Environment Policy

The Oxymoron Called “Rewilding Tigers”

By the time I visited the Kanha Tiger Reserve the first time in May 2014, I had dug deep into important issues of conservation & natural regeneration.
By Sudhansu Mohanty


Tiger Conservation Environment SP Yadav watermark
Image: S. P. Yadav

This article is an exclusive extract from the author’s forthcoming memoir, Environment Through Finance Eyes.


[← Continued from Part-IV]

By the time I visited the Kanha Tiger Reserve the first time in May 2014, I had dug deep into important issues of conservation and natural regeneration – the need to let nature go about its own unique way and repair the damages wrought on it. My myriad discussions with Rajesh Gopal, Himmat Negi, and SP (the first two are former Field Directors of Kanha Tiger Reserve) in the Ministry, and with the many visiting Field Directors of TRs had helped allay my misgivings.

Village relocation was another abiding issue that just refused to go away. Simply put, it meant families staying in the core areas need to be relocated outside to make the Tiger Rserves inviolate. The natural regeneration of the vacated spots – despoiled by man – lets the area to slowly lurch forward, gathering pace as it went along, and in 3-4 years it’s restored to its unsullied, pristine form. I heard this from experts but didn’t believe them wholly, though I thought it would be impolite to say anything to the contrary. But my disbelief stayed. The compensation package of Rs 10 lakh for a family was attractive enough for these people otherwise denied the benefits of modernisation, to decide and move out. The amount needed was huge, the fund allocation rather small.

It was Jasbir Singh Chauhan, the Field Director of Kanha TR who put my doubts to rest. Jasbir is an ebullient forester, a no-nonsense man and full of beans. He knew not only Kanha’s terrain and topography and the roads winding up and down the meadows and ravines like the back of his palm, but also the numerous personnel who manned the vastly sprawled out reserve. Driving under the tall imperial sal forests climbing into high heavens, past the ubiquitous spotted deer, barking deer, sambar, four-horned deer, gaur, swamp deer, and the hard ground barasingha on either side of the road, as we reached the spot and alighted from our Gypsy, my first impression was that of a restored and rejuvenated body taking baby steps in its path to recovery during a difficult period of convalescence.


Deer in the Wild (Image: S. P. Yadav)
Deer in the Wild (Image: S. P. Yadav)

Environment and Wildlife Restoration (Image by S. P. Yadav)
Environment and Wildlife Restoration (Image: S. P. Yadav)

It still looked a medley – a legacy of human habitation where the pure is made to turn impure and the good into bad – and contrasted sharply with the grasslands that lay just beyond in eye-catching distance. But a little deeper look and it promised to be getting there. That was gratifying. There was a mass of people who had congregated in anticipation of our visit, both forest officials as well as a few evacuees. I spoke to them seeking out an evacuee to know how life’s been in the civilization and if he had settled in to a secure life. He beamed at me and said, “Yes, it’s been good!” Looking at the motorbike he rode in on, he narrated how it was his first buy from the compensation amount he had received, and how it now carries him to places he wishes to go. Someone standing close by chipped in, “He even hired a driver in the initial days since he didn’t know how to drive, and he rode pillion!” The evacuee smiled hugely, blithely acquiescing with the statement.


Environment and Wildlife Restoration (Image: S. P. Yadav)

Kanha Tiger Reserve follows the National Tiger Conservation Authority protocols and the standard operating procedures to the tee. They keep records of all relocated families, keeping tabs on them, helping the evacuees to resettle and start a new life in alien surrounds. My eyes swept right, then swept left, and then swept over the entire landscape that travelled yonder, and my mind drew a photomontage of how pathetic and sore the rolling landscape would’ve looked when humans inhabited the place and (mercilessly) pillaged for a better living! My reservations were getting weaker by the minute. But doubt still lingered and stayed quite the course. Only on the drive back, I discussed this issue with Jasbir wondering how nature’s self-limiting capacity, like the human body’s, too restores and returns the land to normalcy. So vitiated our modern vision has become with contamination and adulteration, that the virgin and the pristine and the pure seem beyond our seeking!

I sought this out as gratification for my eyes on my second visit to Kanha after the rains some seven months later, in December 2014. It looked restored, almost nearly so, and at peace with the surrounds. “Three good rains do the trick!” exclaimed Jasbir, a sense of pride and satisfaction suffusing his cherubic face. “After it’s restored, the land merges with the adjoining areas and forms one whole for our conservation programme – as grassland, or as experimental plots parceled out, depending on the need, or at times receiving fire treatment including cold fire, if so needed.” I was getting my tutorials on conservation in the wild, and shrinking my personal world of abject ignorance.

Tourist pressure in core area continues with Kanha. In a way, it’s natural. If you’ve a beautiful thing to offer why grudge others wishing to partake of the yummy pie! But there are limits on the number of tourists who can visit the reserve every day and the demand seems to be billowing. No conservationist would like tourists to flood the park and ravage it. I remember vividly one evening as we sat discussing the management action plan of Kanha TR, Jasbir Chauhan picking up his throbbing mobile. “I’m sorry there’s no vacant room,” he said. “Am sorry there isn”t any available for me to spare. Am sorry,” he said, an edge of anger suffusing his voice, and called off. It was a judge of some nearby High Court calling, with a request for a room, as a State guest. Jasbir was upfront and forthright.

“Why can’t they pay instead of freeloading?” I asked.

“They’re like that!” Chauhan snapped again at the imaginary Judge, now with greater vehemence. “They want to be treated as State Guests – always!” His voice was dispirited, though tinged with sarcasm, and his face was screwed up. His grimace said it all.


Image: Sourabh Bharti

A compromise to keep the tourists’ desire and TR’s needs should help. I had often thought about it every time I stepped into a reserve, and had got no answer. Till the day when shortly after a late lunch, around three in the afternoon, Jasbir drove us to what they called the Rewilding Centre. The moniker itself appeared an oxymoron: what kind of rewilding there could be, and where’s the need for all that in the midst of wilderness, where wild animals anyway romped and frolicked freely to their heart’s content, and the carnivores gorged on the ungulates and preyed limitlessly to their heart’s content? It was hot and gummy, and I was tired and deadbeat after the long winding early morning round that had gone on well beyond noon. I was also feeling enervated and sleepy, and didn’t ask Jasbir to apprise me beforehand the activities they do at the Centre. It was only when we pulled over that he started telling me the things they do there.

“Many years ago, infighting or death of mother-tigresses in the Kanha TR gave rise to a piquant situation: rearing orphaned tiger cubs,” Jasbir explained. “They were too precious to be left to the vagaries of the wild when they were not wild enough to hunt! That’s when the idea of rearing and rewilding the orphan cubs took roots. A specially designed in-situ enclosure typical of a tiger habitat with water body and large enough to mimic the natural wild was built here in the Mukki range. When small, these cubs were fed on milk, egg and meshed meat, even small live goats. Later, as they grew bigger they’re released into the enclosure to run and hunt ungulates let in this arena to gorge on natural prey base. This was a period of learning and training – rewilding – for them.”

Soon enough the success of the facility helped to innovate some more. “Now injured ones are picked up, apart from the orphaned tigers,” Jasbir continued, “for treatment and put here. Some are restored to normal health soon enough, but the seriously injured ones take considerable time to get fit and ready to live on their own off nature. They’ve to hunt and fend for themselves in the wild and it isn’t easy unless they’re normal and on a roll. Also, long periods of food served to them during recovery make them lose their natural ability to hunt. Hence the need to rewild them.”

This was something I’d never heard before. My mind drooping till then suddenly awoke with a thud. We enthusiastically climbed the tall steps to view the rewilding arena where little by little the tigers are put through their paces to help revive their natural instinct and gain confidence. I rolled the thoughts in my head: Rather than offering preys on a platter as during periods of convalescence and recovery, the preys are let into the enclosure where the tigers chase and hunt to have their fill; and once they – injured or infant – regained the skill to hunt, they’re let out in the wild. This was quite intriguing for my novitiate’s mind.


Image: Sourabh Bharti

I didn’t know this experience would set off a wild thought in my head. When we met in the evening to discuss the day’s happenings, I asked SP and Jasbir – my ideas still inchoate, still in an embryonic state and still wrestling to hammer out the details in my disembodied mind – if it wasn’t possible to propose a tiger safari in the buffer or fringe areas, going by and taking a cue from what one had seen today – rewilding of tigers! I asked gingerly, my voice low and lacking in self-belief and conviction, not sure how my ideas would sound to wildlife experts and practitioners, but I said it nonetheless, to get it off my chest. Both responded positively, even with alacrity, with SP pitching in that the NTCA protocol provides it too! I asked him why the hell he hadn’t told me this before! I could’ve spared my dunderhead from being put through the wringer!

It was a Eureka moment. We discussed in great detail if Kanha could experiment on this. Funds were least of the problems, the National Tiger Conservation Authority could bankroll it; in any case it involved a small amount of 2-3 crore rupees, largely for the wired fencing in 4-5 hectares of land and laying out the jeep driveway. The aged tigers could be lodged in here and feed off the ungulates available naturally in the fringe forest land. The safari, preferably on solar power-driven vehicles, could be an hour long. Sighting was assured. That would satiate man’s craving. And, the return on investment fairly quick; over time, it could even supplement the Tiger Reserve’s coffers. Visualising this scenario, I was beside myself with joy.

Soon thereafter, I was delighted to learn that the Madhya Pradesh government had begun work with great fervour to get the tiger safari off the ground. It was the realisation that the global community’s passionate interest in tigers held a unique window of opportunity to educate and spread awareness that architected creation of International Tiger Center. Much effort went into its making to turn it into much more than a safari – using the charismatic tiger as a metaphor for ideal environmental engagement with tourists. But, sadly, as I write these lines now three years since, I understand there hasn’t been much progress after the initial burst of interest. Such a pity!

[… to be continued on Sunday, Nov 19th]


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The writer, Sudhansu Mohanty, is an acclaimed author and, among other assignments, also worked as Additional Secretary & Financial Adviser to the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change.
This article is based on his experiences during this stint, and is the fifth installment in his 7-part Sunday Feature series about Tiger Reserves.
Tweet at Sudhansu: @MohantyMohanti



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