No tigers were sighted at the 354 sqkm Madhav National Park in Madhya Pradesh, about 120 km from Gwalior, between 1970 and 2006. But concerted conservation and restoration efforts by the park’s management since October 2006 are beginning to pay dividends.
Pugmarks of the big cat were reported in the park, a former hunting reserve of the Scindia royal family of Gwalior, in December 2007. The evidence was hushed up for fear of alerting poachers. Also, the park management felt that the tiger, a male, could have temporarily moved into the forest and could move away soon.
But a year-and-a-half later, it is clear that the tiger has made the forest its home. The evidence: pugmarks, kills, and territorial markings. Park staff and local villagers have seen the tiger, too.
Then, in August 2008, came even better news: a second tiger, actually a tigress, had also made the forest its home.
The King of the Jungle, it seems, is reclaiming his throne, at least in this area. And this “restoration” can well become a template for faltering efforts to save the endangered species elsewhere.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about 40,000 tigers in the wild in India. But rampant hunting during the British Raj and poaching since tiger hunting was banned in Independent India in the early ’70s has brought this number down to about 1,500.
Project Tiger — the programme to save the tiger — after an initial successful run, has floundered as corruption, sloth and lack of political will has destroyed the tiger’s habitat and, with it, the tiger.
Alok Kumar, a 1986 batch Indian Forest Service officer who took charge as director of the park in October 2006, is largely credited by his seniors for its turnaround. “We charted out a multi-pronged strategy to wean away traditional hunting communities, like the Mogiya tribe, from poaching and provide them with an alternative livelihood,” he said.
There are more than 200 villages around Madhav National Park. Villagers used to enter the forest to graze cattle, collect firewood and engage in poaching. Matters had come to such a pass that even the sighting of chital and nilgai, which were once plentiful, had become rare.
Kumar instituted round-the-clock patrolling and improved coordination between the police, judiciary and park management. The result: getting bail for forest-related crimes became more difficult and convictions and fines more frequent. Over the last two years, more than Rs 8 lakh has been collected as fines.
Further, the authorities provided the local communities living in and around the park with pressure cookers and LPG cylinders to wean them away from the traditional practice of collecting firewood for cooking. Schools were also opened for Mogiya children to help them break the shackles of the past.
These measures have considerably eased human pressure on the forest, which was taking a toll on the wildlife there.
The efforts soon began to show and the herbivore population of Madhav National Park increased within a year. This rise in the prey population, Kumar said, is one of the main reasons responsible for the return of the striped cat to its old habitat.
This has had another positive economic spin-off — the number tourists who visit the park every year has risen from 14,000 a few years ago to an estimated 20,000 now.
So, now that he has succeeded in rehabilitating the tiger in this forest, what’s next on his agenda? “Cubs,” said Kumar, “that will be the icing on the cake.”