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Too many tigers spoil the park

The message is loud and clear on the two tiger sighting boards flanking the entry to the tourism complex at Dhikala, in the heart of the Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) in Uttarakhand. Two foreigners have sighted three tigers. Someone has spotted a tiger hunting deer at dusk, another carrying away fresh kill in its mouth, and a tigress roaming the park with three cubs in tow. A visitor has seen two tigers, but, alas, no cubs. And all this in a single day.

The national park, clearly, is in the midst of a tigerfest. In stark contrast to the dwindling tiger population in many of India’s reserves, CTR, often touted as the best-preserved tiger habitat in India, has shown that the big cat can indeed live to see another day. The official count in 2007-2008 pegged Corbett’s tiger population at 164, up from 138 in 1997.

“But that count didn’t include existing cubs, and came before the fresh litters that would number around 40 by now,” says S.C. Pant, ranger, Dhikala. Corbett, that would mean, boasts of a seventh of India’s entire tiger population.

That’s good news, some would say. But others disagree. Too many tigers in too small an enclosure are a recipe for disaster, experts warn. “Something needs to be done urgently about the situation,” says Rajesh Gopal, chief of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). “Or else, we could soon have a crisis on our hands.”

Why would a body instituted to save the tiger be frowning at the rise in tiger population in a premier park? The problem of plenty, it appears, may have a serious impact on the health of tigers.

Of course, it goes without saying that when other parks have let their tigers die, CTR has shown how to safeguard — and multiply — the big cat population. Poaching has been minimised, and efforts are on to sensitise the local community about how a thriving tiger population also contributes to their incomes. “We’ve trained people from local villages to work as guides, guards and service personnel in the park, who now know that it is in their own economic interest to save the tiger,” says Rajiv Bhartari, director, CTR.

But what’s worrying wildlife enthusiasts is the fact that the space for tigers is shrinking — which is linked to the heavy tourist influx into the park. It is, by all accounts, a Catch 22 situation. As tiger spotting becomes easier, the number of tourists to Corbett has been rising. And as more and more tourists land up, hotels and restaurants spring up in a haphazard manner, encroaching on land once earmarked as an animal corridor.

Corbett’s success, it appears, is also its Achilles’ heel. It has been a favourite getaway for wildlife watchers for many years now, and a regular safari through the park almost invariably sees tourists running into countless elephant herds and a tiger or two. But clearly, more people are visiting Corbett, some 260 km from Delhi, than the existing infrastructure can handle.

Official figures currently put the annual tourist footfall in Corbett at around 70,000 — unofficial estimates hover around 100,000. CTR authorities have been strict with the numbers, though. No one is allowed into the Dhikala division without night halt permits, only about 50 of which are issued every day. The other three divisions are open to day visits, with the number of permits capped at 30 in each division.

Regulating entry, however, has not deterred tourists from trying to squeeze into the park. People are willing to camp in Ramnagar, the gateway to Corbett, for several days on end, falling in queue at four every morning, trying to grab a permit for the park.

“It is to accommodate these campers that areas adjoining the Corbett reserve have seen an unchecked mushrooming of hotels, restaurants and recreational facilities in the past five years,” says Pant.

A geographic information system (GIS) image prepared by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) shows just how much congestion this new spate of development has caused in the eastern fringes of the reserve, in villages such as Garjia and Dhikuli.

“The booming tourism industry has prompted several villagers to sell their land at steep prices to entrepreneurs cashing in on the high tourist footfall, leading to rampant urbanisation,” says Sujoy Banerjee, species conservation director, WWF India.

The area taken over by hoteliers has traditionally been a corridor for animals such as tigers and elephants to move from one park to another. “By cutting off these prime corridors that link Corbett to other reserves, animals have been trapped within Corbett, with nowhere to go,” says wildlife expert and former Project Tiger director P.K. Sen.

So the number of tigers is growing — because they are enclosed in a safe area. But at the same time, tigers are dying, mainly because of a rise in infighting, often caused by lack of space.

Research data indicates that tigers — being territorial animals — need about 10 sq km of land to themselves. For a 160-odd population, not counting young cubs, that would mean an area of around 1,600 sq km. CTR has only 520 sq km of core region to spare for the big cats, with another 800 sq km as buffer area. “It sounds ironic, but Corbett is actually struggling with an overpopulation problem,” says Banerjee.

The effect has already begun to tell. According to an NTCA letter sent out to CTR in March this year, an explanation had been sought for the death of 15 tigers in the reserve since 2006. “If you cramp too many tigers within a confined space, they are bound to kill each other,” muses Sen.

A report prepared by WWF in 2007, called the ‘Terai Arc Landscape,’ deals with the corridor problem at length. A 2005 directive sent out by the National Board for Wildlife requests the forest offices at Dehradun to act on similar lines. “We’ve followed up the directive by declaring the villages of Garjia and Dhikuli as eco-sensitive areas where human intervention now needs to be minimised,” says S.K. Chandola, chief wildlife warden, Uttarakhand.

The measures proposed include regulating construction so that animals have enough space to migrate, restricting vehicular movement at night and imposing curbs on light and sound levels in the region. “The proposal is now with the state government, and should spark a consultative process,” says Chandola.

Meanwhile, the number of tigers will grow, and as they multiply, continue to kill each other for space. “By blocking the corridors, Corbett has been turned into a glorified zoo,” says Brijendra Singh, former warden, CTR. “The tourism aspect has to be dealt with urgently, or we’ll lose one of our best forests along with its wildlife in no time.”

What would then happen to the tiger sighting boards, then, is anybody’s guess.

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