The results of the latest survey on tiger population published by the Karnataka Forest Department and the all-India figures published by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) indicate that the number of big cats has grown in the State. According to the NTCA status report, Karnataka has the second highest number of tigers (563) after Madhya Pradesh (785). While authorities are happy with this development, there is also anxiety over the way forward.
The minimum tiger estimates for Karnataka have been pegged at 435 by the State’s Forest Department, based on camera trap images, and 563 by the NTCA, based on direct and indirect evidence apart from camera trap images.
But the growth is skewed. It is high in areas such as the Bandipur Tiger Reserve where tigers have been protected ever since the inception of Project Tiger 50 years ago. Besides, Bandipur was brought under protection by the maharajas as early as in 1941 when 800 sq km of forest was notified as the Venugopal Wildlife Park. Nagarahole, too, has enjoyed such protection since the 1950s. The Bandipur and Nagarahole reserves together account for 290 out of the 563 tigers in the State.
However, there are 136 villages in a radius of 1 km around Bandipur and nearly as many villages around Nagarahole with a large livestock population. Livestock are easy prey for tigers lurking in the forest fringes. There are concerns among communities that any further increase in the tiger population may escalate the man-animal conflict, which is especially high in habitats with elephants. Local communities in these habitats suffer crop damages (by elephants) and human deaths (due to tiger and elephant attacks).
Some argue that a high prey base will reduce the range of the resident tigers and their propensity to stray into human habitats. This means bracing for a higher density of tigers per sq km. Bandipur and Nagarahole already have 7.97 tigers and 10.88 tigers per 100 sq km, respectively.
However, others argue that Bandipur and Nagarahole may have reached saturation point in terms of their tiger population and prey population and efforts to augment numbers may only fuel more conflict.
Besides, experts have cautioned against artificial intervention or habitat manipulation in order to augment the population of tiger prey. They say that an increase in tiger density beyond the carrying capacity of the habitat could adversely impact the population of other co-predators such as leopards and dholes, which are equally important to conserve.
Another long-term challenge in Karnataka is to protect potential tiger habitats with low densities and strengthen corridor connectivity. Doing so will facilitate the dispersal of tigers in ranges where the forests are contiguous. A case in point is the Malai Mahadeshwara Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, which is spread over 906.18 sq km and is said to be ideal as a sink to absorb the surplus tiger population. This sanctuary was mooted as a tiger reserve. The NTCA supported the proposal on the grounds that additional inviolate space could be created for the dispersal of both tigers and prey. The Malai Mahadeshwara Hills Wildlife Sanctuary is linked to the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka to its north and east, the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu to its south, and the BRT Tiger Reserve in Karnataka to its west. It is therefore considered vital for securing the future of tigers in the State. But political compulsions before the Karnataka Assembly elections forced the Bharatiya Janata Party government to put the proposal on hold.
Providing a viable wildlife habitat and creating additional space for tigers calls for ensuring strict implementation of Eco Sensitive Zone rules, reducing anthropogenic pressure on existing habitats, taking the local populace into confidence and allaying their fears of displacement. All of this requires both political and administrative will.
According to the NTCA report, 373 of Karnataka’s 563 tigers are in five reserves – Bandipur, Nagarahole, Bhadra, BRT, and Kali, which together account for 66% of the State’s tiger population. Nearly 78% of tigers in tiger reserves are concentrated in Bandipur and Nagarahole. The remaining are dispersed across 17 non-tiger reserves. Securing their future amidst developmental pressure and dilution of forest conservation laws is the challenge ahead.