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Pilibhit Tiger Reserve

Conservation Opportunities and Challenges

Pranav Chanchani (pranav.chanchani@gmail.com) is a PhD candidate in ecology at Colorado State University, United States, and was a research associate at WWF-India between 2011 and 2013.

Home to a sizeable tiger population and several other endangered species, the Pilibhit Forest Division, an erstwhile timber yielding reserve forest, was notified as a tiger reserve by the Uttar Pradesh state government in 2014. To successfully protect and perpetuate the tiger species in this area, noted for its "exemplary wildlife values", the administrators will have to preempt discord that is likely to arise between the forest department and human communities whose livelihoods are affected by the creation of the new reserve.

Thanks are due to the Uttar Pradesh State Forest Department for extending permits and providing logistical support and to WWF-India and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for funding this project. B R Noon, S Worah, D Ghose, J Vattakaven, A Bista, R Warrier, R Sharma, S Nair, K Ramesh, B Pandav, H Guleria, M Gupta, N Lodi and our field assistants facilitated this study. I thank my family for their generous support. Finally, I am grateful to N Chanchani and S Worah for their comments on this article. 

In June 2014, the Government of Uttar Pradesh (UP) notified Pilibhit Forest Division (PFD) as a tiger reserve. Pilibhit Tiger Reserve (PTR) is noteworthy because it supports a notably large tiger population even though it has been an important timber yielding reserve forest for over 100 years. This situation, which is unique to PTR, raises a series of questions. What factors have enabled the persistence of tigers in the erstwhile PFD? How will its conversion into a tiger reserve benefit the species’ long term conservation in this region? And what must administrators and managers do to conserve this endangered species while also accommodating the needs of human communities dependent on forest resources?

Map of Pilibhit Forest Division (Tiger Reserve) showing the locations of productive grassland habitats, forest-edge habitats, and the locations of key wildlife corridors. (Pranav Chanchani)

A Nationally Significant Tiger Population

Although PFD has had a long association with tigers, its importance for conservation was highlighted in 2004, when scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India concluded landscape-wide surveys for tigers and noted the area’s “exemplary wildlife values” and the presence of a resident tiger population. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-India) concurrently established a field office in Pilibhit and initiated a tiger conservation program. Taking cognizance of the area’s importance, the National Tiger Conservation Authority recommended that PFD be recognised as a tiger reserve in 2008.   

Extensive surveys using motion sensing camera traps to monitor tiger populations between 2010 and 2013 established that PFD harbours one of the largest tiger populations (22-30 tigers) within the 1,500 km span of tiger habitat between Ramnagar Forest Division in Uttarakhand and Kaziranga Tiger Reserve in Assam. Moreover, the estimated density of tigers in PFD (2.3-4.5/100 km2) was close to the mean estimates of population size and densities reported from 30 prominent tiger occupied forests in India, as reported by the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Wildlife Institute of India from nation-wide surveys in 2010-2011. It is likely that PFD supported a larger tiger population than several tiger reserves, including Satpura in Madhya Pradesh and Melghat in Maharashtra[i]

Bustling with Human Activity

The forests of PFD, covering a 700 km2 area, were disturbed due to several factors. Foremost among these is the fact that from the 1870s until 2014, PFD was primarily managed as a timber yielding forest. The importance of historical forestry operations is evidenced by the railway line that bisects it. Laid out in the late 19th century to transport sal (Shorea robusta) trees to stockyards and saw mills, the railway line today services rural populations. PFD is also striated by an extensive grid of unpaved roads, designed to allow foresters easy access to timber lots. This grid, not unlike that of a planned city, was frequented by tractors and teams of labourers involved in logging operations.

Residents of forest-edge villages harvest Phalsa (Grewia asiatica) berries in Pilibhit Forest Division. (WWF-India)

Additionally, since the late 19th century, Pilibhit and its neighboring districts have been transformed by policies aimed at converting segments of the Terai’s swampy wilderness into fertile agricultural land. Through the colonial period, and in decades that followed, administrators encouraged farmers to settle in the region and occasionally encouraged the removal of dangerous wild animals. Furthermore, sustained efforts to eradicate malaria that were undertaken for several decades after 1947 have been very effective in containing the disease.

Assisted natural regeneration (ANR) and other practices have drastically altered PFD’s forest structure and composition. ANR involves clearing the forest understory of trees, vines and shrubs that compete for space with the commercially valuable sal. To reduce the likelihood of destructive summer forest fires, large portions of the understory are also burned each March. Sal dominated patches today resemble well manicured plantations. As in many other reserve forests in India, the forest department staff posted at PFD were primarily invested in managing these operations. In contrast, wildlife protection was a more peripheral management responsibility in PFD.

The footprint of fuel wood supply from Pilibhit forests extends primarily to 350 villages located within three km of its perimeter. Today, these villages are populated by approximately 3,34,000 people. Fuel wood from Pilibhit forests was also transported to the district towns of Pilibhit and Puranpur and to the agricultural hinterland on heavily loaded bicycles. Grass harvesters, mushroom pickers, pilgrims and pastoralists are daily visitors to the forest, and cattle are grazed in large numbers in grasslands along the Khannot, Mala and Sharda Rivers.

The peculiar geography of Pilibhit's narrow, linear forests, which are surrounded by densely populated villages, also contributes to heightened disturbance. Owning to its narrowness, only 28% of its total area was located at distances greater than 2 km from the forest edge. By contrast, the adjacent Corbett National Park and Bardia National Park (Nepal) have notably larger “core zones”, removed from disturbed forest edges. About 40 km of paved roads and 650 km of unpaved forest roads dissect PFD. This excludes the network of well used bicycle and animal trails that criss-cross the forests. Furthermore, the Lalpur-Deoria forest patch (ca. 200 km2) is disconnected from other tiger habitats in Pilibhit by a 1.5 km wide breach. This breach is crowded with farmlands, homesteads, fences, a highway, a canal, and a timber depot. Finally, like other forests along the India-Nepal border, Pilibhit’s wildlife may be highly susceptible to the risk of poaching and illegal wildlife trade.

Tigers, Surviving Against all Odds

Despite high levels of human use, intensive forest management, and other forms of anthropogenic pressure, PFD supported a notably large tiger population. This may be attributed to the region’s unique habitat and geography, to the concentration of human activity in the forest only during daytime hours, and to specific habitat features that have sheltered tigers from some forms of human disturbance.

A male tiger furtively strides along one of Pilibhit Forest Division's many unpaved roads. (WWF-India)

Geographically, unlike Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, Pilibhit did not exist as an isolated forest “island”. Instead, it is imbedded in a larger 1,200 km forest complex, which includes, in addition to PFD, a large portion of the Terai East Reserve Forest in Uttarakhand, Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary and South Kheri Reserve Forest in UP. Pilibhit’s tigers are therefore members of a larger population that occupy this large forest complex. Data from camera traps has revealed that tigers both disperse out from and emigrate into Pilibhit forests from these surrounding habitats and also from Shuklaphanta Wildlife Sanctuary in Nepal. In all, this forest complex supports a population of about 50 adult tigers. Possibly only nine Indian tiger reserves have populations that are as large, or larger.

Unlike many tiger-occupied areas in India and Nepal, Pilibhit has only one small forest-interior village. Therefore, most people who enter this forest on a regular basis are residents of villages beyond the forests’ boundaries. These visitors spend the daylight hours in the forest, collecting fuel wood and other resources, and return to their homes at dusk, when tigers emerge from their daytime hideouts. In PFD, tigers appear to be resilient to daytime disturbance, at least to a degree, and may have benefitted from the near absence of humans within their habitat at night. This scenario is in sharp contrast to many tiger habitats in India within whose perimeters are populous villages. Such settlements may restrict wildlife access to grasslands and river edges. Additionally, they generate noise and light, and harbour livestock that often compete with wild herbivores.

Recent studies have identified that tracts of tall grasslands and swamplands that are located primarily along the Khannot, Mala and Sharda Rivers, and Kheri canal may act as refugia (defined as “geographical locations where natural environmental conditions have remained relatively constant or stable during times of great environmental change”) that have sheltered tigers and enabled their persistence in Pilibhit’s highly managed and human-dominated forests. In addition to providing essential habitat for prey species, such as swamp deer (Cervus duvacelii) and hog deer (Hyelaphus porcinus), these grasslands also provide cover for tigers. During the day, tigers often rest or feed on their kills in these grasslands, maintaining distance from humans.

Hog deer search for forage in the sal forest understory. (WWF-India)

PFD’s tigers might also have benefited from selective timber felling. This practice creates canopy openings, which promote grass growth providing forage for chital and other wild ungulates. Also, in the course of their forestry operations, department staff frequently toured remote areas on foot. This provides a de-facto mode of off-trail patrolling that is absent in many protected areas.

Opportunities and Challenges for Conservation

Even as some tiger reserves that experienced extinction events are being repopulated with tigers (for example, Panna in Madhya Pradesh), the species has persisted in PTR, where historically the emphasis on wildlife conservation has been minimal. However, Pilibhit’s tiger population faces many threats and addressing these requires unstinting political support. There has been a steady attrition of the tiger population in recent years, with carcasses and body parts of poisoned and poached tigers being recovered from Pilibhit and beyond, despite spirited protection efforts by forest department personnel. This information needs to be heeded and acted upon. Carnivore populations that comprise a few dozen animals are small and vulnerable to extinction due to unsustainable harvest and habitat degradation.

Suhelwa Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh is a case in point. Conservationist Billy Arjan Singh reported that in the mid-twentieth century Suhelwa supported a sizable tiger population. Today, Suhelwa's tigers are on the brink of local extinction, and their habitat is highly disturbed. This alarming finding and the fact that PTR is at the crossroads of Kishanpur and Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuaries in India and Shuklaphanta Wildlife Sanctuary in Nepal underscores its strategic importance for the species long term conservation. Elevated protection in PFD also presents an opportunity to conserve swamp deer, rhinos, Bengal floricans (Houbaropsis bengalensis) and other endangered species.

This said, unless other critical measures in addition to enhanced protection are acted upon, PFD’s transformation into a tiger reserve may accrue few benefits. A three-pronged conservation strategy is proposed to safeguard the species’ future in this region.

First, three key wildlife corridors need to be restored. One of these is the Garah-Deoria corridor whose restoration will entail creating forest cover in a 200 hectare area that is currently under agriculture, and garnering community support for this initiative. This will aid the recovery of tiger and prey populations in the depleted Deoria Range. Rampant cattle grazing along the Sharda River has compromised the integrity of high-quality grassland habitats of the Pilibhit-Shuklaphanta corridor. Increased protection and a reduction in grazing pressures will provide a safe conduit for the movement of tigers, rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), and swamp deer. Finally, protecting and enhancing connectivity in the forest corridor between the Pilibhit forest complex and Nandhour Wildlife Sanctuary will facilitate dispersal between Terai and sub-Himalayan Bhabbar habitats, promoting genetic heterozygosity in tiger populations. 

Fragile corridors are also threatened by the proposal to develop a new road along India's international border, and upgrade an existing road along the border in Nepal. WWF-India and the UP State Forest Department have recently recommended to the public works department that the proposed new road in India be engineered to include flyovers or underpasses to facilitate unimpeded wildlife movement in corridor areas. Recent studies from the Terai have revealed that the loss of forest corridors can lead to drastic declines in tiger population.

Second, rigorous ecological monitoring should guide management plans in the new reserve. This is important because the creation of a protected area will likely terminate century old management practices in PFD. In nearby Dudhwa National Park, where no logging has been conducted for several decades, the understory has been extensively infiltrated by Teliocora acuminanata, a weedy climber with little forage value for grazing herbivores (prey species). Therefore, it is imperative that these forests be adaptively managed in order to maintain habitat heterogeneity and species diversity and habitat management strategies to promote grasslands and maintain canopy openings.            

Finally, in order to realise long-term conservation targets, administrators must preempt discord that is likely to arise between the forest department and human communities whose livelihoods are affected by the creation of the new reserve. Given that tiger reserves aspire to create inviolate habitats for wildlife, effective management will ultimately hinge upon administrators’ abilities to uphold restrictions on certain human activities. Such questions will therefore need to be deliberated: where will core, buffer and tourism zones be delineated in a forest that is no wider than 5 km in much of its extent? How will the rights of fuel wood gatherers, grass harvesters and mushroom collectors be described? Will tourism and management involve and economically benefit local human populations? How will managers redress the woes of farmers whose crops are depleted by wild ungulates or suffer livestock losses from straying felines? It is easy to anticipate a situation where added restrictions on entry into Pilibhit Tiger Reserve will result in escalating conflicts among and between village communities and state agencies.

As restrictions on human presence in PFD and the extraction of its resources are enhanced, so should the government’s delivery of alternative energy sources and development benefits to forest dependent human communities. This is important when one takes cognizance of the fact that the persistence of tigers in this landscape may also be credited to the tolerant attitudes of its human communities towards fierce animals. Therefore, Pilibhit Tiger Reserve’s long-term success will depend not only on affording better protection to its wildlife but also on the commitment of central and state agencies to envision and provide sustainable solutions for the human denizens who co-inhabit the tigers' landscape.

Note

[i] The population estimates for Satpura and Melghat Tiger Reserves are from  “Status of tigers, co-predators and prey in India, 2010”  a report published by National Tiger Conservation Authority, http://projecttiger.nic.in/WriteReadData/PublicationFile/Tiger_Status_oct_2010.pdf

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