As T3 remained elusive for weeks in the winter of 2009, hope once again faded for Panna Tiger Reserve, which by then had become infamous for having lost all its resident big cats. The male tiger, translocated from Pench, another reserve in Madhya Pradesh, was crucial to the success of the programme to repopulate the park spread over 576 sq km in Panna and Chhatarpur districts. But T3 had been seized by an unusual homing instinct. Reluctant to settle down in Panna, where two females, T1 and T2, had been relocated months before, the big cat began to head in the southern direction through forests, barren stretches and fields, making the prospects of reviving Panna seem gloomier by the day. “We were nervous and frustrated, but determined not to give up,” says park director RS Murthy. The hunt lasted weeks and Murthy’s team worked relentlessly, combing the forests. The big cat was eventually caught from the Tejgarh forests in Damoh district and re-released in Panna on December 26, 2009, marking the turning point in what has become a remarkable success story in translocation and conservation.
The authorities weren’t taking any chances this time. They used a curious technique to woo the reluctant male after his re-release: they sprinkled 1.5 litres of tigress urine brought specially from Bhopal’s Van Vihar. They insist it worked to hold him back.
“T3 ke ane ke bad hariyali ho gayi (things improved after T3’s return),” says a proud forest guard, Rammu Prasad Agarwal. The park now has 27 cats, including cubs, a number that had looked impossible a few years ago. Between 2006 and 2009, tiger sightings had become fewer, to the point where alarm bells started ringing, and the park’s reputation took a hit from allegations of poaching, lax vigil and complicity of forest staff.
The Panna tiger reintroduction programme began in March 2009 when T1 and T2 were translocated from Bandhavgarh and Kanha tiger reserves, respectively. Murthy was transferred from Bhopal to Panna in May 2009. With the help of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, he drew up a comprehensive project in September that year. Then T3 tested the will and patience of the park management.
But their fears would be laid to rest on April 15, 2010, when T1 delivered her first litter — the first of many successes in the course of the programme. Of the first four cubs, two are alive and well. T2 delivered her first litter in October 2010 — again, four cubs. March 2011 saw another first at the park. An orphaned tigress, named T4, had been hand-reared in Kanha for nearly a year and a half after her mother died. She had to be released and re-wilded now at Panna. Fortunately, T3 not only mated with her but also taught her how to kill, a skill necessary to survive in the wild. T4 produced her first litter in November 2011. She was joined by her orphaned sibling, T5, in October 2011. T5 has since taken to the wild and produced offspring. T6, a female brought in from Pench, was the last to be released in Panna in January this year.
“When I came here, the count was zero. It was an opportunity,” says Murthy, a 1987 batch IFS officer. He ensured strict monitoring and did not tolerate unauthorised and illegal activities in and around the park. In April 2012, two researchers from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, were arrested on charges of alleged trespass — something unheard of before. The new park director also developed intelligence gathering. Despite a damning report by a special investigative team (SIT) in June 2009 that blamed poaching for the disappearance of tigers between 2002 and 2008, the then park authorities had cited lack of prey, presence of dacoits that made policing difficult, and dispersal of tigers in their defence. Murthy acknowledged the existence of poachers, and targeted them, reportedly foiling 38 attempts at poaching.
Panna is probably the only reserve with so many collared cats. Murthy says the collars, weighing approximately 1.6 kg each, monitor their movements round the clock. He is assisted by a team of about 90 with clear lines of duty and accountability. “We have broken the hierarchy to be effective,” says Murthy. The mobile units are equipped with GPS, receiver antenna, torches, compass and wireless sets. A beep or pulse rate of below 20 means the battery of the collar is about to run out. A pulse of between 30 and 45 suggests the animal is active. “At 60, the animal is believed to be sleeping or at rest, but a beep rate of 80 or more signals mortality,” explains IFS officer Anjana Tirkey, posted as ACF at the park. Every morning, between 7 and 9, she tracks the location of all the tigers.
Some experts say collars restrict natural behaviour, especially during mating, but Dr Sanjeev Kumar Gupta, who has been with the park for nearly 14 years and has fitted 30 collars on the tigers since October 22, 2010, disagrees. “The collar weighs less than two per cent of the tiger’s body weight,” Gupta says, adding that it helps him track mating behaviour and prepare for delivery. He cites the example of a tiger that had been bitten by a rabid dog — a rare case. “The tiger would have died of rabies in the wild and nobody would have known, were it not for the collar,” he says. The tiger was given anti-rabies shots and is now reported to be healthy.
Panna’s turnaround has come in the face of much scepticism. “Nobody was ready to believe us when we raised an alarm about the disappearing tigers in 2005-06,” says Rajesh Dixit, a lawyer and an environmentalist. His family had announced a cash reward for anyone who could sight a tiger. When it was decided that tigers would be introduced into the park to repopulate it, activists objected, alleging that the new tigers did not stand a good chance of survival. Villagers in Panna, too, had mixed feelings, as was evident when the process of notifying the buffer area began on the instructions of the Supreme Court in August 2012. Of the 16 villages, residents of 13 have now been relocated outside the park.
The park is now grappling with another challenge: gender imbalance. Males have outnumbered females — Panna is now home to six females, 10 cubs and 11 males — and even as park authorities are mulling moving some males to other parks, four of them have already started to disperse.
In January this year, two unmanned aerial vehicles called conservation drones — the country’s first — were deployed in Panna as a pilot. Weighing less than two kilos, the drones were meant for use in Kaziranga, but could not be used there because of security concerns. They flew over the park for three days; the results from the exercise are yet to be released.
Panna may not yet see major tourist inflow, unlike Kanha and Bandhavgarh, which are popular tiger tourism destinations, but its story is nothing short of a roaring success, says Belinda Wright, executive director, Wildlife Protection Society of India. “Panna has proved that with absolute focus and dedication from senior officers, it is possible to achieve success,” she says. n
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