Riding high on its success in protecting the big cats, the Corbett tiger reserve in Uttarakhand now aims to expand its core area to over 1,000 sq km to make more room for these majestic animals.
As a step forward, the 300-sq km Sonanadi wildlife sanctuary has been merged with the adjacent Jim Corbett national park through a government notification declaring the area as a critical tiger habitat.
The additional core area will mean greater protection for the animals as no villagers or tourists will be allowed to venture inside.
The core area of the reserve - located 300 km away from Delhi - has now increased to 822 sq km, up from around 520 sq km earlier, and will be expanded further to over 1,000 sq km later.
Currently, the reserve has around 164 tigers, that is 10 percent of the estimated total of 1,411 tigers in India, as per the latest official census.
To boost conservation, "an ambitious project will start this year in Corbett in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India for the genetic and behavioural study of tigers, ecology and habitat restoration," Rajiv Bhartari, Corbett park director, told IANS.
He said about Rs.5 million has been earmarked for the purpose.
This was one of the recommendations of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) to protect the big cats across the Shivalik foothills of the Himalayas and the northern edge of the Ganga basin, known as the Shivalik-Gangetic landscape.
The area extends from Kalesar in Haryana to Kishenpur and Dudhwa in Uttar Pradesh to the Valmiki tiger reserve in Bihar, covering 20,800 sq km.
In the middle of this area, a team of dedicated forest staff has helped Corbett script one of the best examples of tiger conservation since its inception.
There are many factors that have contributed to its success, Bhartari said. "We are very fortunate to have a team of rangers, wardens and guards who are not only sincere but also share great synergy at work.
"In 1994, we relocated three villages from the southern boundary of the park. The fourth one, Lal Dang, was relocated in 2002."
Around 46 percent of Uttarakhand is covered by forests, comprising an area of 24,536 sq km of which 13,000 sq km are important tiger-bearing areas.
Rajesh Gopal, head of the NTCA, said: "Around 800-1,000 sq km is essential for maintaining a viable population of tigers - where they can breed and survive."
In its report in February, the NTCA had called for active management of buffers adjoining the Corbett park: Landsdowne, Haldwani, Ramnagar, Terai east, Terai west and central forest divisions.
The buffers help filter disturbances and pollution caused by humans from passing into the core area. People live in the buffer zones, tourists go there in the hope of sighting wildlife. Hence, their management becomes a priority for wildlife managers.
"We have started a few tourism projects in a limited manner here so that local villagers can benefit from them. We have trained 40 local youths as naturalists to work in the park and now it is their source of livelihood," Bhartari said.
"We want the villagers to come and see the park so that they know the importance of wildlife. It costs Rs.4,000 per trip to the park, which works out to Rs.200,000 annually. We don't mind spending the amount on them.
"The tourists and the villagers are our 'eyes and ears' who alert us if anything illegal takes place inside the park," he said.
The park was named Jim Corbett National Park in 1956 in memory of famous hunter-turned-naturalist-cum-author Jim Corbett.