The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) may have violated their own instructions on tiger rehabilitation during the country’s first case of inter-state relocation in June, The Indian Express has found.
In June, a 195-kg tiger was shifted from Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh to Odisha’s Satkosia in a pilot initiative to boost tiger population in the eastern state. Days later, a tigress was also relocated from Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve.
The shifting of both tigers is part of a project by the ministry and its statutory body NTCA, which aims to shift a total of six tigers — three males and three females.
However, The Indian Express has found that this translocation may have violated the NTCA’s own “Standard Operating Procedure for Active Management towards Rehabilitation of Tigers from source areas at the landscape level”. Page 14 of this SOP, on the NTCA website, states, “Simlipal and Satkosia TRs (tiger reserves) represent a lineage that produces melanistic tigers and are likely to be of a unique gene pool in this landscape. We therefore, need to maintain the genetic integrity of this landscape by refraining from relocating tigers from other areas of Central India into this cluster.”
A melanistic or black tiger is a unique genetic variant within the species, with stripes broader and blacker than usual that sometimes completely covers the tawny hide.
Asked whether the tiger translocation violated NTCA rules, the body’s chief and Member Secretary Dr Anup Nayak said, “Raising this question is valid.” He said the decision to translocate the tigers was taken under the previous member secretary in September last year.
He added that while there may be no melanistic tigers in Satkosia presently, the reserve is “loosely connected” to the Simlipal Tiger Reserve, where genetically unique melanistic tigers have been spotted as recently as May.
A “loose connection” between two tiger reserves implies movement of big cats between those areas, according to scientists involved with the translocation. These scientists said that such inter-reserve movement is detected through scat (excreta) samples and pattern of killing prey. Therefore, introducing tigers from Madhya Pradesh into Satkosia may contaminate Simlipal’s unique tiger pool and violate NTCA protocol, they said.
“Melanistic tigers are nowhere else in the world outside Odisha. If they mate with non-melanistic tigers, the (former’s) unique genes may be lost,” said a former member of the National Board for Wildlife (NBW).
Another former NBW member and conservationist Biswajit Mohanty confirmed, “Satkosia has a recognised corridor to Simlipal, which has a unique gene pool.”
However, Dr K Ramesh, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India who attended the September meeting, said that “NTCA issued the Satkosia-Simlipal guidelines (on genetic uniqueness) based on a small sample study”. According to Ramesh, the melanism seen in Simlipal tigers is a morphological variation.
Dr Sudarshan Panda, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, said, “People who are raising this issue are ignorant, who do not know genetics. Have these people seen tigers?”
Last week, The Indian Express reported that villagers around Satkosia have threatened to kill the two tigers, fearing for their safety and livestock. Hundreds of villagers in the area have formed a group demanding removal of the tigers.