Many of the streams flowing through the Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar, just 1km from the border with Nepal, are dry this summer. As the sun tilts west and the breeze turns gentle, herbivores emerge — spotted, barking and hog deer, monkeys, wild boar and a sloth bear. Close to a waterhole is a deer carcass, abandoned by a tiger.
“This is a fresh kill,” field director S Chandrashekhar observes. Divisional Forest Officer Gaurav Ojha confers with the tiger trackers. “T3 ka shaavak hai (T3’s cub),” tracker Mithilesh tells the officer after measuring pugmarks, referring to the codename of the mother. “This cub has made its first reported kill. Soon he’ll mark his terrain and win mating rights,” Ojha says.
The 900sqkm reserve has scripted a remarkable success story in tiger conservation. In the 1980s and 1990s, the forest, then looked after by the Bihar government, was full of people and machines engaged in pebble mining. The stone crushing units and gensets threw up dust and noise. Funds for staff salaries and conservation programmes were short, and the tiger census was irregular.
Poaching was also rampant and tiger numbers were dwindling.
In 1994, it was brought under Project Tiger but mining and poaching continued. After the Supreme Court banned stone mining from the Pandai river in 2002, green cover improved. The Patna high court also ordered Eastern railways in 2017 to build structures on the track that pass through the reserve so that wild animals can cross over without being mowed down by trains.
From the mid-2000s, the forest department has been pouring energy and funds into the reserve, equipping trackers with GPS-enabled gadgets and training them, barricading entrances, regulating tourist flow, and ensuring that the core area is inviolate. As part of the international crackdown on the illegal tiger trade, India too broke up many poaching gangs and prosecuted ringleaders, which led to a drop in tiger deaths.
Tiger census methods, too, have improved — from the unreliable pugmark method to the more scientific camera trap method.
In the last eight years, the grasslands have regenerated, weeds removed and the prey base is bigger. This has translated into a resurgence in the tiger population. Between 2006 and 2010, the reserve had only about 10 tigers, but successive censuses since have shown consistent growth in big cat population. From 22 in 2013, the big cats rose in number to 28 in 2014-15. In 2016-17, the number was 31, plus nine cubs.
“Reduced pressure on the land and pollution have led to an improved prey base and in turn better breeding,” says Sharique Shafi, project officer (species conservation), WWF. Apart from regular forest staff, the sanctuary has engaged 548 local youth from the Tharu and Oraon tribes as wireless operators, guards, computer operators and chowkidars. More than 40 anti-poaching camps and watch towers have been set up. These young tiger trackers are armed not with guns but with flashlights, walkie-talkies and GPS handsets. “They have been trained to report sightings and pugmarks,” Ojha says. “We’ve brought in three elephants from Karnataka for deep patrolling. We’ll get some more,” says Chandrashekhar.