By Aditya Panda
The cover photograph on the premiere issue of Sanctuary Asia (October 1981) was a portrait of a tigress. She was no ordinary tigress. She was Khairi – found as a cub in the Similipal Tiger Reserve, Odisha, beloved pet and research subject of Saroj Raj Choudhury, first Forest Conservator, Odisha. She was an international star and also the only tiger with access to the Chief Minister’s Office at Bhubaneshwar. Choudhury was also one of nine pioneering field directors with whom Project Tiger started in 1973. Back then, Similipal and Odisha represented great promise for the recovery and growth of tiger populations.
The 1970s were a decade of hope for India’s wildlife. Until then, it had been hammered under the assault of ‘sport’ hunting, which became uncontrollable after Independence. Many commercial shikar outfitters popped up to cater to foreign clients – especially Americans who, after the war, had found the peace and prosperity to indulge in leisurely pursuits abroad. India’s Tourism Department even advertised shikar holidays to India in New York and London to get much-needed foreign currency. At home, farmers were freely issued gun licenses for crop protection, and people, rural and urban, hunted with a vengeance. What worth was a free country if one needed shikar permits? Alarmed, wildlife conservationists petitioned Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A naturalist herself, she banned tiger hunting and skin exports in 1968 and passed the Wild Life (Protection) Act in 1972. It banned all hunting and wildlife trade and paved the way for establishing national parks and sanctuaries. This also helped lessen the habitat destruction resulting from settling people in forest land, bringing valleys and wildlife pastures under cultivation, timber and bamboo operations and large-scale mining and dam building.
In 1973, India launched what was then considered the world’s most ambitious species conservation programme. Project Tiger started with nine ‘tiger reserves’. These were areas inhabited by tigers that had been chosen as sites for intensive conservation. The tiger and other wildlife would have first right over the land, which was to be protected and managed for their benefit. This would rebuild stable and breeding tiger populations that would then fill out the landscapes around them. These sites represented different ecosystems across India. Today, India has 52 tiger reserves, and counting.
Besides Similipal, among the original nine was another very promising reserve: Palamau (pronounced palamu) Tiger Reserve in what is today known as Jharkhand.
The region between the Chhotanagpur Plateau and Dandakaranya was a vast tract of high-quality habitat. It was unthinkable to start Project Tiger without including this region. Chhotanagpur covers parts of present-day Jharkhand and northern Odisha. Biogeographically, areas north of the Mahanadi river, part of Chhotanagpur and Dandakaranya, are still considered among the most impenetrable swathes of forest in ‘mainland’ India. It comprises the hill tracts of the northern Eastern Ghats in undivided Koraput district of Odisha, East Godavari of Andhra Pradesh and Bastar in Chhattisgarh. In between these two great landscapes were the Garhjat Hills of central Odisha and other hill districts such as Kalahandi and Kandhamal. These forested landscapes were contiguous, interrupted only occasionally by small towns and villages. They merged westward with the Central India Tiger Landscape.
I refer to this landscape as Eastern Central India. From a tiger’s point of view, it is an eastward extension of the Central India Tiger Landscape. It spans the states of Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh (including Balaghat of Madhya Pradesh in the Kanha landscape), parts of southern West Bengal and northern Andhra Pradesh. Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, that adjoins Bastar, can also be considered a part of this landscape.
This was one of the wildest parts of India. Wildlife was widespread, tigers were everywhere but they were always in reduced density because of hunting. With Project Tiger and the arrival of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, the future of tigers in this landscape appeared solid and promising.
The author's grandfather, Dileep C. Panda, a close friend of Saroj Raj Choudhury, feeds tigress Khairi at Jashipur Forest Rest House, Similipal Tiger Reserve. Photograph by: Saroj Raj Choudhury
The 1980s were a honeymoon period. The benefits of conservation over the past decade were being reaped. The tiger population was increasing. And species that shared tiger landscapes were making a rebound. The hard-ground barasingha, with a single population in Kanha, was brought back from the brink of extinction. Leopards too were thriving. Wild dogs, exterminated as vermin under the British Raj, were seen in large packs. Gaur, sloth bear, king cobra, Hill Myna… all benefitted from the protection afforded to the tiger. The Asian elephant was one of the greatest benefactors of Project Tiger. Eastern Central India is the only home of the elephant in Central India. In Odisha and Jharkhand, tiger numbers appeared to improve. In the least their rapid decline had been arrested.
Shikar tourism had been replaced by a nascent safari industry. For whatever reasons, this did not take off in Eastern Central India at the scale it did in Central India. Madhya Pradesh (MP) particularly saw the scope it offered for economic benefit and began marketing itself as a global safari destination. Tiger reserves were a matter of state pride and no effort was spared in making sure that the best officers were posted in areas like Kanha. New tiger reserves such as Bandhavgarh and Pench were notified. Village relocation from within tiger reserves was made a priority. This returned valleys back to wilderness. Meadows came up where paddy fields existed and deer populations exploded to the benefit of tigers. With protection and the near absence of human movement on foot in the MP reserves, wildlife became increasingly diurnal and visible. This boosted tourism, creating tiger-based economies around each reserve, significantly benefitting local communities and winning their support for conservation. Today, the MP model is cited across India as a deeply institutionalised, transparent model of conservation that has stood the test of time.
Odisha and Jharkhand however, missed this boat. After Saroj Raj Choudhury and his contemporary S.P. Shahi at Palamau, there was perhaps a dearth of passionate wildlifers among the forest officers of both states. The state governments didn’t take much interest in wildlife either.
It was in the forests of Central India that the country’s tiger conservation story began in the 1970s. Tiger habitats like Similipal in Odisha showed great promise, but apathy and misplaced priorities have left the region’s wildernesses in tatters. Photo: Anjani Kumar
By the 1990s, conservationists were beginning to worry again about the state of wildlife in these areas. While tiger numbers on paper increased in every quadrennial tiger census, ground realities were of concern. Settlements were mushrooming even inside sanctuaries and reserves. New encroachments were appearing and existing villages were expanding by girdling trees to kill them quietly without the noise of axes. Livestock numbers also grew. Cattle grazed within forests in large numbers. They competed with deer for forage and transmitted foot and mouth disease and anthrax to gaur, causing epidemics and local extinctions. The Central Indian wild buffalo, found only in Eastern Central India was driven to near extinction.
Unlike other ‘tiger states’, the states of Eastern Central India were lethargic about bringing more areas under the protection of wildlife sanctuaries or the focused management of Project Tiger. Maoist insurgency provided the perfect excuse to not do anything, and the mining industry funded bureaucratic and political reluctance to create the ‘inconvenience’ of Protected Areas that would restrict forest clearances. As a result, the world’s largest tract of sal forest, Saranda in Jharkhand, and adjoining forests in Odisha’s Keonjhar and Sundargarh were left to the mercy of fate. Once prime tiger habitats, these were turning into silent forests.
But on paper, tiger numbers always rose! This was made possible by a census methodology that counted tigers based on the shape of their left hind pugmarks. Devised by the Divisional Forest Officer, Palamau, J.W. Nicholson in 1934, this technique was refined by S. R. Choudhury in Similipal. In the 1970s, this was the most reliable scientific method that existed. Unfortunately, its results depended entirely on the expertise of the officers who compared the pugmark plaster casts. This gave unlimited scope for manipulation. Under pressure to show success, Forest Departments continued to show increasing trends in tiger numbers.
A sal tree girdled for silent death to enable encroachment by villages, at Similipal Tiger Reserve. Photo: Aditya Panda
Odisha’s tigers were meanwhile being wiped out. The late ‘90s and early 2000s saw a wave of tiger poaching. As prey populations dwindled, cattle killing by tigers became more frequent. In retaliation, owners of livestock poisoned tigers by lacing kills with pesticide. This suited angry villagers and commercial poachers equally well. That government compensation for cattle kills was delayed and involved corruption did nothing to help matters.
Odisha’s forest officers were doing everything they could to cover up this mess. “Our tigers”, they said, “are truly wild” and “not ‘tourist tigers’ like elsewhere”. They claimed that dense forests and shy tigers made sightings difficult! Towards the early 2000s, Odisha claimed to have over 176 tigers in the state and 101 tigers in Similipal. In wildlife circles, no one took these figures seriously and the joke was that Similipal was “Simply Sal”.
The pugmark fiasco was exposed when the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan ended up losing all of its tigers in 2004-2005. This exposé led to a huge furor and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to act. A Tiger Task Force was called to decide corrective measures. Among its key recommendations was that the pugmark method be scrapped and replaced with scientific population estimation methods like capture-recapture camera trap sampling and DNA analysis of tiger scats. The first All India Tiger Estimation (no longer called “census”) using these methods was conducted in 2006. The results showed that India had less than half as many tigers as it had been claiming under the pugmark exercise. Odisha had just 45 tigers in the entire state, and Similipal had fewer than 30, not 101. Instead of accepting flaws and taking corrective measures, the state machinery went on the defensive and criticised the methodology. Unfortunately, the Chief Minister fell for these excuses and stood by them.
This denial by the establishment delayed corrective action. Every tiger estimation result between 2006 and 2014 was denied by the state. In this period, all breeding tiger populations of the state, barring Similipal, went extinct. In 2007, Odisha notified the Satkosia Tiger Reserve, the second tiger reserve in the state in 34 years. By then Satkosia too had lost its breeding tiger population. Today, only one tigress remains there. An endling. Other tiger populations that could have been saved through the notification of new tiger reserves, such as Ghumsar, Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary, Khalasuni and Badrama Wildlife Sanctuaries, were allowed to go extinct through apathy. Similipal, according to the All India Tiger Estimation report of 2018, recorded just eight adult tigers on camera trap, of which just one was male. Another tiger habitat, Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary – home to the barasingha as recently as 1960s and wild buffaloes until much later – is yet to be notified as a tiger reserve despite the Central Government approving it as far back as 2008.
Palamau in Jharkhand hasn’t fared any better. It too is bereft of a breeding tiger population. The Hazaribagh Wildlife Sanctuary has no tigers. Saranda, the link between Palamau and Similipal, only sees an occasional dispersing tiger.
Exponential population growth and consumption have depleted natural habitats and forced human-wildlife conflict. Unsustainable livestock grazing in and around Similipal has reduced the forage available for wild herbivores. Photo: Siddique Salim Khan.
After the separation of Chhattisgarh from Madhya Pradesh, the new state’s wildlife commitment remains suspect. The Indravati Tiger Reserve had long been surrendered to insurgency. The Achanakmar Tiger Reserve, a key habitat connected to Kanha and Bandhavgarh, lacks a viable tiger population. However, it has high potential for sustaining a tiger source population, and can also play a major role in absorbing Central India’s tigers into Odisha and Jharkhand, helping colonise former habitats. The Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve, the same block of forest as Sunabeda, raises some hope for the striped cat and wild buffalo in that landscape. If Sunabeda is notified as a tiger reserve in Odisha, the two tiger reserves on either side of the Odisha-Chhattisgarh border can be managed to sustain a large new source population that can repopulate Dandakaranya and Odisha’s Kalahandi-Kandhamal regions. This landscape is a direct link between Tadoba and Odisha. Recent news of the approval of the Guru Ghasidas Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh is welcome.
Since the 2010s, there has been a ray of hope once again for Odisha’s tigers. There is sincere leadership in the Odisha Forest Department’s Wildlife Wing, and focus is back on stabilising tiger habitats and rebuilding tiger populations. Management and protection efforts have undergone systemic improvements. Voluntary village relocation has been taken up sincerely, and prey base has improved in the core areas of Similipal and Satkosia to standards required for sustaining tigers.
Unfortunately, Odisha has sunk below the ability to naturally restore tigers. No viable populations of tigers remain in the state. The only breeding population, in Similipal, is highly inbred and disconnected from other tiger populations. To save it, the All India Tiger Estimation report of 2018 recommends artificial supplementation with tigers from Madhya Pradesh. In Satkosia, efforts are on to do this and re-establish a breeding population. The first round of this exercise failed. A male tiger brought from Kanha was killed in a snare and a tigress brought from Bandhavgarh had to be captured again after she killed two people. These have been hard setbacks to the project but they have taught valuable lessons. It is heartening that the State Wildlife Wing hasn’t allowed this failure to stall things. Earnest efforts at habitat restoration, prey augmentation, village relocation and improved protection are once again making Satkosia a safe haven for the return of the tiger.
A water harvesting structure at Palamau Tiger Reserve; looking closely, one can notice a permanent hide from which S.P. Shahi used to photograph tigers cooling off in the water. Photo: Aditya Panda.
Project Tiger was once considered the most ambitious species conservation programme in the world. Today it stands amongst the longest running, most successful Central Government projects. The nature of wildlife conservation is such that there will always be challenges. The success of Project Tiger lies in that time and again it has met these challenges and recovered from serious blows. It is crucial now that the tiger landscapes of Eastern Central India receive the dedicated focus of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the states involved for resolute tiger revival. This landscape can, by an educated guess, sustain up to 800-1,000 tigers if managed at the same standards as more successful tiger landscapes in India.
Despite the assault it has been subjected to, Eastern Central India has some of the largest, finest and most contiguous tracts of tiger habitat in the world. The greatest driving factor for tiger extinction in these habitats has been the extermination of prey base through bushmeat poaching. Forest Departments of these tiger states can no longer afford to sit back and expect protection alone to save tigers. They need to first secure habitat through the proper management of Protected Areas, upgrade selected PAs to tiger reserve status and invest in capacity building of field staff. After securing habitats, intensive management interventions will be required in a series of ‘rewilding’ projects to reintroduce lost large mammal species and supplement populations of existing ones that are genetically too unviable to sustain themselves. This will need to be done until self-sustaining populations are re-established. It is a tragedy that these states pushed their wildlife to a point that even nature cannot restore. But hopefully this tragedy is a lesson never to be repeated.
The 2020s will decide which of the two extremes the tiger will see in Eastern Central India. Total extinction or dramatic revival? One thing is for sure: without the latter, there won’t be any tigers here in the 2030s.
(This article is part of the October 2021 cover story 'Four Decades of Conservation'. Read the other parts here.)
Aditya Panda is an Odisha-based naturalist and wildlife conservationist. He serves as the Honorary Wildlife Warden, Angul District, Odisha. Professionally, he leads wildlife expeditions across India for some of the world’s leading sustainable tourism brands. He was Sanctuary’s Young Naturalist of the year 2007.