Wildlife & Biodiversity

To track a tigress: How officials in Chhattisgarh’s Achanakmar are trying to recover big cat numbers

Recent NTCA report found Chhattisgarh had only 17 tigers compared to 46 in 2014  

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Published: Monday 11 September 2023
The tigress fitted with the radio collar. Photo: Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

Tracking teams inside Achanakmar Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh are undertaking a gruelling task — keeping tabs on a tigress released in April 2023 to augment the reserve’s falling population of the big cat. 

The latest Status of Tigers, Co-Predators and Prey in India census report, 2022 by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) showed that Chhattisgarh, which shares a border with Madhya Pradesh, has just 17 tigers. Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh — from which Chhattisgarh was carved out in 2000 — has 785 big cats. 

However, in 2014, Chhattisgarh had 46 tigers.  

The five-and-a-half-years-old animal, which hasn’t been named yet, was released in one of the ranges of Achanakmar on April 28, 2023. Tracking started from the next day. 

The animal has been fitted with a very high frequency radio collar. Four tiger tracking teams have also been formed for foot patrol, with four members in each team. The teams take 12 hour shifts.

A tracking team inside the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve with the receiving antenna that helps track the location of tigress. Photo: Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

Tiger recovery plan

Achanakmar boasts good quality forests and shares a border with the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh. It has plans to bring two more females and one male tiger by the year’s end after the relocation of three villages to recover the tiger population. 

But just a few months before its release, the tigress had killed two people during a chance encounter elsewhere. In the process, it was also gravely injured. The animal was released after treatment. 

“We are doing our best to ascertain the safety of the people as well as that of the animal. The teams urge the local residents not to venture deep inside the jungles, for there are several villages inside Achanakmar spread over the Mungeli district of Chhattisgarh. Even if villagers enter the forest, they are advised to go in groups and not alone,” said forest beat guard Brijbhushan Manikpuri, who is in team A.

Establishing links with the big cat is a problem when it rains, said Santram Markam from Bindawal village in Achanakmar, who works with the forest department. 

“When the tigress moves, we can establish links with it using the directional antennae with the receiver set. But in the rain, many areas inside Achanakmar are cut off. Still, we receive signals every six to eight hours. The three teams are always active and the fourth one is on standby,” Manikpuri added.  

If the animal moves near a village, villagers are duly cautioned. There are 19 villages inside Achanakmar. The trackers also keep tabs for poachers.

Use of technology

A clear path with no obstructions is needed for the smooth functioning of the directional antenna receiver, the trackers said. Light beeps indicate the animal is within 1.5 km to 2 km range, while constant buzzing means it is out of range.

The equipment also has to be protected from rain and shouldn’t fall to the ground. 

Forest guard Puja Dewangan, who joined the department in 2017, is also on team A. Before this, she was in the Udanti Sitanadi Tiger Reserve of Chhattisgarh. “I ensure that no one tries to harm the tigress and she also doesn’t attack people.” So far, Dewangan has glimpsed the tigress once. 

A Geographic Information System (GIS) cell has also been established in Kota — about 40 kilometres away from Achanakmar — for tiger monitoring based on guidelines provided by the NTCA. 

At the Kota division office, operator Bhupendra Kaushik tracks the tigress on his computer using a mobile application. The cell gets location specifics like the latitude and the longitude as well as the time when the animal was last at a particular spot but not its images, he said.  

“Every month we collect data and send a report to the NTCA,” said Kaushik.

He uses the GPS Plus X app, designed to communicate with collars and other related devices. To keep information confidential, the app is not available to everyone. Earlier, the GIS cell received location updates every 30 minutes, but now the gap has increased to every two hours. 

A record of her movement, right from when she was released till now, has been maintained, said Kaushik. “She is maintaining a definite territory where there is a good quality forest. Sometimes, she goes in the direction of villages but does not venture too close. We send alerts if she ventures too close to human settlements,” he added. 

The radio collar can be remotely ejected from the neck of the animals. However, it is possible until the battery lasts. After that the tigress must be tranquilised for removal, said Achanakmar deputy director Vishnu Nair.

The antenna can capture signals only up to 1.5 kilometres, said Nair. “In case of heavy rains, tigers usually go inside the forest and hide in caves. Still, the teams work on a rotational basis and try their very best.”

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