Tigers estu ? (How many tigers ? in Kannada) is the common question, put regularly to me ever since I took charge as the first Director of the Biligiri Ranganathaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve (BRT TR). The newly created BRT Tiger Reserve was joining the more popular and well known list of Tiger Reserves like Bandipur and Nagarhole in the State of Karnataka in South India. In a time where Karnataka was moving towards the epithet of ‘Tiger State of India’ it was quite natural that everyone expected BRT TR to match up to its well-known counterparts.BRT TR located in the scenic Biligiri Rangan Hills is a popular pilgrim destination. Situated on top a white rock cliff is the popular temple of Bilgiri Ranganathaswamy (see legend/history of BRT), the Tiger Reserve takes its name after its popular deity. With an entire range of forest types ranging from dry scrub to dry deciduous, moist deciduous, semi-evergreen, evergreen to shola grasslands, BRT has it all (see more on this in Forests section). What sets it apart is its most arduous terrain with over 70% of the landscape of the BRT TR having a slope over 35-70%. It is most scenic coupled with all the challenges, which a terrain like this offers.
Coming back to the tiger, recent scientific studies revealed a significant tiger numbers for the Tiger Reserve, this recent knowledge also confirmed that BRT TR was host to a good number of breeding tigers as well. Knowing a handle on prey species is, what is touted, as a keystone in assessing the future potential for any Tiger Reserve. Surprisingly this is where BRT-TR scores very well. Tiger the apex predator, prefers large bodied mammals like Gaur and Sambhar. BRT TR is surprisingly well stocked with such large bodied prey. In net Prey Kilogrammes/sq km it is listed well above high tiger density parks like Kaziranga and Pench. This is very welcome news. Sustaining and improving prey density coupled with rigorous protection is the key to ensuring and consolidating Tiger numbers for BRT.
Being in a tiger landscape, which is regarded as the most promising stronghold for the Tigers in the world (see National Geographic Decemeber 2011 issue) supported by intensive scientific research in the recent years makes BRT TR a Tiger Reserve with immense potential. BRT is also not an isolated Tiger Reserve, a large portion of the Tiger Reserve shares its boundaries across the adjoining state of Tamilnadu bordered by another newly created Tiger Reserve of Satyamangalam Tiger Reserve which is also connected to Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and which in turn is connected to Bandipur and Wynaad and further onto Nagarahole makes it a veritable storehouse of Tiger genepool of South India. With recent evidence of Tigers moving across long distances to occupy new landscapes, it is clear that Tigers are exploring new territories and consolidating in areas where abundance of prey and safety is ensured.Reverting back to the issue of Tigers in BRT. It is pertinent to know that in the 1990s and early 2000 BRT was not very much in the Tiger loop, to sum it up I would recollect a small discussion I had recently with one of the officers who served as DCF in the early 90’s for over 3 years, who toured extensively in the Reserve. He goes onto mention that during his entire tenure he could not sight a single tiger though many leopards were encountered and even indirect evidences were few and far between. Fast forward to 2012. Hardly a week passes by where the Walkies from different Anti-poaching camps do not report the sighting of Tigers. Much has clearly changed for the Tiger.
With a significant human presence be it either forest dwelling tribes, visiting piligrims or surrounding villages everyone is a stakeholder along with the Tiger and other wildlife. Protecting the Tiger from disturbing human activities is the main challenge. The thrust on protection coupled with rigorous scientific documentation is the way forward for the Tiger.
BRT TR is not just known for Tigers but also for the amazing array of landscape and wildlife be it mammals, birds or lesser fauna (See ICONS). Setting up of effective field units, which are equipped with state of the art firearms and capable of neutralizing threats before they emerge, is the primary requirement. Followed by systematic scientific approach towards data collection and compilation, aided with high-end data collecting gadgets like digital camera traps, laser rangefinders and night vision equipment.
Within a few weeks of joining I am surprised at the regular sightings of large bodied prey animals in the reserve. The tiger remains elusive but there are numerous indirect evidences. As the winter peaks, I intensify my patrols hoping to catch a glimpse of the Tiger. Many alarms calls and tense moments spent, to catch a glimpse, fade away without materializing into a tiger sighting. I leave it to fate. I recall a terse saying put up in a well-visited pilgrim town ‘It is not the Darshan you get but the Darshan He gives’ I remain philosophical. Finally my big moment arrives and I get a total shock where I encounter a Tiger at 50ft when I am on foot late evening while birding with a colleague`. The Tiger and I run into each other on a ‘Z’ shaped bend on the main road. The Tiger in this instance behaved exactly like the way Jim Corbett describes when he ran into tigers in his neighbourhood of Kaladhungi forests. He simply melts away into the forests. Soon my jinx in broken and in a short time I run into the Tiger many times including waking up to tiger calls in forest rest houses, to enduring many minutes of road blocks on forest roads by Tiger cubs. Many days pass, sometimes the sightings are few and far between sometimes it is often.I rely on keeping up with the Tigers by equipping my staff with camera traps, I try various models and come with mixed results but surprisingly my staff is upto the task, the young recruits take to the technology akin to a child taking to a smartphone nowadays. The confidence is getting better. Guards start addressing as ‘Nanna huli’ (My tiger). For many of them who are barely out of their training schools this is a direct hands-on learning. We still have a long way forward.
Everyday, it is the culmination of various activities all trying to make BRT TR a safer home for the Tiger. As I wind up my day touring and as I near the Forest Rest house which doubles as my home for many months, I straighten up as my Walkie crackles to life “Tiger Sighting” comes the voice across, my control room asks for a repeat and quickly comes the reply “Tiger Sighting near Kadabanakatte, Thayi mathu mari (mother and cub)”.
In the world of tigers, one thing is assured, it is never short of surprises …
Author : Mr. Vijay Mohan Raj, CCF, Karnataka
Outgoing Director, BRT TIGER RESERVE