Blogger: Aditya Panda, Naturalist & Wildlife Conservationist, Bhubaneswar
After alerting, worrying and exciting foresters and conservationists, the tiger vanished, with absolutely no trace. There were no more signs or sightings. Then, some two months later, he surfaced 60kms in the opposite direction at the Dalijoda Reserve Forest (the last confirmed tiger recording here too is in the 1960s, when one was shot on the runway of the Aviation Research Centre air base, Charbatia). This is the Kapilas Wildlife Sanctuary landscape, which is part of a stepping stone tiger corridor linking the Satkosia and Similipal tiger reserves. It appeared that this tiger was probably going to be the first in decades to re-occupy this area. I was hoping he would. It would have been a smart move, had he hung on here, but within days he was back near Bhubaneswar.
Whatever be, he seemed to have established himself in the Chandaka-Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary. Here he had been sighted by forest staff and later killed a cow from one of the four villages that have encroached the sanctuary (and wiped out most of its wildlife, including its once famed elephants, which they relentlessly sprayed with shotgun pellets till the desperate pachyderms decided to abandon the area). The sanctuary borders the zoo, and in his wanderings, the tiger caught the irresistible fragrance of a tigress in oestrus across the fence. This sealed his fate. He began to largely confine himself to the zoo premises—which cover over four square kilometres of forest, with abundant water and a large resident population of free ranging spotted deer and wild pigs.
He lived in and around the zoo till March 2015. His signs were found at several places all along the western edges of Bhubaneswar. Throughout this time, the tiger kept a low profile, keeping to his business without harming human or livestock, using the cover of darkness to move and hunt. He was indeed a remarkable animal—in spite of wandering in dense human dominated landscapes for over seven months, he evaded any conflict with people with only a single instance of cattle killing, that too within the Chandaka sanctuary, where cattle aren’t supposed to be in the first place. He was the textbook description of the “large hearted gentleman with boundless courage” that Jim Corbett had famously described his kind as.
We conservationists repeatedly advised to protect the tiger, allow it right of movement and let it re-colonise Chandaka, or as was advised later—even by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA)—translocate it to Satkosia, where tigers are now near extinct and even at that time were believed to have numbered just three tigers as per the last All India Tiger Estimate.
The effort should have been to protect and revive tigers in Satkosia and restore the forest corridor with Chandaka. But, the state forest department’s wildlife wing—aware of their own incompetence—balked at the responsibility. The then field director of the reserve even scored a self goal for the forest department, causing it much embarrassment, when he wrote to the chief wildlife warden that he didn’t have the resources to secure the tiger’s safe release back in Satkosia and could not guarantee its future if the state went ahead with the NTCA’s recommendations.
The poor tiger finally met his nemesis in the form of the forest department. He was carefully baited and lured into the tiger safari enclosure of the zoo and locked up. The great idea behind this move was to boost and revitalise the zoo’s gene pool of captive tigers. It clearly didn’t matter that wild tigers were perhaps more important and were on the verge of local extinction in the state’s second tiger reserve!
Desperate to escape, Nandan—as he had now been named—scaled the 18-foot high chain-link fence of his enclosure, only to be caught again a month later, this time confined to a more ‘secure’ cage.
And so, he languishes in his cell, pacing around it nonstop, still looking for a way out and every bit a wild tiger inside.
Today, five years later, better minds are in charge of Satkosia Tiger Reserve and the Wildlife Wing of the Odisha Forest Department. There is visibly committed effort to try and revive Satkosia Tiger Reserve. Protection has improved, committed officers have been put in charge, the first of many villages languishing in isolation within the core area, away from essential services, has been relocated closer to civilisation and space has been created for wildlife to repopulate. The state government has sought the help of Madhya Pradesh in obtaining six young wild tigers to be introduced in Satkosia in order to create a new tiger population here.
Hopefully this momentum will sustain and Satkosia will heal and revive into a stable, thriving wilderness rich in wildlife and a significant tiger population. The location of Satkosia, in the very heart of Odisha, makes it a key landscape to conserve tigers in. If a large, breeding tiger population exists in Satkosia, it will help in rewildling vast tracts of former tigerland in the state that are contiguous with it through well connected forest corridors. In fact, I sincerely believe that a stable tiger population in Satkosia will help return the big cat even to Chandaka, and its return shall signal a secure future for this wildlife sanctuary that is now on life support, struggling to survive next to Bhubaneswar.
A lot of how, whether and how well that momentum will be carried on depends on the citizens of Odisha. If we do not speak up for our wildlife, blaming the government for not giving wildlife conservation the priority it desperately needs will be little more than a hoarse rant. The absence of informed activism and knowledge driven advocacy have been as much to blame for the sad state of Odisha’s wildlife today as has the apathy of successive state governments and a disinterested bureaucracy. If citizens remain apathetic to an issue as crucial as wildlife conservation in a state, so will the government. It is time for activism in support of wilderness conservation to come of age in Odisha.
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.