Re-populating tiger reserves
Securing tiger populations in these four reserves is crucial because of their “genetic distinctiveness”, say scientists.
Bengal’s Buxa Tiger Reserve and Mizoram’s Dampa Tiger Reserve can be re-populated by introducing tigers from Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA)’s recent tiger estimation summary has recommended.
Likewise, Jharkhand’s Palamau Tiger Reserve and Odisha’s Simlipal National Park can be re-populated with tigers from a source that has the same genetic cluster. The source for this endeavour has not yet been identified.
Securing tiger populations in these four reserves is crucial because of their “genetic distinctiveness”, the NTCA and independent biologists have observed. Though India has managed to double the number of tigers from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,967 in 2018, the 2018 estimation indicates it has lost tigers that are of highest conservation priority because of their “genetic distinctiveness”.
Tiger numbers in the northeastern hills and the Brahmaputra plains have not increased much in the 2018 census. Mizoram and north Bengal have not recorded any tigers in this census despite recording tiger signs (pug marks, scat) in 2014. Tiger numbers in Odisha have fallen from 45 in 2006 to 28 in 2014. The number has stayed the same in 2018.
A recent research paper by scientists of the Wildlife Institute (WII), titled Genetic Structure of Tigers in India and its Implications for Conservation, has concluded: “Combined with the low density and small tiger numbers in the north-eastern hill region, the north-eastern tiger populations merit the status of a special population unit of high conservation value. For managerial purposes, the two sub-clusters of the north-eastern landscape needs to be maintained, i.e., a) the hills and b) flood plains and foothills.”
Qamar Qureshi, one of the authors of the WII study published last month in Global Ecology and Conservation journal of Elsevier, said, “Northeastern tigers are genetically different. They are the same population but have their own signature. It is understood that tigers evolved in Southeast Asia and came to India via the Northeast. So they are the ancestral population.”
The tiger population below the Palghat gap between Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the Western Ghats is also considered unique, as is the population in Odisha and Bihar. But these populations are very small and completely cut off from the tigers in central India.
The NTCA’s summary report on the status of tigers states: “Buxa and Dampa can be repopulated through reintroductions from Kaziranga, after prey restoration in Buxa and strengthening protection in Dampa which already has a good prey base.”
Experts say tigers are now limited to tiger reserves and tiger landscapes. But the northeastern landscape and the central Indian landscapes are not connected at all, making certain populations extremely vulnerable.
“We suggest a paradigm shift from indiscriminately doubling tiger numbers to prioritising conservation of naturally occurring diversity amongst tigers to retain their full evolutionary potential, while managing to mitigate anthropogenic induced genetic structuring,” the WII study has recommended.
Not just between landscapes in India, the NTCA summary report has suggested that habitat corridor connectivity between source populations in India and Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar “is essential for long term viability of tiger populations within India and the region.”