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India gets Srivilliputhur as its 51st tiger reserve

A tiger dreams of secured future (Photo: Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha)

The 51st Tiger Reserve in the country is all set to come up in Meghamalai on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. After seven years of discussion and studies, the Centre approved tiger reserve status for the Meghamalai, Srivilliputhur and Tirunelveli Wildlife Sanctuary of Tamil Nadu last week.

Spread over one lakh hectare area of forests, this new tiger reserve is a continuation of the Periyar Tiger reserve in Kerala, formed by combining the Meghamalai, Srivilliputhur Grizzled Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary and Tirunelveli wild life sanctuary. This reserve area has about 20 tigers. The location of the new tiger reserve makes it a buffer for tigers of Kerala’s Periyar Reserve. Now, tigers from the neighbouring Periyar Tiger Reserve and the Anamalai Tiger Reserve will find significant habitats for breeding in the highly undulating terrains of Srivilliputhur and Megamalai hilly tracts.

According to the All India Tiger Estimation Report 2018, released last year, India is home to nearly 3,000 tigers, a third more than compared to four years earlier. The report also flagged many issues.

Tiger conservation is centred on protected areas such as tiger reserves, national parks and regional landscape. Beyond the national parks there are tiger corridors which form a crucial habitat. In India, there are 32 major tiger corridors and several smaller ones.

The purpose of identifying these corridors is to streamline linear infrastructure projects with mandatory inclusion of safe passage for tigers and sensitise agencies such as the railways and highway operators. The Centre has mapped these 32 tiger corridors inside and outside protected areas and developed a conservation plan for big cats.

"Many tiger populations are confined within small protected areas and some have habitat corridors that permit tiger movement between them. However, most of the corridor habitats in India are not protected areas, and are degrading due to unsustainable human use and developmental projects," reads the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) report 'Status of tigers, co-predators and prey in India'.

India has more than 80 per cent of the global wild tiger population. Thus, the question is not just of today but also of tomorrow.

Several studies suggest that tigers do well in remote and dense forests. But tigers also need new forest to colonise, dispersing from their natal areas as they reach adulthood. Natural history has viewed the tiger to be the epitome of the ‘wild’ animal—doing well in areas with less human disturbance, taking down large prey, keeping a distance from people, and being fiercely territorial of space.

Modern surveillance proves this theory demonstrating that tigers will traverse long, difficult distances to establish territories. As examples, we have had tigers moving from one habitat to another habitat. A tiger corridor is a stretch of land linking tiger habitats, allowing movement of tigers, prey and other wildlife. Without corridors, tiger habitat can become fragmented and tiger populations isolated leaving the tigers vulnerable to localised extinction.

Corridors are used by other wildlife also. The corridors across states are important as big cats travel long distances. A tiger travelled 1,300 km over two states—Maharashtra and Telangana, six districts and four wildlife sanctuaries in about 150 days exploring a new area to set up its territory.

Tigers are an “umbrella species” as their conservation helps conserves other species in the same area. Tigers are territorial, so they will fight other animals and even tigers that invade their space. This problem has become an issue due to the reduction of their natural environment. A male may have a territory of up to 100-200 square km, while females up to 100 sq km, but these numbers vary according to the habitat and subspecies. As a result of territory reduction, their areas overlap having to venture into new zones to find food.

Most experts see forest corridors between tiger-bearing habitats as future habitats for tiger populations. Efforts are on to secure these corridors, which is not easy. For one thing, the corridors have a substantial human population, which increases chances of man-animal conflict. India has built the world’s largest animal underpass to let tigers pass beneath a highway but more such measures are required for the tiger's roar to echo through India's forests.

At the start of Project Tiger in 1973, India had just nine tiger reserves. Now, the number has gone up to 51. India's success is a lesson to the 13 other countries with tigers. All, except India, Nepal and Bhutan are struggling to save tigers, even in protected reserves. The group had met in Russia, where they pledged to double the tiger count by 2022.