RAGHU CHUNDAWAT’S NEW BOOK
The tiger adorns every tourism poster, millions have been spent trying to protect it, and dozens of ‘tiger’ books have been written based largely on casual observation and anecdote. Yet we know little about India’s national animal, points out conservation biologist Raghu Chundawat in his new book, Rise and Fall
of the Emerald Tigers, because there have been only three actual long-term scientific studies: George Schaller’s pioneering work in Kanha in the 1960s, Ullas Karanth’s truncated study in Nagarhole in the early 1990s, and Chundawat’s study of the tigers of Panna Tiger Reserve between 1996 and 2004.
When Chundawat came to Panna, the reserve had 15 tigers. He aimed to take a scientific snapshot of tiger society in its dry tropical forests. How large were the territories occupied by males and females?
How did the seasonal availability of different types of prey affect it? What were the hierarchies within tiger society? What was the interaction between tigers and villagers who live adjoining the park? Such questions were essential to understand the dynamics of this tiger population and formulating strategies to ensure its survival. To find the answers, Chundawat and his team radio-collared and tracked 41 tigers for eight years as they roamed a 400 square kilometre area within the reserve.
In the depth of its engagement and its trajectory, the resulting book rivals Track of the Grizzly, the breathtaking account by Frank C. Craighead Jr of 13 years of studying the Grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. The researchers spent days and nights in the wild, often in extreme weather conditions. And their discoveries often upended conventional wisdom—dominant male tigers were remarkably tolerant of other non-challenging males, for instance. Sadly, the writing suffers from an excess of science jargon, poor structuring and repetitiveness—at times reading like a litany of science papers.
Nonetheless, the project at its heart makes it worth the effort.
With the cooperation of forest department officials, Chundawat’s findings helped establish better protocols for tiger protection, spurring an increase in the number of tigers living in the reserve to 35 by 2002. It was a conservation success story that inspired the BBC film Tigers of the Emerald Forest, from which the book draws its title.
Soon, however, a new set of forest officials arrived. Distrusting researchers like Chundawat, they hindered and curtailed scientific studies in the park, while growing complacent about security, and soon the poachers moved in. By the time Chundawat was forced out of the park in
2004, the population had fallen from 35 to less than the 15 tigers. But the park authorities and ‘biased’ wildlife agencies obfuscated or outright denied this. And, by 2009, all of Panna’s tigers had disappeared.
In less than a decade, therefore, Chundawat observed the dynamics of a growing population, but also chronicled the reasons for its precipitous decline. Individual ‘wisdom’ masquerading as science to fashion conservation policies, the complex mix of politics and paid research that hid failings, and an outmoded and stagnant notion of ‘protected areas’ had all contributed to the tragedy, he argues.
“The high point of the work was seeing how my own perspectives and conclusions changed over time,” Chundawat said in a phone interview. “After 10 years of scientific work in Panna, I was the biggest critic of the papers I’d written after two initial years of work in the reserve,” he added. For instance, he had once focused on the chital as the tiger’s main prey. But his extended research illustrated that the chital population happened at the cost of other animals like swamp deer and sambar, which, in the long run, harmed the ecosystem.
The tiger population in Panna has recovered since 2009, but, as Chundawat points out, small populations such as these remain vulnerable as long as they are isolated from others. Creating smaller satellite populations might, he says, be a way of making them more resilient. It is also time that the governance of national park moved away from divvying up parks into uniform ‘beats’ to a more nuanced approach that takes the needs and wildlife of different areas into consideration.
“The sad part is that none of the science in my book has been acknowledged by park authorities,” says Chundawat. “Things that should not be done are still being done in Panna.” The mortality of female tigers in Panna is far higher than that of males, though in most populations it is the other way round. “This is something that needs to be addressed. Why should I have to point this out? The park officials should have flagged it themselves.”
Hounded out of Panna, Chundawat now focuses on tiger conservation outside protected areas—where the animals are most likely to come into conflict with humans. In particular, he’s developing environmental education programmes for children in communities that live in areas around Panna in the hope that this will make for “friendlier communities”.
RISE AND FALL OF THE EMERALD TIGERS by Raghu Chundawat Speaking Tiger `899, 369 pages