The hidden danger facing the tigerNew Delhi, India: As if life was not difficult enough for tigers, a new threat is emerging with the slow depletion of their prey base. Animals such as the sambar, barasingha, cheetal, wild boar, and young gaur form the basic diet of the tiger, and if they are in short supply tigers are forced to kill and eat what is in abundance cattle.
This is bad news in more ways than one, because when tigers prey on livestock they provoke retaliation from local farmers, who often poison them. The same is true of leopards, which are increasingly attacking cattle, dogs, and even people in the hills of Uttar Pradesh.
There are lessons here for conservationists who, so far, have tended to focus on the conflict between man and predator in relation to the growing pressure on protected areas from people and livestock. But evidence is increasing that attention must be paid to ways of rebuilding the prey base of the big cats.
Prey depletion is a reality government officials are reluctant to admit because it would reflect poor management of National Parks and protected areas. But a marked fall in the population of swamp deer, sambar, cheetal, and wild boar has been noted for some years by people working in protected areas. While tiger poaching raises an outcry, the surreptitious hunting of prey species continues without protest.
Sanjay Deb Roy, of the Indian Board for Wild Life and the Tiger Steering Committee, reports that in a two-week journey covering thousands of kilometres between Bandhavgarh and Panna, in Madhya Pradesh, he saw only one wild boar and none of the herbivores who form the real prey base of the big cats.
There has been no specific study of the tiger's prey base, according to Brigadier Ranjit Talwar, coordinator of the Tiger Conservation Programme of WWF-World Wide Fund For Nature. Talwar has covered forest areas of Bihar and almost all of central and northern Andhra Pradesh and he reports severe depletion of the prey base, except in two areas.
In Dudhwa, for instance, the barasingha population has crashed because of the large scale poaching, Talwar says. The venison goes right up to Lucknow, while from Palamau and Valmiki it goes to the kitchens of the wealthy in Patna. People can order meat of their choice and collect it within two or three days. Cheetal poaching is also rampant in some places.
Close to the Royal Bardia National Park in Nepal, the lush green Katerniaghat was once rich in tiger prey species, but the magnificent swamp deer has been wiped out, there are few barasingha, and in three days Talwar did not see a single sambar, though he did sight cheetal.
Ulhas Karanth, a distinguished wildlife scientist, says a tiger has to kill 40 to 50 animals in a year, with a female raising three juvenile cubs requiring up to 70. On average, a tiger kills once every seven to eight days, although a tigress with cubs is compelled to kill more often to feed her young.
S C Sharma, of the Environment and Forest Ministry, however, believes the prey base is adequate for the tiger in most national parks and tiger reserves though he does admit to poaching problems with herbivores in some areas. As a first step, a five-kilometre boundary wall is to be built at one Park to stop herbivores straying out of the protected area. But more important is the fact that Sharma has agreed to include a study of the prey base in a sample tiger census at 10 National Parks and tiger reserves.
There is, after all, little point in protecting the tiger if it is not going to have enough to eat.
*Usha Rai works for WWF's Tiger Conservation Programme