A long-ranging animal like the tiger needs forested corridors connecting its various habitats for its survival. Thus it is vital that such corridors connecting the Kanha, Pench, Phen and other nearby national parks, which are facing serious threat from human encroachment, are preserved. By RAKESH SHUKLA

THE tiger raised its head from the entrails of the kill and snarled at me, with its ears flattened backwards. It was a clear warning that the massively built, awe-inspiring cat did not like to be disturbed. Its blood-smeared mouth and frightening canines only added to its ferocity, dampening instantly all romantic ideas associated with its magnificence and aura. The tiger had dispatched a full-grown sambar on the roadside and was savouring the kill, in the Kanha National Park. Little did I realise that I was watching a tiger with special genealogical credentials as far as its presence in Kanha was concerned. In 2006, when this tiger was a sub-adult, it was captured by a camera trap in the Pench National Park, indicating its birth there. The same tiger was recaptured on camera as an adult in 2010 in the Kanha National Park, proving that there is a promising ecological corridor between Kanha and Pench.

Human population explosion, rapid industrialisation, diversion of forested land for mega projects, and encroachments are responsible for the present habitat loss and fragmentation of forest cover in India. This is one of the major issues facing conservation of biological diversity. Chronic biotic pressure has modified the environment so much that the most common landscape patterns are now reduced to mere mosaics of human settlements, agricultural fields and scattered fragments of natural ecosystems. Regions once renowned for their breathtaking wilderness now display signs of urbanisation. Most wildlife reserves in the country have been islanded by intensively modified environments and appear destined, in the long term, to be reduced to isolated natural ecosystems from where no safe dispersal of long-ranging wild animals is possible.

Systematic studies of habitat fragmentation have recommended proper land use because fragments connected by a linkage of similar, suitable habitats are likely to have a greater conservation value than isolated fragments of similar size. The concept of landscape connectivity for safe movement and migration of wildlife derives from pragmatic knowledge of years of study and management of wildlife populations. The concept is broadly based on the theory of island biogeography, which is an assumptional framework for understanding and explaining the dynamics and distribution of wildlife in the remnants of habitats. Simply put, the theory proposes that islands support fewer wildlife species than mainland areas of comparable size. This theory has stimulated a large body of research on the consequences of habitat fragmentation in landscapes and isolation of wild animals. In the Indian context, this theory helps us understand that our protected areas, especially tiger reserves, are “islanded” because of tremendous biotic pressure and need viable ecological linkages to ensure animal movement, especially that of tigers.

An extreme analogy can be drawn from the human sphere to better understand the consequences of this island disconnect for wildlife. Let us imagine that our town is besieged by alien enemies. It will become impossible to step out of the town boundary due to hostile environment which may cause life-threatening injuries or even death. No linkages or corridors in terms of transport or escape to a more congenial atmosphere beyond the enemy-dominated area will exist in our landscape.

Likewise, no help in any form will be forthcoming from across the town boundary. Now, instinctively, the people in the town will struggle to stay alive for as long as possible by competing desperately for the most essential elements of life: food, water and medicine. These will, of course, be followed by less essential resources like clothing, shelter and other conveniences.

If the siege continues for days, weeks and even months, life-saving resources will get depleted to a dangerous level. Competition will start taking its toll on the population, resulting in various events that would be, by our social standards, macabre and horrid. Until the siege is lifted, the town will face the full force of the law of natural selection and its grim consequences. Though anthropomorphic expressions, the attribution of human values to non-humans, are generally avoided in wildlife conservation, the analogy underscores the significance of ecological connectivity for wildlife populations.

Essence of connectivity

Besides the well-known word “corridor”, terms such as link, linkage and habitat mosaic have been used in many ways in conservation. These are actually different habitat patterns and land configurations that ensure ecological connectivity for faunal species, communities and ecological processes, including predator-prey relationships, nutrient and hydrological cycles, and so on. Connectivity, regarded as the antithesis of fragmentation, is also supposed to facilitate some basic functions such as easy and free travel and safe stopovers for animals, occurrence of genetic interchange, quick movement in response to natural calamities and recolonisation. Occasional safe passage of a mobile species, especially a carnivore, through these structures does not make for ecologically viable connectivity. Connectivity should be restored and conserved in such a way that it enhances the conservation status of spillover and isolated wildlife populations. Ideal connectivity has to support species of small and large home ranges, with their movements and stopovers. And designing such connectivity involves a wide range of biological considerations and issues. The protection of continuous corridors of habitat to link isolates such as nature reserves and patches of old-growth forests is a very effective conservation measure to offset the impact of habitat loss and fragmentation in the landscape. The concept of providing ecological connectivity for biodiversity conservation, especially that of the tiger, can also be applied at several scales, depending upon local, regional and national conservation strategies.

Tigerland

The Kanha-Pench-Satpura landscapes, parts of one of the best tiger eco-regions in the country, command a glorious history of forest and wildlife conservation. Over the years, adaptive management in these tiger reserves has added considerably to the understanding of tiger conservation in the face of the typical problems of a rapidly advancing country. The protected areas have supported a large population of tigers for many years. So far, no inexplicable instance of any serious downward fluctuation in tiger numbers has been recorded. Stringent protection, physiographic and habitat attributes, and good prey bases have made these protected areas excellent natal areas for tigers.

The tiger is a highly mobile and long-ranging animal and its survival depends precariously on genetic exchange with other tiger populations in the landscape. In these protected areas, the inherent mechanisms of social organisation and tenurial complex result in several tendencies and events within the tiger population such as association, dissociation, dominance, infighting and death. Consequently, some tigers have to move away to peripheral and suboptimal habitats outside the protected areas. Needless to add, suitable habitats, abundant prey and cover are scarce outside the national parks. These tigers have to face a hostile environment of diverse land uses and poaching which ultimately lead to their being killed. In this way, the tiger reserves cannot carry a tiger population beyond a certain limit, and the survival of spillover tigers outside the tiger reserve is rendered difficult by the incompatibility of land uses for tiger conservation. These incompatible land uses also include many managed forest divisions where forestry operations/workings prevail over tiger conservation, and the degree of protection is perilously low.

How obviously striking habitat fragmentation is can now be easily viewed with the help of Google Earth, based on 3D maps. This virtual globe helps us understand the magnitude of fragmentation between protected areas, and the possibility or impossibility of mending these disconnects. At present, these tiger reserves provide excellent ecological nuclei totalling around 10,000 sq km in Central India for the source population of tigers. These protected areas support, though fragmented, natural linkages with several other wildlife protected areas in the region, and the connectivity between Kanha and Pench, Kanha and Achanakmar, Kanha and Bhoramdeo, and Pench and Satpura is promising and can be taken up for restoration and conservation. Connectivity conservation can be used as a tool with ample scope for fostering eco-regional development to complement all the conservation initiatives undertaken so far for protecting and managing source populations of tigers in these protected areas.

Landscape approach

Tiger movements have been reported frequently outside the protected areas, sometimes even in the unlikeliest areas such as fragmented forest patches and cultivation fields close to habitations. However, most of these reports are not reliable due to lack of concrete evidence. In the recent past, camera traps and radio telemetry have helped in the identification of some of these tigers. The movement of radio-collared tigers well outside the protected area has also confirmed the use of existing, though fragmented, connectivity to some extent. Of late, some excellent field studies on genetics, long dispersal distances covered by tigers, and the dynamics of their population in the protected areas have added to our knowledge of the landscape approach to the conservation of tigers in this eco-region.

At present, the landscape between Kanha and Pench provides by far the most promising biological linkage. Starting from Kanha, the corridor moves westwards, turns south for some distance and again continues westwards to join the Pench Tiger Reserve. The Madhya Pradesh Forest Department has already prepared an excellent and ambitious management plan for this corridor, which has a total length of around 155 km and varying widths, and passes through different forest divisions and districts of the State.

The landscape between Pench and Satpura also offers a good linkage for animal movement. The corridor begins from Satpura and moves south-eastwards to link the southern part of the Pench tiger reserve. The length of this corridor is around 170 km and it is more fragmented than the Kanha-Pench corridor. A substantial part of this corridor, however, passes through beautiful forested landscapes of varying gradients and contour levels. The management plan for this corridor, which needs immense planning and meticulous restoration prescriptions, is already under preparation. Another promising linkage lies in an inter-State landscape between Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The 90-km-long corridor begins from Kanha, moves slightly northwards and then in a north-easterly direction, and joins Achanakmar. The linkage is restorable, and inter-State planning or an arrangement between the forest departments is required.

The Phen Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh and the Bhoramdeo Wildlife Sanctuary in Chhattisgarh are adjacent to the Kanha Tiger Reserve and enjoy good linkages that need to be repaired and maintained continuously. These wildlife sanctuaries are also linked to the Kanha-Achanakmar corridor.

A formidable task?

Not impossible, but daunting and challenging. When viewed through the Google virtual globe, the concept of connectivity conservation stimulates our romantic feelings associated with unfragmented wilderness, forest cover and lush greenery. But it is a lot more paradoxical than it seems. Substantial parts of these long, probable linkages are under immense biotic pressure and are rendered scrappy, with extensive blank patches in forests, and with low cover value for wildlife, and are degraded, weed-infested plains. Besides, all these strips are occupied by human and cattle populations with a vast range of land uses, mostly detrimental to forest and vegetal cover. Needless to say, without people’s cooperation, no linkage can be made effective as connectivity corridors. Conservation of natural resources is regarded an integrated biological and social process and needs an understanding of the target communities, specially their socio-economic aspirations and cultural leanings.

Experience gained so far around the world suggests that people’s livelihoods and their ability to be meaningfully involved in conservation planning and practice are critical to environmental and nature conservation. The restoration of these corridors is enormous in magnitude and requires new approaches and ideas, especially in dealing with the human aspect of this undertaking. The relocation of only critical villages is possible. This too would need their express willingness and an attractive package. For the rest of the villages, a wide range of confidence-building measures, from sustainable livelihoods, poverty alleviation and health improvement programmes to employment generation and socio-cultural upliftment, need to be undertaken.

While ecological restoration is the unquestionable domain of the forest department, the harnessing of the talent and expertise of prominent non-governmental organisations in programmes related to human development is also important. Village- and site-specific micro-planning in consultation with target villagers themselves is absolutely essential and can only be overlooked at the peril of even a semblance of the success of this restoration programme.

The Madhya Pradesh Forest Department has made an impressive start with the restoration of the Kanha-Pench corridor and has also involved the expertise of some reputed non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the World Wide Fund for Nature-India, the Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Wildlife Trust of India, Royal Bank of Scotland, and the Foundation for Ecological Security.