding prospects of the tiger, it may yet put the national animal at risk. Unlike the royal trophy hunters who avoided the dirty rainy months, the poacher considers the monsoon an opportunity when guards struggle to patrol much of the reserve. That is why Project Tiger has always emphasised enhanced vigilance during the monsoon.

Uttarakhand has a history of suffering heavy losses to poachers during the rainy season. Diverting the forest staff from ‘Operation Monsoon’ to tourism duties during these tough months will only make the reserves more vulnerable.

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