Stripes and its dilemma
Will the Tiger continue to burn bright or eventually vanish from sight, ponders ecologist Anushree Bhattacharjee, as she recounts her experience in Corbett Tiger Reserve.
The first tiger I ever saw in the wild was a dead one. It was nearly six months into my stay in Corbett Tiger Reserve, working with the wildlife division of a local NGO. I had been unlucky with big cat sightings all my life, despite many a summer holiday spent visiting national parks across India. While training to be an ecologist, I had been scornful of those obsessed with studying tiger biology, believing it to be a clique-like behavior plaguing the field of wildlife biology. I considered all wild animals to be magnificent and scoffed at the typical safari tourists who often rushed past an elephant in their mad rush to spot a tiger that some Gypsy driver had seen disappearing into a forest undergrowth. The sight of 10-15 Gypsies converged at the same spot, waiting for the ever-elusive tiger to appear was a sight I was to become quite accustomed to in Corbett.
I was very excited for the opportunity to work in this landscape, having devoured the Jim Corbett omnibuses as a child. Living along the boundary of the country’s oldest national park and first Tiger Reserve made me feel a part of India’s natural heritage and conservation history. I reveled in the wild flora and fauna of the landscape and started birdwatching in earnest for the first time in my life. The bird checklist of Corbett having nearly 600 species meant that I was always glued to my pair of binoculars while visiting the surrounding forest trails or sitting by the River Kosi. I had seen almost all the main herbivore species found in the Corbett landscape, including the majestic Asian elephant on multiple occasions, but the big cats still eluded me. I had only seen indirect signs such as scats and scrapes on trees and had seen many a livestock killed by both tigers and leopards in the forests while working with the local communities, but had not even glimpsed a whisker. That is till the fateful Sunday morning six months into my stay.
Since our organization worked very closely with the forest department, I often got called to attend wildlife post-mortems as an impartial observer whenever any animal listed in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 was found dead by the department. On this particular Sunday morning, I had just finished breakfast and was planning a trip to the nearest town for the monthly grocery shopping when the call came that the dead body of a female tiger had been discovered near a village towards the northern part of the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Shopping was postponed, and I waited for the forest department vehicle to pick me up. The drive was through long, winding forest roads and I knew we had crossed the buffer zone to enter the core zone when the plantation Teak forests, were replaced by the tall, thick Sal trees. We finally stopped at a forest rest house deep within the core zone. This was where the body of the female tiger had been brought after it was discovered by the patrolling forest guards. A makeshift autopsy table had been set up and I caught my first glimpse of a wild tiger, albeit dead.
I had been preparing myself through the drive, but I was not ready for the grief that washed over me when I saw the still body on the table. I had been constantly told that the Corbett landscape was one of the most difficult landscapes for tiger sightings, but till that moment I had always assumed that it was only a matter of time and patience till I sighted this endangered species in the wild. Now my first wild tiger sighting was here, and it was depressing! I stroked the fur gently while the veterinary doctor filled out the initial paperwork. It was a healthy female; the only visible physical injury marks were half a dozen porcupine quills that seemed embedded in its shoulder and one leg. What followed next was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. An incision was made, and the poor animal was skinned, the magnificent fur pulled aside and dumped in a heap on the ground to be burnt later with the body. Without its majestic stripes, the tigress looked like an overgrown domestic cat. It was humbling to see how all beauty and splendor are stripped bare in death. The porcupine quills had already been pulled out and I examined them while the vet made expert incisions to open the body cavity. Each organ was examined, and samples were taken for further tests before being bagged. Suddenly, the vet and other officers gasped, and I leaned in to see five small foetuses inside the exposed uterus. I looked at the tiny tiger foetuses and mourned the full lives that they may have seen if their mother had survived. Even if two or three of them had survived into adulthood, they would have gone on to carve out their own territories in due time. The tigress was quite young and in the prime of health and would have gone on to give birth to many more cubs if she had lived. With a cruel twist of fate her life had been snuffed out and that of many others she might have borne. It was a sobering thought, and it stayed with me as the body along with the fur was burned as per protocol after the autopsy, the various samples sent to the laboratory for testing, and the cause of death written up as undetermined in the official report.
Bad luck clearly never comes alone, and over the next couple of months, I was to attend two more tiger autopsies, both adult males. We suspected poisoning in one case and the viscera samples were sent to the laboratory for further analysis, while the second was a tragic incident of the tiger’s head being caught in a wire snare meant for wild pigs raiding the crops of the neighbouring villagers. Although illegal, such wire snares are a common deterrent, practised by forest-fringe farmers across the country. Unfortunately, these affect not just the intended target species but also other species such as tigers and leopards. In this instance, the snare made a deep wound at the back of the tiger’s head and since the animal could not lick the region to clean it out, soon gangrene set in. Despite the best efforts of the forest department to capture and bring the animal in for treatment, it finally succumbed to its injuries.
I would not readily admit it, but being witness to the death of so many tigers in such quick succession was depressing. However, life went on and while I continued to be scornful of the typical safari tourists bemoaning not having seen a single tiger on the safari, I was also interacting more with the local communities who were coexisting with these wild animals every day. Most of them had a deep tolerance towards nature and wildlife that still never ceases to surprise me, but the old way of life was slowly changing. People were becoming less tolerant. And there were some horrific cases of conflict that broke out like the leopard that was captured and burnt alive by villagers in the northern zone of the Tiger Reserve that year.
The landscape was also changing, the forests getting fragmented, the Kosi corridor connecting Corbett to the Ramnagar Forest Division getting blocked by an increasing number of resorts being built. Nearly sixty resorts were already operational in the landscape and another fifty were under construction when I lived there. When I visited Corbett again after several years, the landscape had over a hundred operational resorts, and more under construction. The entire stretch of state highway along the south-eastern boundary of the Tiger Reserve was now a concrete wall of consecutive boundary walls of one resort after another. There were hardly enough gaps for animals to reach the River Kosi for drinking water or crossing it to move freely in the larger landscape, vital for ensuring the genetic diversity of the species. The plans for the construction of the controversial Kandi road connecting Garhwal and Kumaon regions and cutting through the core zone of Corbett and Rajaji Tiger Reserves was also being pushed through, backed by a political mandate. Even now, the project is going ahead despite the Supreme Court putting a stay on it in 2019. The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) have both given their respective approvals to the project in 2020. In the midst of all these disturbing development, there remained very few souls who remembered a time not so distant when there were only two private resorts in the landscape and the rest of the region was a rich corridor for the free movement of wild animals.
A few months after the last tiger autopsy, I went on a morning safari drive with some guests to the Bijrani zone of Corbett. After insisting we stop to watch a group of Spotted Deer foraging, a Spotted Owlet inside a tree cavity, and a Crested Serpent Eagle that I had spotted on the trees as we drove around, we finally made it to waterhole number 3. Two other cars were also idling by as the waterholes were good places to spot the elusive tigers during the summer months. My luck did not seem to be favouring and I was wondering if we had better drive by the grasslands where chances of spotting an elephant herd seemed more promising than waiting around waterholes surrounded by other safari vehicles.
A sharp call, and a finger pointing to far-off bushes! Our nature guide had also spotted it and he waved at us excitedly while the driver moved the car to a favourable position. Orange and black stripes had emerged from the bushes and started walking through a dry riverbed towards the waterhole. I watched spellbound, all thoughts of clicking a photograph forgotten as I watched the adult male tiger walk over the riverbed. It stopped and looked at us once, and then veered off on a slightly longer route, away from the waterhole. I started clicking photographs a bit feverishly now, trying to still my hands, shaking with excitement. I finally understood what all the hype was about! As the tiger disappeared into the forest undergrowth, we could hear the sound of more Gypsies speeding towards the spot, and not wishing to be part of the melee we decided to drive off towards the grasslands instead.
I have seen the large cat several times since then, at Corbett as well as at other Tiger Reserves across India. The curse has clearly been lifted. But one never forgets their first tiger sighting. And the vision of the majestic orange and black stripes measuring its way across a rocky riverbed, every muscle rippling as it moved, will always stay with me even as I read about the 137 tigers dying in Corbett Tiger Reserve between 2001-2019. Although the last two tiger censuses have reported that Corbett has the highest tiger density of all the 50 Tiger Reserves across India, scientists have been quick to point out that while the tiger population in India seems to be on the rise, the tiger habitats have been consistently shrinking. Researchers have been demanding an independent review of the government’s tiger census data, but this has not happened yet. And as I watch the concrete jungle compete with the natural jungle in Corbett, the unplanned and often unsustainable developmental activities to promote industries in this zone, and the green light that the Kanda road project has now received to start construction, I cannot help but worry that we may be pushing this landscape down the same path as had befallen other tiger-less Tiger Reserves like Sariska and Buxa. I feel a deep sigh of relief escape me every time I see a pugmark, a scrape, a scat, any sign that the endangered tiger is thriving in the Corbett landscape, even though the landscape has shrunk many times since the time of Jim Corbett.
My most memorable encounter with the tiger is one that happened in Corbett, less than five hundred metres from my house one balmy winter evening, a few months before I left Corbett for good. I had wrapped up work and, as was my habit, was setting out for a long evening walk along the state highway that marked one of the boundaries of the Tiger Reserve.
As I was starting to climb the stretch of slope that led to the highway from my house, I heard an excited shout and looked up to see one of our office staff waving frantically. I ran up the slope, while the langurs in the trees overhead went berserk, their frenzied jumping covering me with falling leaves. I knew what I was about to see but still the sight of a large adult male tiger in his prime walking along the hill slope in front of us through the hedges, less than a couple of hundred metres away made me hold my breath and stare, mesmerized. A local bus pulled up and my colleague left for his village, having enough excitement to see him through one evening. I stood and watched the rippling muscles through the bushes, so close that I could see the muscles move with every step the animal took. It started moving down towards the highway, probably wanting to find a suitable path to the River Kosi when a bike whooshed by, causing the tiger to stop, turn, and climb up the slope instead. It was now walking in the opposite direction, along the route I usually followed on my evening walks. I watched it walk away, still able to see its shoulders and legs although the head was obscured by the undergrowth, and I started walking on the highway some way behind but in the same direction. We walked like that for a while, the tiger on the slope, and me on the road. And then it turned and vanished into the forest, while I continued to walk on along my usual route. That night, I dreamt of its eyes burning through me as it stared at me through the forest undergrowth. The next day, they broke ground on a new resort next to my house.