SUBJECT :The tiger population here has increased from approximately 70 to 391 individuals in about 45 years 

Burning bright: The Malenad landscape now harbours one of the largest wild tiger populations globally.   | Photo Credit: Kalyan Varma

By: Aswathi Pacha

December 5, 2020: With heavy rainfall, picturesque mountainous terrain and varied flora and fauna, Malenad in Karnataka is also home to the magnificent tiger. The present estimates suggest the tiger population here has increased from approximately 70 to 391 individuals in about 45 years. A new paper has summarised the research and conservation work carried out in this region by the Centre for Wildlife Studies (CWS) in Bengaluru. It details the problems that still need to be addressed if the tiger numbers have to triple. The researchers hope that these lessons can be applied in the management of wild tiger populations in other parts of the country and globally as well.

Larger, elusive species

The research team carried out a unique macro ecology study across these very large landscapes, involving larger, elusive animal species over a long period between 1986 and 2017. They collected data on tiger ecology, predator–prey ecology, anthropogenic impacts, existing and emergent conflicts.

“When we started our work, there was almost zero knowledge about tiger population biology. We carried out innovative work developing new methodologies including identification of individual tigers and leopards from their coat patterns using photos obtained through automated camera traps. We applied new pattern matching software for this purpose and estimating big cat numbers from these data,” explains K. Ullas Karanth, Emeritus Director, Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru, and the lead author of the study recently published in the journal Biological Conservation. “We also applied line transects to estimate prey animal densities and occupancy modelling of track survey data to estimate animal species distributions for the first time in Asia. Now many wildlife researchers across Asia as well as in Africa and South America have started applying our methods in those areas”

Though Malenad has over 21,000 square kilometres of potential habitat, reproducing tiger populations are found to survive in less than 30% of the area. The team writes: “If tiger recovery efforts can be optimised in the future, the Malenad landscape can potentially support approximately 1,300 wild tigers.”

Dr. Karanth suggests that “tiger tourism” can be expanded beyond government-managed wildlife reserves to adjacent agricultural areas outside. “This has been implemented successfully in countries like Kenya and Brazil. Local populations can economically benefit from the growth of the tourism sector. In this manner we can add to tiger habitat using tourism incentives, rather than increasingly trashing our wildlife reserves through excessive tourism pressures,” he adds.

Debated topic

But resettlement of people living inside reserves continues to be a debated topic. “This is a complex conservation issue because fundamentally people living inside reserves have well-documented negative consequences for wildlife and biodiversity because of human activities. For people living inside some want to continue to live inside due to long term ancestral and social connections to the land while many others want to relocate outside seeking to better their lives in the face of hardships they endure daily,” explains Krithi Karanth from the Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bengaluru, and one of the authors of the paper in an email to The Hindu. “These problems include high human–wildlife conflict, lack of access to quality health care and education, and isolation from a rapidly changing world. This needs to be viewed as a freedom of choice – the choice to move or stay which often gets mixed up.”

She concludes: “We face a huge variety of conservation challenges including managing existing wildlife reserves, human-wildlife conflict, land-use change, impacts from infrastructure growth and development, the emergence of zoonotic diseases, wildlife trade and poaching, and these need to be addressed while continuing to monitor wildlife populations.”