Something incredible has happened in the magical wild kingdom that is the famous tiger reserve of Ranthambore. Just over a decade ago in 2005, the Rajasthan state government declared an emergency – a red alert on the state of the tigers within its borders. The state’s most famous wildlife attraction seemed doomed to extinction with only two male adults, eleven females and five youngsters left in a small 392 square kilometre of a reserve based in the ancient Aravalli fold hills south of the state capital, Jaipur. All seemed lost.
Tigers on the brink
The increasing demand for tiger products had driven a skilled poaching tribe, the Mogya, on a killing spree, benefiting from poor protection efforts, gaping shortages and the low morale of forest staff employed to guard the reserve’s increasingly porous borders. Mogyas proved adept, in small skilled groups, at tracking and killing any tigers on the borders of the park and had even brazenly been lifting them from core areas. With new alarm bells ringing, the police were galvanised into action, protection staff strengthened with new powers and equipment, and alongside Tigerwatch charity they began to fight back.
Village tip-offs began to pour in and before long large numbers of the Mogya poachers were being caught, in fact 70 were picked up red-handed over the following three years. Furthermore a huge effort was made to integrate and educate this largely nomadic tribe who historically lived by hunting alongside the largely pastoral communities on the park boundaries. Alternative livelihoods were sought, including incorporation into the ranks of protection staff and education programmes, and the results soon began to pay dividends. Poaching largely stopped in Ranthambore, even if Rajasthan’s only other tiger reserve, Sariska, 80 miles away was now suffering the consequences of the better monitoring here, and was dramatically declared devoid of all tigers in early 2007.
Things are looking up
Today Ranthambore is booming. Under the wise and strict guidance of Field Director, Mr Y.K Sahu and his team, and with support from many of its tourism enterprises, visionary community outreach programmes and long-term partnerships with external agencies like Tigerwatch, Ranthambore’s tiger population is now up to 60 individuals. This is 25% above its last historic high and already set to bursting point, so much so that young male tigers are pouring out of its borders to find their own forests in which to settle. A few months ago two tigers were being tracked as they headed south and east out of the safety of the reserve and across inhospitable, densely-packed agricultural landscapes, bent by feline instinct on survival and territorial conquest.
Nonetheless the most exciting part of this success is the rewilding that has happened so rapidly in the southern part of the park, and the ongoing demand from a never-ending stream of visitors can take some of the credit. Here in the unvisited and overgrazed Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary, which had been a neglected part of the reserve since 1991, a few large herders agreed to give up cattle and take up guiding visitors instead. The almost immediate change in the landscape, with the decreased cattle grazing, was astounding and what in 2009 had been the habitat of a single lone tiger with a poor diet, over the next six years became once again a green haven bursting with biodiversity, full of spotted deer and sambar, and now home to over 15 tigers. It also employs 60 locals as park guides for the many excited travellers who only a few years ago refused to go near the area.
Success spills over
Though many cattle and sheep herds still graze on the park fringes, well-administered and generous cattle compensation schemes, supplemented by park entry fee revenues, now ensure herders accept the odd livestock death as part of everyday life, not the family disaster it once was. Furthermore some three village relocations in the northern area have helped extend Ranthambore’s boundaries and given over 50 square kilometres more space for wildlife.
Not only has Ranthambore’s success been good for its own tigers, but it has helped re-establish a new breeding population from the original 8 tigers relocated in nearby Sariska, today numbering 13 individuals. This success has also ensured little-known forests, long since devoid of tigers like those of Mukandara Hill Tiger Reserve and Kuno Palpur in Madhya Pradesh, are increasingly occupied by the striped cat.
Could this be the future? Perhaps now that there is a real belief and a viable success story that can be emulated to ensure these large carnivores will remain in their historic homes long into the future.
Julian Matthews is Chairman of nature tourism action charity TOFTigers, which sponsors the Village Guardian Programme in Ranthambore. This programme has been very successful in reducing poaching and illegal activities on the fringes of the park. TOFTigers recently awarded On The Go Tours runner up in the International Tour Operator of the Year category. You can visit Ranthambore for a tiger safari with On The Go Tours on our 9 day Shere Khan itinerary.