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Diversity edge for Manas tigers

- Genetic study fuels hope

Guwahati, June 27: It survived years of poaching and wanton destruction of flora, fauna and infrastructure and how! Today not only is Manas National Park bouncing back, so are its tigers.

Also a tiger reserve, the park currently has approximately 23 big cats, which have been found by a study to have high genetic diversity, making them better equipped to survive and adapt in the wild. This, in turn, gives Manas an even better shot at regaining, or even shooting past, its past glory that earned it a World Heritage Site tag.

Though the tag was restored in June 2011, the park is yet to completely recover from the severe beating it took during the years of Bodo militancy that saw wanton destruction of infrastructure and flora and fauna at the hands of militants and poachers, making it a World Heritage Site in Danger.

The study — Non-invasive Genetics Identity-based Monitoring of Tigers in Manas National Park — was conducted by bio-diversity conservation society Aaranyak and the Manas Tiger Reserve Field Directorate in 2011. It revealed that tigers in Manas had a high average heterozygosity of 72 per cent.

In other words, the population displayed a high degree of genetic variation that makes it better equipped to withstand the vagaries of nature. “The genetic diversity means the future of tigers in Manas is bright and they need to be given better protection,” Udayan Borthakur, head of the wildlife genetics programme of Aaranyak, said.

The study was done to assess the current status of tigers in Manas for appropriate conservation of the species as the decade-long civil unrest had led to decline in the population of many wild animals, including the tiger and the one-horned rhino.

It used a non-invasive method of sampling and the field directorate of Manas Tiger Reserve collected scat samples of the carnivore in 2011 from all 53 blocks of the national park, with the maximum samples found in the Bhuyanpara range. The scat samples were used as a source of DNA for genetic analysis at the wildlife genetics laboratory of Aaranyak to identify individual tigers and their gender.

Experts say high genetic diversity is essential for a species to evolve, as species with low genetic variation are at a greater risk of extinction.

Moreover, the National Tiger Conservation Authority had made genetic monitoring mandatory in low-density tiger reserves, since camera trapping often tends to miss individuals in a low-density area.

The report of the study, which was submitted to the Manas Tiger Reserve Field Directorate recently, stated that at least 23 tigers — 11 female, nine male and three of undetermined sex — were present in the park.

It also pointed out that such high genetic diversity in a population that small could mean genetic exchange with other tiger populations in neighbouring forest areas. It suggested joint genetic monitoring of tigers at the Buxa tiger reserve (west of Manas) and the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan (a contiguous forest area across the international border to the north of the park) in order to understand the factors influencing demographic and genetic exchange of tigers among these areas and to identify the key corridors for conservation.

Manas National Park, spread over 500 square km, forms the core of the Manas tiger reserve. The reserve is an important part of the Buxa-Manas tiger population and one of the three major tiger reserves in the Northeast.

Manas field director A. Swargiary said the park was “bouncing back” and all steps were being taken to further improve the protection level. “New camps are being built and all possible help is being provided to boost the morale of park staff,” he said.

Aaranyak also conducted genetic monitoring at Namdapha and Dampa tiger reserves in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram respectively.