Conserve sambar, conserve tigers

Sambar Stag at Periyar Tiger Reserve

Conserve sambar, conserve tigers

“Tiger conservation or conservation of nature is not a drag on the environment. Both can happen in a mutually complimentary way”: these were the reassuring words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he gave an inspiring talk on April 12 during the 3rd Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in New Delhi. I found it useful to attend the three-day meeting as it gave me an opportunity to understand the tiger conservation scenario in Asia.
The tiger population estimation that is being carried out in the snow-bound tiger habitats in Russia is impressive. The area covered was 180,000 sq. km. It appears that the tough and dedicated Russian tiger biologists follow the same method decade after decade and put in the same effort every time and their estimated number is a little above 500. Earlier estimates in Bhutan, based on the pug marks, were around 80, and now with camera traps, they have recorded more than 100 tigers. I am sure that they will apply the same methodology every time in the future as it will provide them with a much greater understanding of the population. The reported population in Nepal has increased to close to 200 tigers.
Efforts in India are exceedingly appreciable as the area covered was 4,73,580; tigers were recorded to occupy an area of 89,164 and the recent estimate possibly gives the correct picture on the number of tigers in the country – 2,226 tigers. Using the present estimate as the baseline and following the same methods – related to the number of camera traps, human resource used and area covered – we should be able to effectively monitor the population in the forthcoming decades.
The situation in Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia (Sumatra) is not encouraging, although genuine efforts to recover the tiger population are underway. It is clear that the condition in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia is extremely grim, and tigers here have followed the footsteps of the South China tiger. The obvious reasons for this are the state-sponsored killing of tigers in the past in China and the poaching of prey and the tiger itself.
One important prey species that has become exceedingly rare in these countries is the sambar (Rusa unicolor). I remember spending five days in the heart of Vu Quang Nature Reserve in Vietnam in April 1994 and the only alarm call of an ungulate I heard was that of the barking deer (Muntiacus rooseveltorum). Even the tracks of sambar were not seen. In such countries bringing back the tiger cannot be a reality without restoring the population of sambar.
Where they will bring the sambar from? Australia may have 350,000 sambar and 35,000 sambar are hunted every year (the hunted sambar can support 1000 tigers). Is it possible to bring a large number of sambar from Australia and release them in the habitat in Cambodia where the Cambodian Government is keen to reintroduce the tiger or, with good protection and habitat management, increase the existing sambar population in Cambodia? This is worth pondering over. Cambodia needs the support of the conservation community, but with widespread snaring, if the protection measures are not strong and long-lasting, it will be futile to introduce either the sambar or tiger in Cambodia.
In most tiger habitats in Asia (Russia excluded, as they have Manchurian red deer or wapiti Cervus elaphus xanthopygos in the place of sambar), the sambar is the most suitable prey for the tiger. Sambar and tiger are made for each other. In India, except in the Sundarbans, Kaziranga (sambar population here is very small) and in Uttar Pradesh (the entire state may have less than 100 sambar as there are no hills – hills and sambar go very well together, as in the Chilla Range of Rajaji Tiger Reserve), in all other places, one can say that ”sambar conservation is tiger conservation”. If tigers occur above 13,000 feet in Bhutan, one reason could be the presence of sambar in the higher altitudes. If tigers are found at above 9000 feet in Kanar Valley in the western part of Askot Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttarakhand, then the obvious reason is the occurrence of sambar there.
Large body size, crepuscular and nocturnal behaviour, preference for dense cover, rarity of yarding in the open areas as chital and swamp deer do as an anti-predator strategy, occurrence often in small groups and non-aggressiveness of even stags sporting hard antlers make the sambar exceedingly vulnerable to tiger predation. It is praiseworthy that Malaysia has banned sambar hunting and I would say that they should ban it forever and focus on increasing the sambar population. Existing information indicates that tapir are avoided by the tiger while adult wild boars are hunted only with some risk by tigers. Gaur, besides showing the behavior of yarding in open areas, are aggressive and are capable of injuring and even killing the tiger.
Sambar conservation is, however, extremely challenging. They need quality forage, copious amounts of water and protection from poaching, both from guns and from dogs trained to hunt. In eastern Uttarakhand, Nandhour Valley, which has the potential to become the third tiger reserve of Uttarakhand, where sambar can occur in high density, hunting of sambar with dogs is a perennial problem.
It appears that drought and associated decline in the quality of habitat can seriously affect species like the sambar and barking deer. In the Mudumalai-Bandipur area in South India, I am not seeing the abundance of sambar which I had seen in the early 1970s, when I began my study on the dhole. In those days, due to plentiful rain, all the water bodies in the forests were full, but now, this area received only a negligible amount of water during the rains. In the last 10 years, I have seen the tank near Bandipur, where elephant herds used to come and swim, get only a frugal amount of water during the rains. There is an abundance of Lantana camara and other unpalatable species everywhere. While it is true that all wild ungulates eat them, in the absence of the availability of alternate quality forage, I am not sure about the long-term impact of these noxious plants on the ungulates.
It is my fervent plea that tiger conservationists should remember this and give the utmost importance to sambar conservation in tiger landscapes.
I would like to conclude this with a pose. With the present level of biotic disturbances (including poaching), human population growth, which will continue to put enormous pressures on the tiger habitats, and the growing habitat degradation, how many tigers can the Indian subcontinent (India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan) support?
Some years ago, with input from two of my brilliant colleagues (Drs. Bivash Pandav and MD. Madhusudan), who have ample common sense, I (so far I have walked in 40 tiger reserves) considered this question and came to the conclusion that the Indian subcontinent with its present level of habitat status can support at the most a maximum of about 3400 tigers (see Johnsingh et al 2010, attached herewith). Human-tiger conflict, even with the existing tiger numbers which are less than 3000 in the Indian subcontinent, are enormous. During the last three years seven man-eaters, all males, have appeared and got eliminated in South India. When there is conflict say, man-killing, the Forest Department is at the receiving end – staff are assaulted by the affected villagers and Forest Department vehicles and buildings are burnt. Therefore, I find it difficult to believe when some of my brilliant colleagues say that India can support 10,000 tigers!
PS: Thanks are recorded to Madhavi Sethupathi and Nandini Murali for reading through the text.


A. J.T. Johnsingh, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore and WWF-India.

Scientific Advisor to The Corbett Foundation

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