Balancing the population of both predators and prey was a key factor enabling a 50% surge in Madhya Pradesh’s tiger population, helping the State snag the top spot in the 2022 census, according to tiger experts. A senior Environment Ministry official told The Hindu that a similar strategy could help form a viable cheetah population, even as the project to translocate African cheetahs to M.P. has suffered six deaths.
An update to the 2022 tiger census publicised last week reported a total of 3,682 beasts, with M.P., for the second time in the last three censuses, reporting the maximum number of tigers at 785. The State has reported a 50% rise in the number of tigers since the last census, a jump exceeded only by Bihar, which has a much lower 54 tigers. While many factors contribute to a state’s tiger population, experts told The Hindu that the M.P. forest department’s strategy of actively moving tigers as well as their prey within the State, to balance predator and prey population, was a key indicator of success.
Moving tigers and prey
“The forest department of Madhya Pradesh has demonstrated remarkable commitment and success in active management practices. They have effectively restored low-density areas through incentivised voluntary village relocations, prey supplementation, reintroduction of species such as Barasingha (swamp deer) to new habitats like Satpuda and Bandhavgarh, and the reintroduction of Gaur to Bandhavgarh and Sanjay-Dubri Tiger Reserves. Prey species like chital (spotted deer) have been successfully supplemented in Satpuda, Sanjay Tiger Reserves, Nauradehi, Kuno, and Gandhisagar Wildlife Sanctuaries through translocation from high-density areas such as Pench and Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserves,” notes the 2022 tiger census report, prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun and the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
India has 53 tiger reserves, with M.P. accounting for six of them. While the State has the most tigers, the most populous reserves are the Corbett National Park (CNP), Uttarakhand, followed by the Bandipur and Nagarhole reserves in Karnataka. The CNP, with an estimated 260 tigers, has nearly twice the number of tigers as Bandhavgarh (135), M.P.’s most populous tiger reserve.
However, five out of the six tiger reserves in M.P. have over 50 tigers. This is not counting the 563 tigers that have been reported outside the reserves, but within the State’s forest divisions. Tiger reserves are regions within national parks, specifically demarcated for tiger conservation. M.P., like many other States, has more tigers outside the reserves than within them.
“While M.P. historically has a commitment to wildlife conservation and well-trained officers, active prey management is unique to it among other States. This means, for instance, identifying regions that have, say, a large number of chital, and moving some to a region where there are fewer. Once populations of these reach critical numbers in the new area, tigers – if there are too many in one part – are safely translocated here. This is a hard, labour-intensive exercise,” said Rajesh Gopal, secretary general of the Global Tiger Forum and a former forest officer who served in M.P.
Protection from poaching
The prevalence of tigers outside the reserves is very large in both M.P. and Maharashtra. Along with the build-up in prey, the protection accorded to the animals, particularly from poaching, has contributed to a consistent rise in numbers, said Qamar Qureshi, a WII wildlife biologist who is closely involved with the quadrennial tiger census.
“The Sanjay Dubri tiger reserve used to be empty, but over 8 to 10 years, chital and gaur (Indian bison) have been moved into the reserves and once they reach a critical point, tigers are moved there,” he said. Currently, there are 16 tigers reported in the Sanjay reserve. “You have to keep pushing. Once a region reaches its saturation point in the number of available prey and tigers, you have to develop new areas,” he added. Several of India’s tiger reserves in Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, which are traditionally rich in tigers, have reached their saturation points, and central India, with its growing numbers, was absorbing much of the growth, he noted.
Giving nature a helping hand
While nature usually corrects imbalances between predator and prey, the process can take a long time. Given the myriad pressures on the natural wild habitat — such as diminishing protected areas in forests, and human-wildlife conflict — active prey management was a necessary conservation tool, said Y.V. Jhala, a former dean of WII who is closely involved with lion, tiger and cheetah conservation projects.
M.P.’s Kuno National Park is currently host to African cheetahs, with six of the 20 already dead since the first animals were translocated in September 2022. “Many of the practices being applied to the cheetah project, of keeping them in enclosures till they adapt, draw from experiences with the tiger and other ungulates,” a senior Environment Ministry official, who declined to be identified, told The Hindu. “To form a viable cheetah population, we need to follow similar principles of active prey management,” the official said.