The Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT) has always emphasised the importance of forested corridors, forest patches and riparian tracts between existing national parks and sanctuaries for tiger movement. This is precisely why several of its conservation interventions are focussed on the buffer zones of tiger reserves and the corridors that connect Protected Areas (PA).
Maharashtra is one of seven states that fall under the Central Indian Landscape (CIL), one of the most viable regions from the perspective of global tiger conservation. As per the 2014 national tiger estimation data, the CIL is home to 700 tigers, approximately 31 per cent of India’s tiger population. Despite this, existing knowledge on a) tiger ecology and b) factors that threaten their existence, reveals that not even a single PA within the CIL supports a genetically-viable tiger population in the long run (i.e. not a single PA is large enough to hold 20 breeding tigresses). It is essential, therefore, that a strong case be built for extending protection beyond the borders of tiger reserves.
By virtue of a profuse network of well-protected forests (tiger reserves and sanctuaries) and reserve/territorial forests; the Chandrapur, Bhandara, Wardha, Nagpur, Gondia and Yawatmal districts of Maharashtra form one of the most important tiger landscapes in India. In order to scientifically validate and quantify this; WCT, in close consultation with the Maharashtra Forest Department, decided to estimate tiger densities in forests that are not part of the PA network – in other words, estimate tiger densities in forests situated outside national parks and sanctuaries in these five districts.
Based on prior understanding of tiger presence, WCT decided to begin this first-of-its-kind tiger estimation exercise in Chandrapur. The first phase, which covered 2,000 sq. km. of tiger habitat outside PAs in Chandrapur district, was conducted under the WCT-USAID Tiger Programme, in collaboration with the Maharashtra Forest Department and Panthera.
As many as 600 Panthera Camera Traps were deployed simultaneously across forested areas in Chandrapur. The forests of Chandrapur were divided into several blocks for logistical convenience. Every block was further divided into 3 sq. km. grids and one camera trap pair was installed in each 3 sq. km. area for 25 days, fulfilling the guidelines mandated by the National Tiger Conservation Authority for such studies.
The results were incredible! At the end of a massive effort, which involved data collection over 18,000+ camera trap nights, WCT’s research team was able to identify 48 adult tigers, including 15 breeding tigresses, residing outside PAs in Chandrapur. It was evident that areas like Kanhalgaon (a proposed wildlife sanctuary) and Brahmapuri are not only playing a crucial role in providing habitat to dispersing tigers, but also acting as source populations! The tiger population inside the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve is being stabilised by the tiger population of the neighbouring reserve forests.
A particularly interesting aspect of the study was that tiger density in some reserve forest blocks was found to be higher than that of some Indian tiger reserves. For instance, tiger density in the Kanhalgaon-Central Chanda block is 2.34, which is more than that of the Melghat Tiger Reserve. In the Junona-Central Chanda block, tiger density stood at 1.77, higher than that of the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve.
The presence of tigers in such respectable densities in human-dominated landscapes speaks volumes about the tolerance of the people of Chandrapur and the good work of the forest department of the Chandrapur Circle of Maharashtra. While this study has proved that humans and tigers share the same landscape, forests and waterbodies, it in no way claims that humans and tigers will continue to coexist without friction in the coming years. In fact, the high incidence of cattle kills in the territorial forests of Brahmapuri and Central Chanda is indicative of the ever-looming threat of conflict erupting between people and tigers. It is absolutely clear that the future of tigers outside national parks and sanctuaries will depend on the efficiency of the forest department in compensating losses of herders and farmers, mitigating and minimising human-animal conflict and increased awareness among people.