This was a wild tiger.
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.