Tigers are known for living in dense forest areas, away from human settlements – unlike the other big cats, leopards, that are quite comfortable living in human-dominated habitats and in the proximity of urban areas. But a group of tigers in central India has shown a difference in behaviour, becoming comfortable in an urban setting.

Around five tigers in Chandrapur district of north-eastern Maharashtra have made a thermal power station area their permanent home over the past four or five years. These tigers not only roam freely inside the power station area, which has about 10,000 people, but also frequent the residential areas in the adjoining Chandrapur city that has a human population of over 500,000.

While no explanatory research has been carried out defining such tigers as “urban tigers”, there is anecdotal evidence that indicates that these tigers in the Chandrapur landscape, are less averse to living close to human settlements.

Chandrapur district has around 160-170 tigers and half of them have their habitats outside the protected areas. There have been changes in behaviour patterns of tigers in the past few years, which may have induced by both natural as well as external factors.

Favourable conditions to live

The Chandrapur Super Thermal Power Station is connected to famous Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve through a corridor of coal mines that are thickly covered with Prosopis plant species. Adequate prey base in the form of stray cattle and wild boars, substantial tree cover and a perennial nullah passing through the power plant help meet all the basic needs of these resident tigers, point out experts.

Nullah that passes through the power plant is often used by tigers to go close to the residential areas of Chandrapur city. Photo credit: Saurabh Katkurwar.

The power plant is built on 1,117 ha of land, the staff quarters on 340 ha while 2,665 ha is earmarked for ash dump.

Tigers would come to the thermal power station from the tiger reserve earlier as well. However, it would always be a fleeting visit, which would often go unnoticed by people. Now, tigers have made the power plant their habitat, staying alongside people with ease.

While factors such as increasing number of tigers and shrinking forest areas are some of the major drivers, some behavioural changes in tigers may also be responsible for these developments, said VS Ramarao, Chief Conservator of Forest of Chandrapur Circle, who has recently been transferred to Yavatmal in the same capacity.

“We have observed the food habits and the living habits of tigers have changed,” he said. “In the power plant, stray cattle and wild boars take care of the food while Prosopis trees offer them cover to hide.”

“These tigers are trying to adjust themselves in the new conditions (as there is no space for them to live in the protected areas),” he said.

There are estimated to be 2,000 to 4,000 stray cattle inside the power plant area and their number has grown substantially, with good availability of grass and fodder as well as the ban on slaughter of cow and its progeny.

Overburden block or waste from mining has the vegetation of Prosopis species providing smooth wildlife corridor between the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve and power plant. Photo credit: Saurabh Katkurwar.

A tigress brought up her three cubs on an ash bund (embankment) a few years ago. It is speculated that these cubs may have born in the power plant area itself and are expected to live in degraded forests or non-forest areas throughout their life.

Bilal Habib, Wildlife Biologist with the Wildlife Institute of India, said the tigers that were born or grew up in the power plant, which is a non-forest area, would tend to live in similar conditions wherever they migrate to, due to natal memory.

“Technically, we may not call the tigers in the power station area as ‘urban tigers’,” he said. “However, the mental setup of such tigers would be influenced by where they were born and grew up.”

“Due to natal memory, such animals would consider the areas like the power plant as their habitat,” he said.

There are some examples that also reflect the effects of natal memory. One tiger moved out of the power plant about three years ago and travelled to neighbouring districts of Yavatmal, Wardha and Nagpur. It preferred to stay in the non-forest areas during its journey and finally landed up in Satpura Thermal Power Station in Sarni in Madhya Pradesh’s Betul district.

Adjustment for survival

Survival is a major driver for the tigers adapting to the conditions that may not be ideally suitable for their livelihood, said Nitin Desai, central India director of Wildlife Protection Society of India.

“Protected areas are full and they cannot hold any more tigers. So, additional tigers are spilling over to the degraded forests, which may not be ecologically rich for them and dotted with human presence,” he said. “Yet, tigers are alive and kicking in such areas.”

The behavioural changes are not happening due to genetic changes but local adaptation tactics, Desai added.

Degraded forests or territorial forests that were generally used as sinks by tigers, preferably by migrating ones, now are becoming breeding grounds. Regular monitoring of such tigers has shown that they have no qualms about living in areas with thorny shrubs or ash bunds, said Bandu Dhotre, Honourary Wildlife Warden of Chandrapur district.

“Tigers living near human settlements especially in the power plant have appeared to be indifferent to the presence of humans,” he said. “They are at times spotted near residential areas along the Irai river that passes by the periphery of Chandrapur city.”

People living in the staff quarters in the power plant said they did not bother about the tiger sightings a couple of years ago but the fact that tigers are making the thermal power station their habitat has them worried now.

“I would walk alone late at night a decade ago,” said one power plant employee who lives in the staff quarters, on condition of anonymity. “However, now I feel scared to even ride a motorbike after the dark as tigers and leopards go hunting here nowadays. This was not the case earlier.”

Another such employee asked for devising proper wildlife management mechanism to prevent any wild animals from visiting the power plant.

Dhotre said one tiger who was born and brought up in the power plant complex migrated to Adilabad in Telangana state but it could never settle on the habitat to live for a longer time.

“After that tiger left the power plant, he was first spotted in a cement plant, where he lived for some time,” he said. “Later, he went to Adilabad but came back to live on the periphery of Tipeshwar wildlife sanctuary in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal.”

“We have monitored his entire journey,” he said. “He is still struggling to find habitat for himself.”

Word of caution

The abundance of cattle and the dense cover of Prosopis trees, which grow like big shrubs, have provided a suitable environment for the development of breeding grounds in the power plant.

Habib though, cautioned against letting the power plant turn into a breeding ground. “If there are going to be such urban tigers, there will be more and more human-animal conflict,” he asserted. “We need a policy, thought process about what is to be done with tigers in human-dominated areas.”

The Maharashtra government is contemplating mass-translocation of tigers from the power plant and other areas where human-tiger conflict is expected to flare up in the near future, to nearby forests. However, there is a note of caution from some conservationists. They said the space that falls vacant after the translocation of existing tigers would be occupied by new tigers.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.