Conservationist Hemendra Singh Panwar recollects his days of building up the Kanha Tiger Reserve

An ace conservationist, Hemendra Singh Panwar has spent a decade in developing the Kanha National Park cum tiger reserve. He also headed the Wildlife Institute of India and served as a director of Project Tiger. Recently awarded the Padma Bhushan for his works, he speaks to The Hindu about his passion to research on wildlife issues in a free-wheeling interview.

How did you go about building the national park and tiger reserve at Kanha? How was your experience?

I was posted in Mandla in 1963. Initially, I was in a division of which Kanha was not a part, but later on in 1969, I was put in charge of South Mandla which covered Kanha. I will begin by talking about the famous biologist G.B. Schaller who had spent about 14 months in Kanha. Kanha was known for its tigers as well as the Indian Barasingha (swamp deer). The habitat of the Indian Barasingha was initially spread all over the Central highlands. When Schaller was conducting his research in the 1960s, the number of Barasinghas in Kanha had come down to a mere 100.

In early 1965, he reached the conclusion that excessive predation by the tiger had led to the sharp decline of the Barasingha. The mating season of the Barasingha was from early November to mid-February. However, to my ecological mind it did not appeal that a predator will eliminate its prey and I was not entirely convinced of the research findings. I found out that the concentration of tigers in certain parts of Kanha had increased because of the practice of baiting by people who wanted to showcase tigers to the visiting tourists. This kind of baiting had got them confined to a particular area. So there was a baiting induced extra-normal congregation of tigers in some parts of the grasslands. I stopped the practice. Yet people were very keen to see the tigers. We initiated systematic tracking of pugmarks, drag marks, using which we were able to trace the natural kills of the animals.

After my concerted efforts, only three Barasinghas were killed in 2.5 years. We had a conservation friendly Collector which helped.

A lot of grasslands were released as a result of the rehabilitation of villages in 1968 / 69 where the Barasinghas could thrive. The predation levels by tigers came down to levels which the species could take. Later on, Kanha was made an independent management unit of which I was put in charge.

How was Project Tiger conceptualised and how has it worked so far?

Project Tiger was conceptualised in 1973 with the aim of constituting special tiger reserves in nine areas across the country with core and buffer zones. Kanha was one of the sites selected. There was an existing size norm prescribed of a minimum of 300 sq km. The Madhya Pradesh government was already quite impressed with the way the Kanha tiger reserve had shaped up. We had a core area of 1,295 sq km. We needed a fund of Rs. 65 lakh over five years. However, the Government of India had placed a cap of Rs. 40 to 45 lakh per reserve. As a result, we had to scale down the core area to 940 sq km and 1,005 sq km of buffer zone. This plan was sanctioned around 1974. We also had the mammoth task of relocation of 17 villages which was a more or less participatory and smooth process from the beginning. The relocated villagers received support for building their homes. We also helped them out with manure, fertiliser and seeds for pursuing agricultural activities. In this way, the number of animals in the park was visibly increasing.

How was the shift from Kanha to Delhi?

After my stint in Kanha, I was posted as national director of Project Tiger from 1981to 1985. I did a lot of research on tiger conservation during this time. I studied pug mark techniques and also their population dynamics. The area in Kanha was also considerably enlarged as a result of good protection and habitat development and the tiger population. I also presented a paper at an international symposium on tiger conservation based on my research on spacing patterns in tiger populations. About 1982– 83, the Smithsonian institute confirmed my research findings. As the director of Project Tiger, I have helped in envisaging seven reserves during my time.

Your experience as the director of the Wildlife Institute of India…

The institute was at the forefront in conceptualising the kind of training that can help conservation in the country. A detailed scheme was prepared and sanctioned. The faculty specialised in wildlife biology, management, and extension. We talked about threats to habitats including those from development projects. Some of the members also undertook environmental impact assessments. We started research on all the three disciplines and recruited fellows at the institute. The institution has been recognised as one of the six best conservation research institutions by the World Conservation Union. The institute has also won the Rajiv Gandhi conservation award.

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