India– The big cats are territorial by nature. Forest officials fear that the destruction at Nagarhole and Bandipur reserves, coupled with the migration of herbivore prey to other areas, could lead to fatal conflicts, with the affected animals encroaching on the territories of others.
The fires which ravaged large swathes of forest in the Nagar-hole and Bandipur tiger reser-ves could have a disastrous domino effect on Project Tiger in the-se areas of Karnataka and its neighbouring states, forest officials fear. Tigers are ferociously territorial by nature and as the fire has destroyed more than 3,000 acres of prime tiger habitat, some of the big cats would be forced to, quite literally, move home. Forest officials fear tigers deprived of their habitat will encroach on the territory of other tigers, resulting in fights that could well lead to fatalities.
The fires raged for four days before they were brought under control. Fire has destroyed forests in core areas like Marappana Katte, Gundre, Kalkere, Anechowkur, Gopalaswamy Betta, Moolehole, Omkara and other ranges in Bandipur and Nagarahole, an official said. These ranges were densely populated with big cats and other mammals, he added.
Tigers are largely dependent on herbivores in their territory for sustenance. But due to the fires, herbivores would have instinctively migrated to safer areas. Tigers, however, rarely migrate due to their territorial nature, a senior forest official said. But those affected by the fires would be forced to move in search of food. We believe that at least 10 tigers have been affected and this is bound to cause conflict and fights, he said.
According to wildlife experts and conservationists, tigers chalk out their territory based on the density of herbivores. The larger the number of herbivores, the smaller the area of the big cats territory. Generally, female tigers hold sway over an area of 15 to 20 sq km, while male tigers need 40 to 50 sq km. The territory of a male tiger usually overlaps the areas of two or three tigresses. Females rarely fight over territory, but thats not the case with males.
Barring rare circumstances, tigers lead a lonely life, a wildlife biologist said. They hunt individually for prey and establish and maintain home ranges. They tend to confine their movements to a definite area within which they satisfy their needs. Even though adult male tigers tend to be mutually exclusive, they tolerate another male for a short period, but not always. But here, with at least five years required to compensate the loss due to the fires, the fight for territory would become a common issue. Though they use several methods to mark their territory, the most common one is spraying urine and smearing a fluid secreted from their anal glands on trees, bushes and rocks in the territory, he said.
Although no tiger deaths have been reported so far, officials are not taking any chances. Our personnel are out in the field scouting for animal casualties, especially big cats and their cubs, the forest official said. We will know only after we get details of the extent of the destruction.
Previously there have been instances where aged tigers have died or succumbed to injuries following fires.
Forest minister C P Yogeshwar claims that the forest department is prepared for any eventuality. We have deployed groups of tiger commandos from the State Tiger Task Force (STTF) at every major intersection and at other important locations, he said. They have been instructed to watch out for tiger fights. Though we cannot stop the fights, we can at least treat injured animals quickly, he said.
Last year, a captured tiger was released into the Bhadra Tiger Reserve by the then union minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh.
The tiger had travelled close to 280 km from Bandipur to Shimoga in search of its own territory. But in less than three months after it was released, the tiger was killed following a fight over territory.
In another case, a 10-year-old tiger succumbed to injuries to its leg and skull sustained while fighting another tiger. In February this year, a tiger cub was found severely injured in the leg, which officials believe was caused by a fight with another tiger.