Tigers eshtu?” (How many tigers?) was the most common question I faced from the moment I took charge as the first Director of the Biligiri Ranganathaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve (BRT TR) in 2012. The newly created BRT Tiger Reserve was slated to share some space in a list with more popular Tiger Reserves like Bandipur and Nagarahole. At a time when Karnataka was inching towards the epithet ‘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 of a white rock cliff is the temple of Bilgiri Ranganathaswamy, and the Tiger Reserve takes its name after its revered deity. With forest types ranging from dry scrub, dry deciduous, moist deciduous, semi-evergreen, evergreen to shola grasslands, BRT has it all. What sets it apart is its arduous terrain, with a vast majority of the landscape having a slope of over 35-70%.
Scientific studies conducted then had confirmed that not only did BRT TR have a significant population of tigers, the reserve was also host to a good number of breeding tigers. Having a good prey species population is touted as a key requirement to assess the potential of any tiger reserve. This is where BRT TR scored very well. Tiger, the apex predator, prefers large bodied mammals like Gaur and Sambar, and BRT TR was well stocked with such prey. In net prey kilograms/sq km, it was listed well above high tiger density parks like Kaziranga and Pench. Sustaining and improving prey density, coupled with rigorous protection was the key to ensuring and consolidating tiger numbers for BRT.Being in a landscape that was regarded as the most promising stronghold for tigers in the world (National Geographic December 2011 issue), supported by intensive scientific research in the recent years, BRT was flagged as a tiger reserve with immense potential. BRT is not an isolated tiger reserve. A large portion of the forest shares its boundaries with another newly created reserve – the Satyamangalam Tiger Reserve – in the adjoining state of Tamil Nadu. This reserve is also connected to the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, which in turn is connected to Bandipur, Wayanad and further onto Nagarahole, making it a veritable storehouse of tiger gene pool in South India. Published evidence of tigers traversing long distances to occupy new landscapes made it clear that tigers are exploring new territories, and consolidating in areas where abundance of prey and safety is ensured.
Back in the 1990s and early 2000, BRT was not very active in the tiger loop. I recollect a discussion with one of the officers who served as the DCF in the early 90s for over 3 years and toured extensively in the reserve. He mentioned that during his entire tenure, he could not sight a single tiger, though he had many encounters with leopards. Even indirect evidences that established the presence of tigers were rare. Fast-forward to 2012. Hardly a week passed by when anti-poaching camps did not report sightings of tigers. Much had clearly changed for the tiger.
With a significant human presence in and around these landscapes – forest dwelling tribes, visiting pilgrims or villagers from surrounding areas – the safety of tigers and other wildlife has many stakeholders. Protecting tigers from human activities that could disturb them is a huge challenge. The thrust on protection, coupled with rigorous scientific documentation is the way forward for the wellbeing of tigers. BRT TR is not just known for tigers, but also for the amazing array of landscapes and wildlife – be it mammals, birds or lesser fauna. Setting up effective field units that are equipped with state-of-the-art firearms capable of neutralizing threats before they emerge is the primary requirement. In addition to this, the reserves need a systematic scientific approach towards data collection and compilation; aided with high-end data collection gadgets like digital camera traps, laser rangefinders and night vision equipment.
Within my first few weeks in the reserve, regular sightings of large bodied prey animals left me pleasantly surprised. The tiger remained elusive, but there were numerous indirect evidences of its presence. At the peak of winter, I intensified my patrols hoping to catch a glimpse of the tiger. Many alarms calls and tense moments faded away without materializing into a sighting. I then just left it to fate. I remembered a terse saying put up on a wall in a pilgrim town – “It is not the darshan you get, but the darshan He gives”. Finally, my big moment arrived, and I was shocked when I encountered a tiger at 50ft distance while I was on foot late one evening, birding with a colleague. The tiger and I ran into each other on a Z-shaped bend on the main road. The tiger in this instance behaved exactly the way Jim Corbett describes his run-in with tigers in his neighborhood of Kaladhungi forests. He simply melted away into the forest. My jinx broken, in a short time I encountered tigers many times; from waking up to tiger calls in forest rest houses, to enduring many minutes of roadblocks on forest roads by tiger cubs. Many days passed, sometimes the sightings were rare and at times, they happened often.
I relied on keeping up with tigers by equipping my staff with camera traps. I experimented with various models and came up with mixed results but surprisingly, my staff was up to the task. The young recruits took to new technology the way a child takes to a new smartphone. Guards started addressing tigers as ‘nanna huli’ (my tiger). For many of them who were barely out of their training schools, this was a direct hands-on learning. We still had a long way forward.
Everyday, it was a combination of various activities, working towards making BRT TR a safer home for the tiger. I wound up each day’s tour of the reserve at a forest rest house that doubled up as my home for many months. Even today, when memories of BRT come back to me, I think of how I would get alert when my handset crackled to life with the words “tiger sighting”. My control room staff would ask for a repeat confirmation, to which we got responses like “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.