“The place was dreadfully infested by tigers, especially the fort, which occupies a large rocky hill.” – 12 June 1800, Francis Buchanan, in ‘A Journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar’, about Ramanagara, on the Mysuru-Bengaluru highway.

It was the winter of 2012, and I was making frequent forays on the Bengaluru-Mysuru route. Whenever I passed Ramanagara, I would remember this description by Francis Buchanan.

At the start of my career a couple of decades ago, I vividly remember top officials and conservationists bantering at dinner, enthusiastically sharing the big cat sightings in the early days of their careers in the forests I was posted in. I, a young officer, shuffled uncomfortably in my seat, wondering when my turn would come; even pugmarks had eluded me in the areas where these senior officers had encountered tigresses with cubs. I searched high and low, but it was clear that the forests were empty of the big cats. In a span of 200 years, we have virtually changed the fate of many species, and we move on, insensitive to the damage done.

Fast forward to 2017 – as I now man areas of tiger habitat, the news is certainly not sad. Big cats are making a huge comeback, and it has crafted Karnataka into the ‘tiger state of India’. All across Karnataka, tigers and leopards are being reported with amazing regularity, and these sightings cannot be attributed to late-night imagination or being high. Sightings are now backed by irrefutable evidence like camera-trap images and mobile phone video clips.

The truth is out: the big cats have made a remarkable comeback!

A young tiger explores new territory in Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary. Tigers are now occupying evergreen forests in significant numbers.

What changed for them? Though many theories are proclaimed, I look from the frontlines of the Forest Department, at what has changed. The biggest change has been in the quality of habitats: what were forests with a sprinkling of prey species have now emerged to be ones with an optimum prey population. This is mainly due to the establishment of anti-poaching camps and sustained patrolling by the staff, both of which have resulted in the stoppage of incursions by locals for poaching of prey species for meat. This is, simply put, the biggest change.

Improving prey base is crucial to big cat conservation.

Combined with this good protection, the policy of declaring contiguous forest patches as protected areas has benefitted the big cats. This has created a garland of contiguous forests right from the edge of the city of Bengaluru, extending to Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary and BRT Tiger Reserve, leading on to Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, Coorg Wildlife Sanctuary, Kudremukh Wildlife Sanctuary, Sharavathi Wildlife Sanctuary, Agnashini Conservation Reserve, Bedthi Conservation Reserve, Kali Tiger Reserve, all the way up to Bhimgad Widlife Sanctuary in the northernmost part of the Western Ghats in Karnataka. This has resulted in unrestricted movements of transient tigers and leopards, and helped in populating new areas.

After many decades of good conservation, a tiger walks in the Bannerghatta National Park in Bengaluru. Contiguous forests have made this possible.

The emergence of tigers in old habitats – like this tiger on the outskirts of Shimoga city – is proof of good protection.

The biggest game-changer in the big cats’ comeback is the use of technology in monitoring them.  The ease of setting up a camera trap – and its availability at every field unit of the Forest Department – has made documenting easy, thus enhancing protection. The decline of the gun-toting city shikari has also contributed to this success.

Along with these positive developments, the constant media glare that the villages surrounding forests are now subjected to on their TV screens and newspapers, have brought about a great awareness for the conservation of the national animal and the leopard.

The penetration of communication – either through wireless systems or cell-phone networks – for the Karnataka Forest Department (KFD) staff has improved communication even in the remotest corners of forests. Information is being shared at all levels instantly.

The young and well-trained staff of the KFD have made ‘tiger science’ possible, as seen in this camera-trap training underway at BRT Tiger Reserve.

As I now rummage through various reports on the state of tigers in Karnataka, I am surprised by some, like “The master databases that cumulatively track the fate of about 220 tigers in three sites in Karnataka from 2003 to 2007”. The newer reports, or should I say ‘photo-books’, are flush with stripes of left and right flanks of tigers. The numbers are mind-boggling, to say the least. While scientists debate the methods of how we count our tigers, reports from ground zero are extremely optimistic. Our famous tiger reserves are reporting counts in excess of 100, and buffer forest areas which are not even under protected area networks are reporting breeding mothers. Evergreen forests, which were not even considered prime tiger habitats in the past, have now shown healthy numbers.

As with tigers, the dramatic comeback by leopards is no less. Considered to be a tenacious cat, the leopard has everyone in the conservation circles surprised by not just its recovery, but also by its adaptability.  Leopards are being regularly reported from districts in the eastern plains, where there we no records since the past 50 years. Leopards continue to thrive around cities and urban areas. Recent research has revealed that leopards thrive around urban centres and human-modified landscapes, sustaining on prey from poultry farms and domestic livestock.

A leopard makes an appearance in the forests of Yadahalli in Bagalkot District, after a gap of nearly 50 years.

The adaptive leopard has used rocky outcrops to great advantage, like in this case in Daroji Bear Sanctuary.

In tiger-dominated forests, leopards have adapted well to a living on trees, while at the same time living off the forest’s rich prey-base.

While this is a time to rejoice, it is also the time to ponder. This conservation success has led to a conflict surge. The backlash from conflicts is also alarming. How we are going to deal with and manage this increase in conflict is the new question for big cat conservation.