India Today - - UPFRONT - —Ak­shai Jain

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

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