SEVEN months ago, 14-year-old T15, popularly called Collarwali Baghin for the radio collar she wears, broke her own record when she gave birth to four cubs — her eighth litter, a reproductive rate unheard of in tiger territory. Two years ago, she had set a record with seven litters, one more than the legendary Machhli of Ranthambore in Rajasthan. Officials at Pench Tiger Reserve (PTR) in Madhya Pradesh are optimistic that if all goes well, T15 may even have her ninth litter. “Given her fine health, she looks set for even a ninth. She has so far given birth to 29 cubs, of whom 25 have survived. That’s unprecedented,” says PTR Field Director Vikram Parihar.
Experts say it’s no surprise that T15 achieved this incredible feat at the Pench reserve, a moist deciduous forest in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh that is the fabled setting of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. PTR’s healthy tiger population makes it one of the best managed tiger reserves in the country, according to a Wildlife Institute of India (WII) report that was released along with ‘Status of Tigers, Co-predators, Prey and their Habitat, 2018’, a four-yearly tiger audit or census which Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled on June 29.
While the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), which has compiled the report, is yet to release data for individual reserves, tiger watchers and PTR officials peg the tiger number at the reserve at about 60, up from 43 in 2014, 23 in 2010 and 15 in 2006. The Pench reserve has 411 sq km of core forest area and 768 sq km of buffer area that’s spread across nine ranges.
“How could T15 give birth to eight litters? Obviously because she feels secure and has enough food to bring up her cubs,” says Parihar, who has held the reserve’s top job since May 2018. “This success has been a cumulative effect of the efforts made by several of my predecessors,” he adds.
Parihar’s acknowledgment of his predecessors’ efforts is borne out by the fact that Pench has been among the top tiger reserves in the WII report — it topped in 2010 and was rated the second best in 2014, behind Kanha Tiger Reserve, also in Madhya Pradesh.
Officials in Pench say taking the community along has been a key element of the reserve’s success story. “The park was set up in 1982, but the turnaround happened around 2002, when we drew up an eco-development plan. A lot of measures were put in place to involve the community. As part of this plan, we set up eco-tourism committees in all 107 villages around the reserve. All our guides and drivers are from these villages. We also share 33% of tourism income with these committees,” says Parihar.
Listing the reserve’s “management strengths”, the WII report says, “The management was found to have systematically carried out the voluntary relocation of villages from within the park, and no human habitations were found in the core area.” The report also praises the regular ‘Charwaha Sammelan programmes’ or the outreach programmes to sensitise cattle grazers.
T15’s isn’t the only success story in Pench. “We have 14 breeding tigresses with 32 cubs aged between six months and 1.5 years, with a survival rate of 84%,” says Parihar, adding that the reserve has 60 leopards.
Abundance of prey is another sign of the reserve’s health. “Wolves are getting rarer in the country but Pench has a good number of them. It’s not for nothing that Kipling had a family of wolves to raise Mowgli.”
“We have over 48,000 chitals, hundreds of sambhars and wild boats. Besides, there are predators such as jackals and wild dogs,” says Parihar, adding, “We have ensured that there is enough grassland available for the prey. We regularly remove invasive species such as lantana and parthenium.”
The reserve officials also ensure that the tigers are kept out of harm’s way. “We have 93 protection huts, each with at least three persons keeping vigil. We also have a dedicated team checking for possible electrocution of animals along supply lines,” says PTR Deputy Director M B Sirsaiya.
Another accomplishment has been the development of a prompt conflict resolution regimen, with a team helmed by veterinarian Dr Akhilesh Mishra. “Over the last decade, we have removed about 20 tigers every year from problem spots in Pench and other reserves in the state,” says Mishra.
And in cases where the matter threatens to escalate into a law-and-order problem, Pench’s 11-member elephant-mounted rescue team arrives at the spot.
Such exercises are fraught with risks, says Mishra as he recounts an instance when a tigress, T16, had to be relocated from Pench to Panna as part of an effort to repopulate the reserve.
“We tranquilised the tigress, but just as I got off the elephant to check on the tigress, a huge male suddenly emerged from nowhere. I was only metres away. I crouched under the elephant’s belly and instructed the mahout to get the elephant to ram into a nearby tree. As the tree came crashing down, the tiger got distracted and left the spot. We then lifted the tigress. She is now in Panna and has since given birth to two litters.”