A few days ago, I saw a movie : “Kaal” whose promos talk incessantly about how one of the lead is a “National Geographic Researcher/Conservationist” and the tigers that have played a part in the movie . Of course, this is all publicity and tigers have little to do with the movie. There are many more scenes with two pretty women running in the jungle looking like they just walked out of a nightclub and a few actors who try to make the movie interesting with over-characterization. Anyhow, the movie did make me update myself on the status of Project Tiger and think about this creature.
Firstly, and the most obvious thing one realizes , is like most Indian government websites, the Project Tiger website is broken. Nevertheless, more surfing about the web, and calling up the local forest official from Sanjay Gandhi National Park gave me the following facts…
Project Tiger was formed in 1972 and launched on the 1st April 1973 at Jim Corbett National Park (Dhikala forest). It’s aims were:
* To ensure maintenance of a viable population of tigers in India for scientific, economic, aesthetic, cultural and ecological values.
* To preserve, for all times, areas of such biological importance as a national heritage for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people.
One can obtain a map of Project Tiger Reserves in India here. Several reserves have had some initial success. Rathambore, Bandhavgarh, Kanha and the Sunderbans became famous as tiger country….
Unfortunately, Project Tiger failed in both objectives in all reserves. The reasons were the usual: encroachment, lack of prey and politics. Haven’t we heard that story before…
The tiger, however, is a majestic animal and full of surprises…
There are several species of tiger, the Amur(Siberian) and the Royal Bengal(Indian) tiger being the most well known. There are others too…some of them already extinct.
The South Chinese tiger Panthera tigris amoyensis is also known as the Amoy tiger. The Amoy tiger is found in central and eastern China and is considered to be the evolutionary ancestor of all the other tiger sub-species.
The Sumatran tiger Panthera tigris sumatrae is only found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, from where it gets its name. There are only 400-500 of these tigers in the wild, making the Sumatran tiger the second most endangered species of tiger in the world.
The Amur tiger Panthera tigris altaica is found in the coniferous, scrub, oak and birch woodlands of Russia. The Siberian tiger is the largest of all tiger species. Males can grow upto 3.5 m. and weigh around 100 to 150 kg. Females measure about 2.5 m. and weigh about 100-150 kg. Only about 400 of them left in the wild. Some tigers of this species are also found in southeast China.
# The Caspian tiger Panthera tigris virgata once roamed Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Mongolia, and the Central Asiatic area of Russia. It probably became extinct in the 1950s.
# The Balinese tiger Panthera tigris balica lived in Bali, where the last tiger was believed to have been killed in 1937.
# The Javan tiger Panthera tigris sondaica lived on the Indonesian island of Java and has not been seen since 1972.
And of course, there is the Royal Bengal Tiger..Panthera tigris tigris found (besides India)in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and even parts of Myanmar. It is estimated that only about 3000 of these are alive today, though I suspect that this is a very very optimistic estimate.
They live in the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans in West Bengal, grasslands, dense forests and even in the cold coniferous forests of the Himalayas.
And the Royal Bengal is the only known species to have variants :
White tigers are not a separate sub-species. White tigers lack the orange-red pigmentation so characteristic of the animal. This is a recessive trait. White tigers may have brown or black stripes though some have been seen without any stripes at all. Almost all white tigers are descendants of a white tiger who was captured in a forest by the Maharaja of Rewa in 1951.
Black Tiger ?
Black tigers with brown, yellow or white stripes on black skin may also exist.
Black tigers have been reported occasionally (Burton 1933, Perry 1964, Guggisberg 1975, Mazák 1981), but the only physical evidence rests with a skin recovered from illegal traders in Delhi in October 1992, which has deep black on the top of the head and back extending down the flanks to end in stripes (P. Jackson pers.comm.). The skin was displayed at the National Museum of Natural History, New Delhi in February, 1993.
For the genetics buffs, it is not true melanism, which is found in leopards, jaguars, and many other cat species, where the entire pelage is black, but may be an expression of the agouti gene which causes merging of stripes (L. Lyons in litt. 1993).
Specimens with just a few, very broad stripes have been photographed in Kanha NP, India (R. Bedi in litt.).
A tiger has a quality to attract attention from the uninformed human mind and inspire awe in those that learn about it. Ironic, considering the tiger’s entire strategy of catching prey is based on stealth. The tiger, by nature, is a secretive animal, preferring solitude and going about is business on its own.
Contrary to popular belief, Tigers are reluctant but expert climbers.
And tigers love swimming, enjoying a cool dip once in a while. They are the only cat species known to like getting into water. This may be an adaptation for their often scorching habitats. Tigers in the Sunderbans, spend so much time in the water, they can be considered almost semi-aquatic, owing to the nature of the terrain (mangrove swamps) in the Sunderbans delta.
Through a telephoto lens :
From a motion-triggered pre-installed camera:
Tigers of course, as one knows, are hunted for several of their body parts in South Asia and China, due to a belief in their properties as an aphrodisiac. However, in the Sunderbans, tigers are thriving and it is the only location, where man is part of the regular diet of tigers. All tigers in the Sunderbans are man-eaters, and have been for centuries. Fishermen here actually worship the tiger god for his blessings. They believe that if they do not receive the blessing, a tiger attack in imminent the next time they venture out to cast their nets.
Tiger Prey in the Sunderbans :
In the above picture, people are wearing face masks on the back of their heads. This because it is local knowledge that tigers depend on stealth, and rarely attack their prey upfront and facing it. They attack from behind, face masks at the back of their heads confuse tigers and give the fishermen a better chance at survival if they are stalked by a tiger. However, a recent NGC programme I saw said that tigers are catching onto this trick.
In the same program, in fact, forest officials on a tiger census were seen to wear steel suites/plates on their body, helmets and face masks while stepping on to the mud to collect the pug-mark casts. Because if the pug-marks were fresh, then the tiger was close and that meant , the census-takers were potential prey.
Thats what I liked about the Sunderbans. I like the idea that there is at least one reserve where the tiger is truly wild. Where one must be careful and respect the tiger’s domain. A place where the tiger holds his own against invading urbanization on all sides.Someday, I plan to visit the Sunderbans, to catch a glimpse of the tiger in its lair. I only hope its just as wild when I get there.
To the readers who are in Mumbai, by the way, two weeks ago, forest officials in Sanjay Gandhi National Park discovered pug-marks. Suspected earlier to be a leopard trail, it was later discovered most definitely to be the markings of a tiger on the prowl 🙂 .
The tiger lurks closer than you think…