Against all odds, tiger numbers have almost doubled in Uttarakhand. But widening highways and new townships threaten the big cat’s lifeline of interconnected forest corridors. From Rajaji to Ramnagar forests, Jay Mazoomdaar follows the obstacle course that is the tiger’s trail.
It is cold and misty in the Rajaji National Park. The sun is about to set on the Ganga lumbering through the woods. I am standing by a wide canal running south from Rishikesh along the eastern bank of the river. Its steep embankments are encased in concrete, leaving no toehold and making it impossible for the best of swimmers to haul themselves up on either bank.
Behind me are the forests of Chila. In front, parallel to the swelling canal and the somewhat depleted river, runs a railway line. If an animal from Chila somehow makes it this far, it must then negotiate the blinding traffic of NH 58 before reaching the forests of Motichur, the other half of the national park.
Not surprisingly, few make it. The series of deathtraps — canal-railway-highway — ensured that in the last decade or so, no large mammal, not even the super cat, moved to the west of the river.
The lone, ageing tigress deep inside Motichur has been waiting all these years. With her, the tiger will disappear from the western bank of the Ganga in Uttarakhand.
The forest guard in Motichur I spoke to in the afternoon smiled wistfully as he pointed to the giant pillars of a half-made flyover meant to divert the traffic and allow safe passage to animals through the forests below. He wondered if a young male would arrive in time. “Imagine how many tigers Motichur could have had if there was a breeding couple, or if a male from Chila could have made it till here,” he said. He did not sound too hopeful though. The flyover has been a perpetual work-in-progress.
Just like the two other flyovers near Dehradun — at Teen Pani and Lal Tappar — sanctioned to secure elephant corridors. As a result, channels of minor rivers flowing to the Ganga from the west remain the only tenacious links between the two halves of the Rajaji National Park. But if the rapid growth of the Haridwar township to the north continues at the present rate, even the last passages will be lost soon.
FROM THE western boundary of Chila, beyond which tigers have long stopped venturing out, I tried to follow the routes a big cat might take from the eastern edge of Uttarakhand’s tiger map.
The preliminary findings of the latest tiger census have once again established Uttarakhand as the most tiger-rich state in north India. Only Karnataka has more tigers (408) than Uttarakhand (340).
Cats are prolific breeders. Given undisturbed breeding areas and protection from poachers, tiger numbers do multiply very fast and the abundance of this large, charismatic species rarely goes unnoticed. So one did not need a census to “reveal” that in certain pockets of Karnataka (the Western Ghats), Maharashtra (Tadoba) or Rajasthan (Ranthambhore), the numbers were up. Elsewhere, such as in Kerala, large forest areas were checked for tiger presence for the first time, and that, in turn, boosted the numbers. Uttarakhand’s remarkable success — from 178 tigers in 2006 to 340 in 2014 —is on both counts. It has protected its tigers and their habitat better from poachers and encroachment, and errors in enumeration have been weeded out.
For example, in 2006, ill-trained field staff in Ramnagar forest division across the Kosi river, east of Corbett National Park, went for unique pugmark identification and failed to report each individual tiger track. As a result, not more than half-a-dozen tigers were counted in the entire division. In the next national census, a WWF-India team used its own camera traps and estimated the presence of more than 23 tigers. This time, the Lansdowne forest division connecting Rajaji and Corbett national parks has thrown up 30 tigers — a number not many tiger reserves boast of — thanks to steady dispersal from Corbett, a happy breeding ground.
But growing numbers do not tell the entire story. For all the boom in the state, the Rajaji National Park has barely 18 tigers. To be viable, a tiger population must have 25 breeding females, which requires a population size of 100-plus. Since very few individual populations are that large, the only way smaller populations can fight extinction due to genetic bottlenecking is by staying linked through interconnected forests. Unlike many tiger states where the big cat mostly survives — or even flourishes — as pocket populations in isolated tiger reserves, almost every tiger sub-population of Uttarakhand are interconnected through forest corridors. At the heart of this matrix is Corbett National Park with its 150-plus tigers, dispersing young adults to Lansdowne and Rajaji forests to the west and Ramnagar forests to the east, through corridors that run along villages and urban settlements.
So does the future of every tiger population in Uttarakhand, including the 18-odd cats in Rajaji, depend on this uninterrupted flow of genes from Corbett?
JIM CORBETT could not hunt the tiger of Devidhura. To be fair, it was no man-eater, but a cattle-killer. Having travelled all the way from Dehradun to Kaladhungi, a couple of miles from Corbett’s winter home at Chhoti Haldwani, I am reminded of The Temple Tiger. Devidhura is a short drive from Kaladhungi but tigers are believed to have disappeared from the oak and deodar forests of Uttarakhand long ago.
The tiger’s historic range has shrunk but all is not lost yet. From Rajaji, a forest road leads to Kotdwar via Lal Dhang town and Chilar Khal. Along this route, villagers insist that tigers lurk in the vicinity though crop-raiding elephants evidently are their primary concern. A horizontal line drawn roughly 25-30 km north of Kotdwar, passing through Dugadda, would be the northern limit of this tiger map.
A little east of Kotdwar, a town expanding into a city, is Sona Nadi wildlife sanctuary, which is part of the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Further south-east are the Kalagarh forests with lead to the Corbett National Park. Along the eastern boundary of Corbett, runs a highway and parallel to it flows the Kosi river. Across the river is the Ramnagar forest division. A tiger can still very well walk from east to west between the Ramnagar and Chila forests.
By definition, a source population must consistently produce cubs and be able to maintain a surplus turnover. With only a few breeding females on record so far, the 30-strong tiger population of Lansdowne forest division is not there yet, agrees divisional forest officer (DFO) NK Tripathi. But, he points out, the future of Rajaji’s tigers depend on the uninterrupted journey of tigers through these forests.
To the east, the picture is brighter. The tiger density in Ramnagar forest division is almost on a par with that of Corbett’s. Ramnagar DFO Kahakashan Naseem lists a number of cubs to argue that her forests are not just a “sink” for the Corbett’s “source” population. She is backed by her boss, Kumaon’s chief conservator of forests Param Jeet Singh. “Not all forest units get the attention and funds like Corbett does. So you may not become Corbett but you can always better Corbett (in results).”
Samir Sinha, field director of Corbett Tiger Reserve, says he is happy as long as dispersal happens irrespective of the direction it takes. “Corbett’s challenge is to remain the success it is while other areas have a lot of room for more tigers. But be it a ‘source’ or ‘sink’, a tiger boom in unsecured forests is just an invitation to poachers,” he says.
And unlike Corbett, which is virtually free of human habitation, other forest divisions know that growing tiger numbers also means increasing conflict with villagers.
The young teacher at the primary school in Leti village of Ramnagar forest division walks away from the camera the moment I mention “conflict”. A live wire placed in the field by a villager electrocuted an elephant last year.
But she finds her voice the moment I mention tigers: “Yes, they keep taking our cattle and compensation takes ages.” On prodding, she confirmed that no one in the village lost any cattle in the last year or so. The uniformed children sitting in the sun shout in chorus: yes, tigers are here; no, they haven’t seen any.
A few kilometres uphill, Raju and his family harvest ginger in a terrace field of Amgarhi. They complain of wild boars, nilgais and elephants. Amgarhi is probably the highest the elephants dare to reach. But the livestock is not safe from tigers even in the higher reaches. Roughly 4km above Amgarhi, Simli village is visible if one looks up from Raju’s fields. In 2009, a family of four tigers killed five cows in one night in the village.
A man in his sixties who has just made a steep 7km descent on his own from Amothi village to Patkot, claims there is nothing to fear during the day. “Whether tiger numbers go up or down, we have no option but to walk. But we avoid going out after dark when tigers are more active,” he says. Yet, rare fatal encounters happen. On the current list of compensation at the Ramnagar forest office, there are two human deaths.
Two days ago, I met principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) AK Dutt in his Dehradun office. He agreed that the risk of conflict and poaching grows with rising tiger numbers. “But the human population is also growing, isn’t it? People can be impatient, even intolerant, at times. But it’s about maintaining a balance,” he says. Compensation amounts for loss of cattle or attack on people have been increased. “Forest connectivity eases conflict and we are in the process of adding two ranges of Lansdowne forest division each to Rajaji (Laldhang and Kotdwar) and Corbett (Kotdi and Dogadda). Protection is a big issue outside Corbett but we are pumping in the funds ,” he says.
On the ground, though, there are few checks in place in the forests of Lansdowne or Ramnagar. There are tell-tale signs of tree-felling and illegal entry of tractors along the Pawalgarh-Musabangar forest road rarely patrolled by forest staff. With tigers flourishing in this forest division, lax protection can rapidly unravel the story.
The forest connectivity between Chila in the west and the forests adjoining the Nepal borders in the east is not free of hurdles. The haphazard growth of Lal Dhang town is one bottleneck. The massive expansion of Kotdwar’s suburbs, particularly to the south, is another concern for forest connectivity. Then, the Kalagarh power complex stands on the thin forest link south of the Ramganga reservoir.
If tigers cannot take this southern route out of Corbett, their only option is to climb up, and try the other corridor north of Kotdwar. The catch: to reach north Corbett from the south, a dispersing tiger would have to cross the territories of a number of resident tigers and is unlikely to survive the turf battle.
The third major bottleneck is on the Kosi corridor between Corbett and Ramnagar forests, courtesy a series of adjoining walled resorts. Also, vast tracts of village land have already been procured inside Ramnagar forests by the tourism industry which plans to shift bulk of its business from Corbett to these forests where the strict regulations of a national park do not apply. Already, below-the-radar night safaris are on offer.
Given the odds, whatever be the numbers, the tiger and its keepers have done reasonably well in Uttarakhand. While the big cat is very much a victim of encroachment and poaching in the state, the net turnover is positive and, more importantly, there are few isolated populations, if any. Man willing, tigers do have a future here.
Driving back from Sitabani forests, I chance upon an old forester from Dehradun in Ramnagar. In an ideal tiger world, he asks, how far do I think the tiger would roam? Maybe as far as those frosty deodar and oak forests where Corbett tracked them a century ago? “Next time, head north from Dehradun. Check out the Mussoorie forests.” That’s a journey for another day.