On the tiger trail
Wednesday 15th June 2011


In Ranthambhore, tigers surprise visitors with their ability to survive in harsh habitats such as thorn forests and barren land of scrub and rocks.
THE oppressive summer heat touched 43°C, and the only good that came of it was a chance that we would find a tiger cooling itself at one of the waterholes along the roads in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Tigers living in hot climes are known for their propensity to lie about in water, and the Ranthambhore tigers, habituated to vehicle-bound visitors, even allow themselves to be photographed at their pools.

On the evening of May 6, 2010, we came upon a young male approaching the Kachida waterhole, a rock pool made beautiful by its bluish-green water. By the time we managed a vantage point for photography, it was already neck-deep in the water, panting and lapping vigorously to satiate its thirst. It snarled repeatedly to demonstrate its displeasure at our intrusion. Before long, it got up and ambled off into the forest, back possibly to where it had hidden a kill.

The Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, made famous by the tiger expert Valmik Thapar in several of his books, gets its name from the Ranthambhore fort. The Chauhan Rajputs are thought to have begun construction of this fort nearly a thousand years ago. Rao Hammir (1283-1301) is reported to have been the most successful of the many kings who ruled Ranthambhore. Over the centuries the fort changed hands between the Mughals and the Rajputs, until, eventually, it came under the rule of the Kachwaha Maharajas of Jaipur. Under the Kachwahas, the forests around the fort became royal hunting grounds. Jaipur State acceded to the Indian Union in 1949 and became a part of the State of Rajasthan in 1950. The forests around the fort were declared the Sawai Madhopur Wildlife Sanctuary in 1955. In effect, though, it remained a hunting reserve until 1970.

With the start of Project Tiger in 1973, 392 km2 of forests in and around the Sawai Madhopur Wildlife Sanctuary were declared the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. In 1980, as much as 282 km2 of the tiger reserve was notified as a national park. Protection was further strengthened in 1984 with the declaration of the adjoining forests as the Sawai Mansingh Wildlife Sanctuary (113 km2) and the Keladevi Wildlife Sanctuary (673 km2). In 1991, the tiger reserve was extended to 1,394 km2 to include all the above wildlife sanctuaries and key areas such as the Kualji Game Reserve (38 km2).

The remains of the fort, which are imposing in most places even now, bear witness to Ranthambhore's varied and fascinating history. There is one abiding problem, however, that tarnishes the glory of the fort – the accumulation of garbage brought in by the hundreds of pilgrims to the numerous temples (including the most famous one, a Ganesha temple) and a mosque inside the fort. The Forest Department regularly removes the garbage outside the fort, but that inside the fort is an eyesore. It would be most appropriate if the Archaeology Department were to put in place a functional mechanism to secure both the fort and its wild inhabitants from this hazard
My visit to Ranthambhore with Dr Aparajita Datta, Member, National Tiger Conservation Authority, was to help the Rajasthan Forest Department decide the suitability of two tigers for translocation to the Sariska Tiger Reserve, to augment the reintroduced population of three tigers there. It is well known that the small population of four or five tigers of Sariska had been wiped out by poachers in 2004.

In June-July 2008 and February 2009, the government reintroduced three tigers (a male and two females) into Sariska from the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Regretfully, these reintroductions were done without addressing suitably the enormous problems caused by the presence of numerous villages and increasing traffic and pilgrimage within the Sariska Tiger Reserve, which were steadily and gradually contributing to the decline of the tiger population in the reserve.

There were serious worries that the Ranthambhore tigers translocated to Sariska were too closely related, and there was no sign of breeding even after 18-24 months of the reintroduction. This is, however, a moot point because the Ranthambhore tigers are in any case all descendants of a small population of possibly 10 tigers from the time when Project Tiger was initiated. The population is also likely to have been further inbred because the population was isolated within a small area (c. 300 km2) with little possibility for tigers from other landscapes to immigrate there.

The positive outlook is that problems of inbreeding in tigers and in most other species can often be mitigated by the introduction of new animals, preferably males, from far-off habitats. Therefore, the best way to address the potential problem of inbreeding among Sariska's tigers would be to remove the male, reported to be very closely related to the females, and introduce a suitable, unrelated new male possibly from a far-off place such as the Tadoba Tiger Reserve (Maharashtra).

Our primary task was to explore the feasibility of capturing two tigers that had dispersed from the reserve. The prevalent belief is that such animals may only be related distantly to the animals in the core (national park area) and therefore more suitable for translocation. One of the tigers that had dispersed was reported to be a male and, according to the Forest Department, was living primarily in the Keladevi Wildlife Sanctuary and ranging over a vast area of about 700 km2. The other was reported to be a female, which had its home on the banks of the Kalisindh river, a tributary of the Chambal, about 90 km from the Sawai Mansingh Wildlife Sanctuary from which it was supposed to have dispersed.

At the time of our visit, the female largely confined its activities to the right bank of the river along a distance of about 20 km. The river bank had a dense growth of mesquite, Prosopis juliflora, bordered by agricultural fields. Ten small villages with a sizable livestock population dot the length of the riverbank. The tigress survived on the sparse population of chital, nilgai and wild pigs that inhabit the Prosopis forests while also killing livestock.

Prosopis is an exotic species from Central America that has become an aggressive weed in India. People generally avoid Prosopis woodlands because of the plant's sharp and powerful thorns. The tigress was evidently left undisturbed in its thorny kingdom; an additional attraction for it, undoubtedly, was the presence of the river where it cooled itself at night