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A tiger in the backyard – Part 1

Blogger: Aditya Panda, Naturalist & Wildlife Conservationist, Bhubaneswar

“There is a tiger in my farm,” informed a friend over the phone on the evening of Makar Sankranti, 2013. I was surprised, but not baffled. I should have been. This was Bhubaneswar city we were in, part of an urban sprawl of well over a million people, the ‘farm’ actually being a family retreat on the city outskirts. I wasn’t unduly surprised because for months before that phone call I had known that there was a tiger headed this way. It was only a matter of time before it made an appearance, I thought—probably in the Chandaka – Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary, but even I had honestly not imagined that it would actually appear in the city!

The farm in question is near the Nandankanan Zoo, on what was once the outskirts of Bhubaneswar—now a concentrated mesh of gated colonies, educational institutions and upcoming malls. Apparently, his farm staffs were relaxing after dinner, their dog by their side, cozy indoors on the cold January night, when suddenly—and strangely—the dog rushed toward the cowshed, barking frantically. A brief silence followed, then an earth shaking snarl. The dog shot back into the outhouse it had run out of (and allegedly didn’t step out for days). The cows were panicked and the staff had the good sense to wait until morning to investigate.

A tiger? Most—even the zoo staff next door—dismissed the thought. Half a century ago, when the new State Capital was being constructed, there used to be tigers in the vicinity, but they had long vanished. The Chandaka forests, though now protected as a sanctuary, lost tigers in the 1960s and even the existence of leopards has remained suspect since the early 2000s. Bhubaneswar had meanwhile grown and encompassed the forests from the east and a sea of humanity, in the form of cultivation and industry had engulfed Chandaka from every other side, essentially isolating it from the tigerlands of Central Odisha. Prey species such as the sambar deer and gaur (so called Indian bison) had been poached out of existence and even the spotted deer and wild pigs struggle to exist today. The elephants, for whom the sanctuary was notified, have abandoned it and most perished in conflict with humans over the years as they fled. In short, the chances of the great carnivores returning to Chandaka have always appeared nil.

Now, there was evidence to the contrary. I drove up to the farm the next afternoon and was led by the staff to the banana grove where, in a patch of moist earth, I saw the unmistakable, square and prominent pugmarks of a large male tiger.

Was it an escapee from Nandankanan? No, the zoo staff—already alerted—reported that none of their stock was missing.This was a wild tiger.

This was a wild tiger.

From September 2012 I had been carefully following a series of surprising but regular reports of tiger sightings and signs (kills, pugmarks, etc) in highly populated, barely forested areas in nearby districts. The first reports came in September 2012 when rumours of a tiger sighting near Gobindpur, about 70kms northwest of Bhubaneswar, surfaced. These were initially dismissed as wild imaginations of local villagers, but tiger pugmarks were indeed found a few days later next to the extremely busy Cuttack-Sambalpur NH-42 and the railway tracks parallel to it near Khuntuni, closer to Bhubaneswar.

The closest, presently known tiger habitat to Bhubaneswar is the Narsinghpur range adjoining the Satkosia Tiger Reserve, about 100kms as the crow flies. It was later confirmed that he was indeed a young male tiger from Satkosia.

Why did he leave the reserve, and take the rough road? Tigers are wide ranging animals and young males disperse from their natal homes to seek new territories. They can travel extraordinary distances to establish themselves. This is evolution’s way of ensuring that genes travel far and wide, leading to a healthy genetic diversity and healthy animal populations. This is the most vulnerable phase in the life of a young male tiger—most don’t survive past this stage. This is when they are most likely to be lynched to death when they are detected in a populated area or poisoned for killing cattle in the absence of natural prey. Many are electrocuted or snared and an increasing number are getting run over by trains and vehicles on ever expanding highways. Tigers require large, safe passages of natural landscapes with adequate prey and water in order to make it safely from their natal forest to other tiger landscapes where they might form new territories in. In today’s India, these passages or link landscapes, popularly referred to as ‘wildlife corridors’ are under severe stress from the combined juggernauts of human population growth and industrial and infrastructural development that are tearing forests apart, isolating wildlife populations and turning forests into islands by wiping out corridors.

Our tiger seemed to be following an old forest corridor connecting Chandaka with Satkosia, which largely passes through the Athgarh Forest Division. The general direction of the tiger appeared to be towards the Chandaka – Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary that abuts Bhubaneswar. Over the next two weeks, the tiger’s tracks surfaced in this landscape—a mosaic of towns, steel plants,villages, farmland and degraded, fragmented forests. Very likely, the vast stretches of kaans or Saccharum spontaneum grass that clothe hundreds of square kilometres of the Mahanadi floodplains gave it excellent cover. Yet, in such a human – dense landscape, his movement physically blocked by concrete, the tiger’s remarkable journey was fraught with risk. There could have been a fatal encounter with a human. Not necessarily intentional, the tiger could have mistaken a bent human harvesting paddy or answering nature’s call, as four-legged prey. He could have been poisoned, by people terrified of his mere presence, or if he had killed cattle. He could have been poached for his skin, bones, eyeballs, penis—whatever; vulnerable as he was outside his forest, shorn of even the barest protection.

But our tiger was a survivor. And, at least for the moment, luck was with him. The remnant forests on his path surprisingly hold a fair amount of tiger food—spotted deer, barking deer, wild pig and feral cattle, and even elephants—the remaining refugees of the erstwhile Chandaka population. There is a dedicated human-elephant conflict mitigation squad here to track, monitor and protect the elephants—and mainly prevent conflict. On the evening of 8th October 2012, incidentally, the last day of Wildlife Week, as the elephant trackers were driving along River Mahanadi on their way to intercept a herd, the tiger appeared in their headlights. The cat leaped across the road and moved towards the river near Kandarpur, hardly 40kms from Bhubaneswar.

(To be continued…)

About the author:

Aditya is an Orissa based naturalist and wildlife conservationist. He has been a watchdog for Orissa’s wildlife for nearly fifteen years. His day job as an expedition leader for Natural Habitat Adventures takes him to wildernesses across the length and breadth of India. When he is home he works to secure the tiger and elephant landscapes of Eastern Central India.

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