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Status of Nine Tiger Reserves Established at the Inception of Project Tiger

Status of Nine Tiger Reserves Established at the Inception of Project Tiger

Last year on April 1, 2023, India marked 50 years since the inception of Project Tiger, a monumental conservation effort aimed at safeguarding the country’s tiger population and its habitats. Established in 1973 with the backing of organizations like WWF India and IUCN, Project Tiger symbolizes India’s commitment to preserving its rich biodiversity, extending beyond just tigers to encompass various flora and fauna. Spearheaded by Mr. Kailash Sankhala, the project’s first director, it commenced amidst the tranquil environs of Dhikala in Corbett National Park. What began with 9 tiger reserves has now expanded to 55 across 18 states, covering approximately 2.23% of India’s landmass.

This initiative operates on a core/buffer strategy, designating core areas as national parks or sanctuaries, while the buffer zones integrate forest and non-forest land for sustainable use. Initially planned for six years, Project Tiger’s vision has evolved to ensure the perpetuation of viable tiger populations and the preservation of natural heritage for the enlightenment and enjoyment of future generations.

At the time of the launch of the project tiger, nine tiger reserves were selected to be a part of it. These tiger reserves were selected based on the history of the tiger conservation and a representative of their respective landscape.

Here we will see the performance of these tiger reserves on the basis of their MEE Score and Rating. Also, we will analyze the result of All India Tiger Estimation in these reserves and the possible reason for their performance.

What is MEE

Why evaluate protected areas? Simply creating a park or reserve isn’t enough to guarantee successful biodiversity conservation. Protected Areas face numerous threats, both internal and external. Management Effectiveness Evaluation (MEE) has become a crucial tool for PA managers, widely adopted by governmental and non-governmental organizations. This evaluation process assesses how well protected areas are managed, addressing these threats, and ensuring effective biodiversity protection.

  • Design Issues relating to both individual sites and PA systems.
  • The Adequacy and appropriateness of management systems and processes.
  • Delivery of the objectives of PAs including conservation of values.

Bradly speaking, MEE can:

  • Enable and support an adoptive approach to management.
  • Assist in effective resource allocation.
  • Promote accountability and transparency.
  • Help involve the community and build constituencies.
  • Promote the value of PAs.

The MEE of tiger reserves was suggested by the Tiger Task Force created after Sariska lost all of its tigers. A module was developed for the tiger reserve using the global IUCN world Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) framework and with the technical help of MEE experts.

Corbett Tiger Reserve

Landscape: Terai-Bhabhar and Shivalik

Tiger population: 260

MEE Rating: Very Good

MEE Score: 78.79

Corbett Tiger Reserve, established in 1936 as India’s first National Park, shelters a diverse array of wildlife within its various habitats. Over 600 bird species grace the skies, and the park boasts a unique blend of Himalayan and peninsular flora and fauna due to its location in the foothills. Visitors can explore this rich ecosystem through six designated ecotourism zones, each offering a glimpse into the park’s distinct forest types.

Not only is the Corbett Tiger Reserve a haven for wildlife, but the entire landscape surrounding it thrives as well. This rich biodiversity is why the area was chosen as the launching point for Project Tiger. With a long history of tiger conservation, the reserve continues to impress. According to the recent census, there are an estimated 260 tigers residing within the reserve boundaries, and 319 utilizing the tiger reserve. An MEE rating of “very good” indicates that the reserve performs exceptionally well, with only minor management weaknesses. However, issues such as forest cover loss, human-animal conflict, a lack of a notified Ecologically Sensitive Zone (ESZ), and vacant staff positions require attention. On the other hand, the reserve excels in community engagement through eco-development committees (EDCs), grassland management initiatives, electronic surveillance, cleanliness drives, and well-maintained infrastructure.

corbett gate

Kanha Tiger Reserve

Landscape: Central Indian Highlands

Tiger Population: 105

MEE Rating: Excellent

MEE Score: 91.67

Nestled amidst the Maikal hills of the Satpura Range in India’s central highlands, Kanha National Park, established in 1955, boasts a diverse array of wildlife and habitat types. The buffer zone of the reserve is over 1134 square kilometers and surrounds the core area of 917 square kilometers. This buffer zone, encompassing nearly 40% of the forest, complements the core area’s rich tapestry of flat hilltops (Dadars), grassy expanses, dense forests, and riverine ecosystems. Kanha Tiger Reserve is a renowned national park, famed for its successful conservation efforts. Beyond protecting a healthy tiger population, Kanha played a pivotal role in rescuing the endangered hard ground Barasingha deer from the brink of extinction, and it remains the last stronghold for this subspecies.

Kanha Tiger Reserve is renowned for its exemplary management, consistently considered one of the best-managed parks in Asia. This reputation stems from its impressive conservation practices, reflected in the highest possible MEE rating of “Excellent.” Rewilding and reintroduction programs stand out as major strengths of the reserve, contributing significantly to its conservation success stories. Research on wildlife is a top priority at Kanha, making it a haven for researchers whose valuable insights contribute to improved management strategies.

The reserve boasts several other strong points, including village relocation programs, community engagement through Eco-Development Committees (EDCs), effective waste management practices, conflict mitigation strategies, and a well-established network of well-equipped patrolling camps. Additionally, Kanha acts as a crucial source population for other tiger reserves due to its healthy tiger population and good corridor connectivity with the other reserves in the same landscape.

However, the reserve faces some challenges, including the presence of left-wing extremism, occasional poaching incidents (albeit on a very small scale), delays in releasing allocated funds, and bureaucratic hurdles in crop loss compensation (handled by the revenue department). Habitat fragmentation caused by a highway also presents a concern.

Also read : Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench Tour

the entrance to the forest

Palamau Tiger Reserve

Landscape: Central Indian Highlands

Tiger Population: 1

Mee Rating: Good

Mee Score: 65.91

The Palamau Tiger Reserve is located in the western part of the Chhotanagpur plateau in the Indian state of Jharkhand. It spans from the Netarhat hill range in the south to the Auranga river in the north, and from the Latehar-Sarju Road in the east to the border of Madhya Pradesh in the west. Palamau is known for its Palas and Mahuas, showcasing the diverse plant life of both dry and moist deciduous forests found in eastern India, including Sal and Bamboo trees. The landscape is lush with Sal trees in the valleys and lower slopes, while dry deciduous forests cover the upper slopes and northern areas. Bamboo is plentiful, and there are scattered open grassy areas throughout the reserve. Unique patches of Bel trees are mainly found in the northern part of the reserve. Numerous waterfalls dot the area, such as Mirchaia near Garu, Suga Bandh Water Falls near Baresand, and Lodh Fall, the tallest waterfall in Jharkhand. The reserve is home to various forest types, including Moist Peninsular Sal, Dry Peninsular Sal, Dry Bamboo Brakes, Northern Dry Mixed Deciduous, Moist Peninsular Low-Level Sal, Northern Secondary Moist Deciduous, and Aegle Forests.

One of the best-protected areas of the Chhotanagpur plateau in the Central Indian highlands, Palamau Tiger Reserve has the distinction of being the first sanctuary in the world where a tiger census was carried out through pugmark counts, as early as 1932 under the supervision of J.W. Nicholson, the then DFO of Palamau. Though it scored ‘Good’ on the MEE rating, its conservation history over the last few decades has not been satisfactory, as evident from the number of tigers found during the last census. The good thing about this reserve is, that this is one of the strongholds for elephants in this part of India, yet there is relatively low human-wildlife conflict despite the significant elephant population.

The reserve provides a good habitat for tigers and has a force of newly recruited forest guards, who, if well-trained, can become a motivated force for tiger conservation. Grassland management is required to support herbivores under the guidance of experts. Villages located inside the core and buffer zones are willing to relocate and must be relocated soon. Ecotourism promotion and management are necessary to garner public support for conservation, as the reserve holds many attractive tourist destinations. The low prey population and virtual absence of Sambar deer are matters of concern, which management needs to address.

 

Palamau Tiger Reserve

Ranthambore Tiger Reserve

Landscape: Central Indian Highlands

Tiger Population: 57

Mee Rating: Good

Mee Score: 73.48

Ranthambhore is situated at the meeting point of the Aravalis and Vindhyan mountain ranges, bordered to the north by the Banas River and to the east by the Chambal River. The Ranthambore Tiger Reserve comprises several distinct areas with different conservation histories, often physically separated from each other. The landscape of the reserve varies from rugged terrain (Aravalli hill range) to flat lowlands, with steep slopes dominating the hills. Prominent archaeological landmarks within the reserve include the Ranthambore fort and medieval temples surrounded by numerous lakes. The forest vegetation primarily consists of tropical dry deciduous forests.

The Ranthambore Tiger Reserve is consistently regarded as one of the best places to observe wild tigers. Its location and habitat are perfect and ideal for predators like tigers and leopards. The availability of water throughout the year, in the form of lakes, ponds, seasonal streams, nallahs, and undulating terrain with ground vegetation, supports herbivores, which in turn sustains a healthy tiger population. Being situated close to cities like Delhi and Jaipur, Ranthambore is a perennial attraction for tourists from India and foreign countries. The reserve staff is enthusiastic and motivated; working in such a high-profile tiger reserve instills a sense of pride in them. There is a well-established network of forest roads and staff chowkis at strategic locations for effective patrolling and 24×7 monitoring.

The presence of several shrines within the reserve leads to regular movement of devotees, causing disturbance to wildlife and increasing the likelihood of conflict. The areas vacated by villages are now dominated by Prosopis juliflora (an invasive species), which defeats the purpose of creating forage grounds for herbivores. A significant concern is the introduction of domestic genes into the wild population of wild boar, which needs to be addressed through proper studies. Despite being a high-profile tiger reserve, other animals, especially lesser-known species, receive less focus; there is a need for more scientific studies on them. The veterinary center is quite basic and requires improvement with better and modern health facilities. Additionally, more villages need to be relocated from within the reserve.

 

Ranthambhore

Melghat Tiger Reserve

Landscape: Central Indian Highlands

Tiger Population: 57

Mee Rating: Very Good

Mee Score: 84.85

Melghat Tiger Reserve, situated in Central India on a southern extension of the Satpura Hill Range known as the Gavilgarh Hills, boasts a critical tiger habitat. Its southern boundary is delineated by a steep ridge running east-west, reaching its highest elevation at Vairat (1178 meters above mean sea level). The region is crisscrossed by five significant rivers: Khandu, Khapra, Sipna, Gadga, and Dolar, all tributaries of the Tapti River, which forms the reserve’s northern and eastern borders. Melghat stands as Maharashtra’s premier biodiversity reserve. Amidst the rugged terrain, the reserve features extensive plateaus including Makhala, Chikhaldara, Chiladari, Patulda, and Gugamal. Covering an area of 1500.49 square kilometers, the Critical Tiger Habitat encompasses five protected areas: Gugamal National Park, Melghat Sanctuary, Narnala, Ambabarwa, and Wan Sanctuaries. The predominant forest type in this region is Southern Tropical Dry deciduous forests.

The tiger reserve encompasses a vast, forested landscape with a substantial buffer zone surrounding the core area, and it is intersected by numerous rivulets of the Tapi River. The reserve receives strong support from local communities, particularly in the buffer areas where homestay facilities have been established, and adventure tourism initiatives have been undertaken with their active participation. An exemplary livelihood initiative, aimed at developing the skills of local youth, has been implemented through the management’s efforts. However, there are minor issues stemming from villages around the tiger reserve, such as grazing, fire-related offenses, and illegal tree felling. The major concerns include forest cover loss, and the presence of a few families from villages that have already been relocated within the reserve, which needs urgent attention.

 

Melghat

Manas Tiger Reserve

Landscape: North-Eastern Hills and Brahmaputra Flood Plain

Tiger Population: 58

Mee Rating: Very Good

Mee Score: 85.61

Manas holds the prestigious title of a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site and is an integral part of the Ripu-Chirang Elephant Reserve. Adjacent to Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park, it sits within the eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspot. Renowned for its diverse avifauna and significant population of globally threatened species, it has earned the coveted designation of an “Important Bird Area” (Rahmani et al., 2016). Championed by its varied vegetation, including tropical semi-evergreen, tropical moist deciduous, and alluvial grassland, along with numerous alluvial grass species, Manas stands as a testament to nature’s abundance.

This tiger reserve boasts one of the richest biodiversity globally and forms an essential part of the expansive transboundary Manas Conservation Area. Its connectivity with Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Park in the north and India’s Buxa Tiger Reserve in the west underscores the significance of cross-border conservation efforts. The dedication and pride of the frontline staff are palpable, further supported by 51 members of the Assam Forest Protection Force, armed with automatic weapons. Moreover, the reserve benefits from the collaboration of various conservation partners, including local communities, NGOs, and CSR organizations. Notably, the absence of villages within the core or critical tiger habitat enhances the reserve’s protection.

However, despite these strengths, Manas Tiger Reserve faces several challenges. Encroachment and the proliferation of invasive species in its grasslands pose significant threats. The fragmentation of corridor connectivity and numerous vacancies in permanent staff positions also demand attention. Additionally, the reserve’s total area is not entirely under the field director’s jurisdiction, while aging infrastructure requires urgent upgrades. Addressing these weaknesses is crucial to ensuring the continued preservation of Manas’ unparalleled biodiversity and its role as a beacon of conservation excellence.

 

Manas

Simlipal Tiger Reserve

Landscape: Eastern Ghats

Tiger Population: 16

Mee Rating: Excellent

Mee Score: 90.15

The Similipal Tiger Reserve lies atop the Chhotanagpur Plateau, situated at the heart of the former Mayurbhanj State. Its name pays homage to the magnificent Simul (Silk Cotton Tree), as described in the renowned Oriya poet Radhanath Ray’s poem ‘Usha,’ where the hill range is aptly referred to as “Salmali Saila” (the hill of Simul). These hills ascend steeply from the plains and are punctuated by numerous peaks and valleys. Various streams meander in different directions, eventually converging into the Bay of Bengal.

In 1979, the Odisha government established the Similipal Sanctuary, encompassing approximately 2200 square kilometers. Subsequently, in 1980, a 303-square-kilometer section of the sanctuary was designated as a National Park following Orissa’s government recommendation. By 1986, the planned National Park expanded its coverage to 845 square kilometers. In 1994, the Government of India officially recognized the area as the Similipal Biosphere Reserve. This reserve is characterized by its Northern Tropical Semi-Evergreen Forests and Northern Tropical Moist Deciduous Forests.

The Similipal Tiger Reserve stands as one of India’s largest tiger reserves, also designated as an elephant reserve and a biosphere reserve. Despite its location in the eastern part of the Deccan Peninsula, its unique position fosters a remarkable blend of biodiversity from the Eastern Ghats, Western Ghats, and Eastern Himalayas.

The management prowess of the reserve is evident in various aspects. Former village sites, now transformed into expansive meadows, attract a plethora of ungulates. Well-organized ecotourism activities, coupled with community engagement, generate substantial revenue for local communities. The deployment of a specialized tiger protection force aids in nocturnal patrolling and combating illegal hunting. With 250 anti-poaching camps strategically spread across the core and buffer zones, the reserve’s infrastructure stands as a testament to effective conservation efforts. Moreover, the partnership with North Odisha University, manifested through the establishment of the Center for Similipal Studies, promises significant contributions to field-based research and capacity building for students. The consistent funding support from the state and various government schemes further bolsters conservation endeavors.

However, despite these strengths, certain management weaknesses persist. Vacancies among frontline staff pose operational challenges, while the absence of a constituted Local Advisory Committee (LAC) hampers community involvement in decision-making processes. The presence of villages within both buffer and core areas poses ongoing threats to the reserve’s integrity. Additionally, integrating adjacent conservation units such as wildlife sanctuaries into the management ambit of the tiger reserve is imperative, considering their extensive utilization by tigers. Addressing these weaknesses will be pivotal in ensuring the sustained conservation success of the Similipal Tiger Reserve.

Similipal

 

Bandipur Tiger Reserve

Landscape: Western Ghats

Tiger Population: 150

Mee Rating: Excellent

Mee Score: 93.18

Bandipur Tiger Reserve, nestled in the Western Ghats, shares borders with Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu to the south and Waynad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala to the southwest. Adjacent to the northwest lies Nagarhole National Park. Initially declared as the “Venugopala Wildlife Park” covering an area of 90 sq. km. by the Princely State of Mysore in 1941 under the Mysore Game and Forest Preservation and Regulation Act, 1931, its boundaries expanded to 800.00 sq. km. the following year by incorporating neighboring forest areas. A significant portion of this protected wildlife area was later incorporated into the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in 1973. The final designation of Bandipur National Park, the core area of the Tiger Reserve, was formally announced in 2001.

The reserve encompasses diverse landscapes, including swamps and vayals, providing essential wallowing grounds for herbivores like Gaur, Sambar, and Wild Boar. It is traversed by major rivers such as Nugu, Kabini, and Moyar. Since 1986, it has been integral to the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Predominantly consisting of tropical deciduous forests and dry-deciduous scrub forests, Bandipur Tiger Reserve epitomizes the rich biodiversity of the region.

Performing excellent on MEE rating, the reserve is very well-managed, and there are very few challenges it is facing. The best part of the reserve is its connectivity with other forest areas, forming the largest network of protected areas and conservation units for elephants and tigers. The reserve is located at the junction of three states, and inter-state cooperation is excellent among them. It’s a tiger reserve, an elephant reserve, and part of the biosphere reserve. There is no human settlement inside the reserve. The eco-sensitive zone is also well-notified. The reserve is very well-protected with a network of excellent anti-poaching and patrolling networks. They have created a special tiger protection force as a strike force against any threats to the tiger reserve. Eco-development activities, like providing LPG cylinders for cooking, have been carried out for a long time, reducing pressure on the forest’s resources. Due to its biodiversity richness and its proximity to two major cities, Bengaluru and Mysore, the reserve is always a center of attraction for researchers from the institutes and universities of these cities, and it has long-term ecological research data. The Bandipur Tiger Conservation Foundation (BTCF) has been created, and its funds are used to address the livelihood concerns of the local community and staff welfare measures for the daily wage employees and other frontline staff of the tiger reserve. The proximity to metro cities and international airports makes the tiger reserve one of the great attractions for eco-tourism. There is a road passing through the tiger reserve which connects various destinations in different states, but there is a speed restriction and night closure of the road in place.

There are some management issues that need to be addressed, such as the high level of human-wildlife conflict, changing land-use patterns in the buffer and eco-sensitive zones, invasive alien species like Lantana, frequent forest fires in the hot summer months, staff vacancies, religious pilgrimages inside the reserve, and livestock grazing in the buffer zone. These are some of the issues that require immediate attention.

 

Bandipur

 

Sundarbans Tiger Reserve

Landscape: Sundarbans Mangrove forests

Tiger Population: 101

Mee Rating: Very Good

Mee Score: 75.76

The Sundarbans is the largest Mangrove delta of the world and encompasses over hundreds of islands. The name ‘Sundarbans’ means “Beautiful Forest” and it is believed to be derived from a mangrove tree species ‘Sundari’. The Sundarbans is the estuary section of the Ganges and Brahmaputra River systems. Its characteristic mangrove forests are made up of a variety of tree species that have adapted to the unique estuary conditions of high salinity, absence of soil erosion, and daily flooding by high tides. Due to their close relationship with the estuarine environment, a sizable fraction of aquatic and semi-aquatic animal groups is intertwined with the organisms that live on land.

The Sundarbans Tiger Reserve was established in 1973 as part of the then-24-Parganas Division. The current Tiger Reserve was designated as Reserve Forest in 1978. It covers an area of 2585 square kilometers, including 1600 square kilometers of land and 985 square kilometers of water. The core area, totaling 1330.12 square kilometers, was later established as Sundarban National Park in 1984. Additionally, the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1976, covering an area of 362.335 square kilometres.

Due to its remarkable biodiversity, the National Park area of the Reserve was included in the list of World Heritage Sites in 1985. In 1989, the entire Sundarbans region was designated as a Biosphere Reserve. Within the Reserve, one can find various forest types, including Tidal Swamp Forests, Saline Water Type Mixed Forests, Brackish Water Type Mixed Forests, and others.

The reserve is the only tiger reserve with a mangrove habitat in the world. Both the core and buffer areas of the reserve are free from human settlements. It boasts a well-equipped land-based and floating forest protection camp with watercraft. The use of technology and good coordination with other law enforcement agencies have ensured that the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve remains free from any poaching incidents in recent times. Compliance with NTCA guidelines, community participation, online booking, and its proximity to Kolkata have made ecotourism viable and well-managed. The landscape remains free from any invasive plant species. An important ecological intervention by the tiger reserve is the conservation breeding and subsequent release, with satellite telemetry, of the Northern River Terrapin (Batagur baska).

However, there are several issues that need to be addressed. These include staff vacancies, the lack of cross-border coordination between the forest departments of India and Bangladesh, despite measures to mitigate human-tiger conflict, reported cases of tiger straying, and the need to enhance patrolling efficiency across all creeks and the entire periphery of the tiger reserve by increasing floating camps and providing more boats.

 

Sundarbans

 

Conclusion

The above analysis and MEE score provide clear insights into the management effectiveness of these tiger reserves, which have completed 50 years of existence since the inception of Project Tiger in India. While they have made commendable progress on various fronts, there are areas of concern that require immediate attention, especially for reserves categorized as ‘Good’ in MEE.

The tiger population serves as a direct indicator of the reserve’s performance, highlighting the urgency to address issues, particularly in reserves exhibiting poor performance. It is concerning that despite 50 years of management as tiger reserves, some reserves are experiencing a decline in tiger population, with some even having only one tiger left.

Focusing on these shortcomings will undoubtedly lead to better results and an increase in the tiger population. It’s crucial to identify the reasons behind the decline and take proactive measures to mitigate them. By prioritizing the conservation of tigers and addressing the challenges faced by these reserves, they can work towards ensuring a healthier and more sustainable future for these majestic animals.

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