K Alagirisamy stands guarding the forest check post in Hasanur, Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. “I was the last one to spot the tiger right here on the road,” he says, pointing to a blackboard that listed sightings for the week.

Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, which lies in the confluence of Eastern and Western Ghats, is contiguous to other tiger conservation landscapes such as the Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary, Bandipur Tiger Reserve and Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. It was declared as a tiger reserve (with the legal status of a national park) in 2013.

With a mix of tropical thorn forests, mixed dry deciduous forests, southern tropical semi-evergreen forest (Michukuli Sholai), tropical hill forests (with savannah) and tropical riverine forests (Moyar river belt), the landscape is a conducive habitat for both tigers and their prey.

The landscape of Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. Photo credit: Tamil Nadu Forest Department

“In 2010, scat analysis for tigers were done, which showed that about 25 tigers were present here,” said CH Padma, deputy director of Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. “Based on this data, the area was declared a tiger reserve.”

Wider landscapes in tiger areas

Falling tiger numbers due to poaching and habitat fragmentation, globally, led to the formation of St. Petersburg Declaration on Tiger Conservation in November 2010. The 13 tiger countries endorsed this declaration, striving to double their population by 2022. One of the main approaches to this was landscape expansion for connectivity of tiger habitats and recovery of their population.

This approach emphasises connecting tiger habitats, enhancing their gene flow, higher dispersal space for tigers, reducing the risk of inbreeding and local extinction, and avoiding costly interventions like translocation.

Tigers photographed by camera traps in Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. Photo credit: Tamil Nadu Forest Department

In Tamil Nadu, the state government added 887.26 sq km in seven reserve forests of Sathyamangalam forest division to the existing wildlife sanctuary spread over 524.34 sq km. The total tiger reserve area, then, became 1408.40 sq km, making it the largest tiger reserve in the state.

Similarly, in Karnataka, the state government linked tiger populations by identifying ecologically important habitats and designating them as protected areas. In May 2013, it established the 906.18 sq km Malai Mahadeshwara Wildlife Sanctuary. When the linking of these two protected areas with the existing network consisting of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks of Cauvery, Mudumalai, Bandipur, Nagarhole and Wayanad, there is a 6,500 sq km contiguous network of potential tiger territory – the largest in the country.

Map of the larger Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. Photo credit: Google Maps.

Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve is contiguous to both MM and Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, and with this expansion, the landscape area increased. Sanjay Gubbi, scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation, in his paper From intent to action: A case study for the expansion of tiger conservation from southern India mentions that when both the states expanded the protected areas its share within the 6,500 square km increased three-fold from 26% to 72%.

Reserved forests become protected areas

Integrating reserved forests into protected area brought in key structural changes. “When forests are merely reserved forests and not protected areas, the legalities are different,” Gubbi explained. “In a protected area, land cannot be given for developmental activity without the permission of the state or national board for wildlife. Additionally, in tiger reserves, permissions are needed from the National Tiger Conservation Authority. In a reserve forest, there is less stringent rule to divert the land.”

Bikes are banned in STR between 5 pm and 7 am to prevent road kills. Photo credit: Sharada Balasubramanian

When the area is notified as protected, administrative changes happen automatically. “The notification is announced in legal gazette, and with this, the administrative changes happen and also the financial allocation for conservation can change,” said Gubbi.

“When Sathyamangalam was declared as tiger reserve, the first priority was protection,” said Padma. “After declaration, we increased the anti-poaching camps to 25. Each camp had six anti-poaching watchers.”

The forest area that became the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve was once the marching grounds for Veerappan, the sandalwood smuggler and ivory poacher. Thus the declaration to a tiger reserve brought an entirely different conservation dimension.

Integrated monitoring of tigers

For estimating tiger numbers, the capture-recapture method is used. “This is not new,” Gubbi, pointed out. “The technique has been used in the United States to estimate fish population in 1940s and 1950s, and can be used for any species that has a natural marking on the body, like fish, tiger, leopard, snakes, etc.”

The sighting reporting board at the Hasanur check-post. Photo credit: Sharada Balasubramanian

Integrated monitoring approach for estimating tiger numbers is another case in point here. Gubbi says, “Integrated monitoring of tigers is done in these contiguous areas. When there is no integrated approach, monitoring is done separately. When the tigers move from one area to another, and when the data is taken individually, it will show higher tiger numbers.”

When data was taken together as a landscape, common individuals were found. Gubbi says, “One tiger, for instance, had taken birth in Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, and established its territory in MM Hills. Unless we understand this at a landscape level, we will never get to know this fascinating factor. This is a better approach to monitor the tiger population together with the adjoining areas.”

A national tiger repository was formed in 2016 for estimating tiger numbers in landscape connected areas. “The field directors of connected landscapes requested for this. The tiger data is submitted to NTCA for analysis of tiger population, and to check for overlaps,” Padma said.

The forest check-post at Hasanur. Photo credit: Sharada Balasubramanian

Impact of landscape expansion

In Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, poaching was monitored strictly after declaration of the tiger reserve. “Small game poaching reduced here. We found a steep decline in poaching and there was higher reporting of such incidents. Further, the forest department were hard on previous offenders, and took them to the courts. Country guns were seized with the support of local youth. There was a restriction on people’s movement in the forest,” Padma said.

This resulted in an increase in tiger population in the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. “In 2014, after declaration, camera trap study was done, which showed presence of over 40 tigers. When the same study was repeated in 2016, we found tiger numbers to be 56,” Padma said.

The prey population, which is key for sustaining tiger population, increased as well. The tiger depends on three prime prey animals- first the gaur, followed by sambar deer, and then the spotted deer. Sambar deer lives on slopes, and since the forest has such a habitat, it supports these species. According to Padma, during wildlife monitoring, spotted deer numbers were 14 to 15 per sq km in the first analysis and later it has increased to 23 to 28 per sq km.

Padma believes that tiger population increase cannot be attributed to just one reason. She says, “One, the landscape area connectivity increased, which led to higher dispersal area for tigers, two, poaching was controlled and more closely monitored. Prey poaching reduced, and there was restriction on people entering forests. Many such factors contributed to increase in tiger numbers.”

Gubbi said, “In Karnataka, so far out of 40,000 sq km of reserve forest, only 10,000 sq km has been declared as protected areas. It is practically impossible for us to recreate such forests, or bring in such species diversity, like nature’s creation. Hence, the STR model has shown how reserve areas can be converted into protected areas to safeguard the habitat.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.