Recent census has identified the tiger population as “critically vulnerable” and has called for “immediate conservation attention.” Credit: Representational Image

North-east has seen a huge rise in the killing of tigers, especially in the non-protected forests in the past century.

Recently, Forest officials recovered a tiger skin from the residence of an alleged animal poacher at Bijni in the Chirang district of Assam.

According to sources, a joint operation was carried out by officials of the forest department and a team of Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) in the Bijni Laah Khirguri area of Chirang district, and arrested the alleged poacher Shahajuddin, after the police recovered the tiger skin from his house. The Chirang Police is carrying out the further investigation.

It was a stealth operation conducted by two wings of government

According to a report by the Mongabay, Although the recent tiger census report states that the number of tigers in the northeast hills and the Brahmaputra plains has increased from 201 in 2014 to 219 in 2018, the region is no longer the sprawling abode of tigers it used to be about half a century ago.

Tigers in the region now primarily stay within the protected areas in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and the recent census has identified the tiger population as “critically vulnerable” and has called for “immediate conservation attention.”

“Tigers once roamed many areas across Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, but acute anthropogenic pressure over time has led to their decline or disappearance,” said Jimmy Borah, a wildlife biologist with conservation organisation Panthera.

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Colonial hunting narratives speak of the presence of tigers in places from where the animal has long since vanished. Patrick Hanley, a colonial hunter and tea planter, in his book Tiger Trails in Assam claims to have seen “tigers killing their prey on at least 120 separate occasions” along the Naga foothills—an area now not known to have tigers.

The hunting accounts penned by renowned Assamese like Tarun Ram Phukan and Prasannalal Choudhury mention tiger presence all across lower Assam districts of Barpeta, Goalpara, Darrang, Udalguri, and Kamrup, extending up to Guwahati.

The late 19th and early 20th-century European hunters along with native noblemen and zamindars played a significant role in finishing off a substantial chunk of the tiger population in the region through Big Game shooting. Maharaj Nripendra Narayan of Coochbehar, who used to visit Assam on hunting sojourns, killed no less than 370 tigers in the lower Brahmaputra region in the 1871-1907 period.

That Assam housed a significant tiger population well into the dawn of the Independence years despite a century of relentless big game hunting, can be gauged from a statement on Wild Animals Shot in Assam during 1945-9, prepared by gleaning Annual Reports figures: 208 tigers were shot dead by game hunters in a mere four-year span.

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Regardless of the multiple threats to the tiger, of which hunting — and later commercial poaching — were the foremost, certain areas in Assam had sizeable populations of the species. The district where Mangal Singh Terang resides was one such region. According to Anwaruddin Choudhury, a naturalist and bureaucrat posted in Karbi Anglong in the early 1990s, who has documented the fauna of Karbi Anglong in his book A Naturalist in Karbi Anglong, the district had more than 150 tigers in the early 1990s.

In fact, 8-10 tigers could be found near the Kaki Reserve Forest where the attack on Terang took place. “In almost every nullah-bed, pug marks of tigers could be seen those days,” Choudhury said.

The incident involving Terang was not the sole instance of tiger attack in Bokolia in the 90s. Pabitra Rabha, a schoolteacher from Raja Pathar Tiniali Gaon, the village next to Mangal Singh’s Sar-et Terang, remembered a few more such incidents.

“Around 11-12 people were killed by a tiger during that period. Some victims were woodcutters, while others were drunkards returning home late at night. Attacks took place even during the day. People were terrified. Renowned hunter Ziaur Rahman was called to trap the tiger, but he didn’t succeed. The attacks gradually abated on their own,” recalled Rabha.

However, Choudhury said, the number of tigers in Karbi Anglong has seriously dwindled. “Every year during floods, a few tigers looking to save themselves enter Karbi Anglong highlands from Kaziranga. But even if we count them, the number of resident tigers in Karbi Anglong wouldn’t be more than 20-25,” he added.

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Similarly, the community forests in the Himalayan foothills close to Pakke-Nameri Tiger Complex was known to shelter tigers until a few decades ago. Rinchin Dorjee Thungon, a septuagenarian in Shergaon, a village on the fringes of Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, said the forests surrounding the village were once home to tigers.

“A tiger was last sighted here about 25 years ago. When we were young, it wasn’t uncommon for tigers to lift cattle grazing near the forest,” he said.

Another important tiger habitat from where the species has been completely wiped out is the Baghbar hills, a cluster of picturesque hills not far from Manas Tiger Reserve. In a 1981 article published in Asom Bani, a popular Assamese weekly, Assamese author Ganesh Das, analysed written and oral hunting narratives and estimated that in the last century, at least a 100 tigers had been killed by native and European hunters in Baghbar.

Akshay Kumar Mishra, a local academician, said “Baghbar hills were historically known to be a tiger habitat, and it also has an ancient temple dedicated to a tiger goddess—Bagheshwari. In fact, one of my uncles used to be a hunter in the early 20th century. But there is no tiger left now.”

A 2015 study titled Wildlife of the Brahmaputra, an anthology of vignettes about the fauna around the great river, co-authored by Panthera’s Borah states that the dispersal and survival of tigers in the Assam plains are governed by the dynamics of the Brahmaputra and the river islands, locally known as char-chapori, which play a critical role as tiger corridors.

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“Kaziranga’s tigers use [these] river islands as ‘stepping stone’ corridors to move to the north and the west. These islands are crucial in maintaining the genetic linkages between sites that are otherwise isolated from one another,” the study notes.

Tigers which use these islands depend on preys such as hog deer and sambar; however, the livestock in the khutis, the cattle-grazier settlements, comprise their main prey, Borah said. “If there’s proper protection, tigers can use these islands for breeding,” he added.

Colonial-era accounts do suggest that these islands probably used to host resident tigers before anthropogenic pressure ate into these tranquil tiger abodes.

Firoz Ahmed, a wildlife biologist working for Aaranyak said, “As per the latest survey, while the tiger numbers have increased in Assam, the situation overall in the northeast is not good. In Arunachal Pradesh, we had just one addition, which is a worrying factor. In Assam also, there are not many tigers outside the protected forests like Kaziranga, Manas and Orang. In Nameri, which was a tiger reserve, the numbers have declined. Upper Assam forests like Dibru Saikhowa and Dehing Patkai have virtually no tiger population. Dampa in Mizoram, which is a tiger reserve, has failed to record any tiger in this census.”

However, Kamal Azad, a tiger expert and former member of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), thinks that a proper survey would reveal that in the northeast tigers are there outside protected forests. “Recently, camera trapping detected the presence of tigers in Sikkim. I believe that small tiger populations would be found in certain forests of Nagaland and the forests of Tamenglong district in Manipur.”

SOURCE : Mongabay

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