In 2012, a young male tiger, RBT38, ventured out of Ranthambore looking to establish a home of his own. A couple of years later, he returned to Ranthambore to mate. But, in the last three years, tigers from Ranthambore have dispersed and bred outside the park. These are promising signs for the recovery of this isolated tiger population across northwestern India.
RBT38 in Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan. All photos: By arrangement
The rolling, rocky hills of Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan are synonymous with tigers, and have been arguably the most sought after destination to see wild tigers in the world for many decades.
With its picturesque landscape, abandoned fort ramparts, the spectacular big cats are often bathed in what many a photographer calls ‘near perfect light’. Ranthambore is often regarded as the best place to photograph the often elusive tiger.
Tigers have large spatial requirements, with male tigers in India usually having home ranges in excess of 100 square kilometres (sq kms). These may overlap with that of two to three females, with ranges usually one-third to one-half of their male counterparts.
Like most felines, tiger society is matrilineal – daughters often inherit territories from their mothers. Young male tigers meanwhile are invariably compelled to move out of their natal home range to find a home of their own.
This natural mechanism encourages gene flow and genetic exchange between populations, and reduces the chances of inbreeding. This is precisely why extensive, connected landscapes comprising corridors connecting multiple source populations are essential for tiger conservation.
Ranthambore harbours the last extant source population of tigers in the semi-arid lands of Northwestern India, the rest extirpated by poaching and habitat destruction. This tiger population has been isolated from other source populations in India for many decades as a result.
Sustained conservation efforts over decades have paid off and Ranthambore’s tiger population has grown steadily in recent times.
With over 50 adult tigers in its roughly 400 sq kms, Ranthambore National Park has one of the highest tiger densities in the world. Any young male looking to establish some real estate of his own, may have to either challenge one of the established males, a daunting prospect, or venture out of the park in search of new territory.
With sparse cover, and extensive farmlands and human settlements, the lands around Ranthambore are challenging spaces for tigers to navigate. The rugged ravines and scrublands around the Chambal and Banas rivers offer a greater measure of cover for wildlife looking to navigate these lands; however, even these are rapidly being flattened and transformed for human-use, and wild prey are scarce.
Map: Ranthambore and Kuno forest blocks in Northwestern India.
In the year 2012, a young male tiger, RBT38, ventured out of Ranthambore looking to establish a home of his own. After successfully navigating the hostile lands outside the park, where many a tiger has gone “missing,” RBT38 was detected by motion-triggered camera traps many months later in Kuno National Park, in Madhya Pradesh.
RBT38 travelled through multi-use corridors across the Kailadevi and Sheopur forest blocks travelling over 120km away from his birthplace. A part of his dispersal route undoubtedly lay along the Chambal river.
Kuno National Park undoubtedly supported tigers in the past but when RBT38 arrived there, he was the park’s sole representative of the species, a consequence of local extinction.
As a result of concerted conservation efforts in recent years with the aim of facilitating the re-introduction of Asiatic lions into the area, ungulate prey are abundant in the area. This dispersing young tiger had landed in an almost ideal habitat.
For nearly a decade, RBT38 reigned supreme in Kuno, with no other tigers, and lions yet to be introduced, he was the de facto apex predator.
Kuno is a part of a much larger forest complex that extends over 1,000 sq km including parts of the Sheopur and Shivpuri forest divisions and Madhav National Park (Madhya Pradesh), with the potential to harbour a second source population in Northwestern India.
A landmark genetic study on tigers in this region by Dr GV Reddy, former Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan, indicated that Kuno and Madhav did harbour source populations in the recent past, with tiger gene flow between these two parks and Ranthambore.
The corridor connecting Ranthambore to Kuno is evidently only occasionally used by tigers as the landscape is increasingly transformed by mining, urbanisation and expanding linear infrastructure. Intensive surveys over the past decade suggest that no female has made it across this corridor successfully.
Even though they are famed as being solitary, even this tiger could only endure social isolation for so long. In late 2019, RBT38 tread his way back to Ranthambore, braving the same tiger-hostile lands between the two parks along the way.
Recently, forest staff and locals in the buffer zone of Ranthambore, where tiger densities are marginally lower than the packed core, reported seeing RBT38 mating with a female, at long last. That he occupied prime habitat for the better part of a decade, but sired no cubs, speaks to how fragmentation is insidiously constricting the species range.
In recent years, other examples of tiger dispersal out of Ranthambore also speak to the importance of habitat connectivity. In the last three years, tigers from Ranthambore have dispersed and bred outside the park for the first time in some three decades – in the Kailadevi and Dholpur forest blocks. One of the females who bred in the Dholpur block was herself born outside Ranthambore, in Kailadevi.
These are very promising signs for the recovery of this isolated tiger population across Northwestern India. I hope that more such intrepid tigers find new homes, breed, and hopefully recolonise lost ground across India, and Asia.
Kannan is Senior Biologist with the Western Indian Tiger Landscape of WWF India. He studies large mammal population ecology and space-use, with a focus on promoting human-wildlife coexistence in multiple-use landscapes. Views are personal.