The annual marathon used to be a big event in Bokolia, a small town in eastern Assam’s picturesque hill district of Karbi Anglong. The participants would run from Bokolia to Manja, a neighbouring town, and return to Bokolia, covering a distance of about 80 kilometres.
For several years the undisputed champion of the annual event was Mangal Singh Terang, a brawny youngster from Sar-at Terang Gaon in Bokolia. He won the championship seven times consecutively. However, the 1991 marathon was the last one Terang participated in.
One chilly winter morning that year, equipped with the traditional Karbi bow and arrow, Terang, along with 30 fellow villagers, participated in the community hunting in the nearby Kaki Reserve Forest, looking to bring home wild boars and deer.
But that was not to be. Something unexpected was waiting for him.
“We were looking for game inside the forest when a tiger, as if out of nowhere, sprang onto me from behind. It dragged me with its claws and was trying to bite me,” said Terang, vividly recounting his horrifying experience even though it had been three decades since it took place.
Desperate to evade the feline’s jaws, Terang punched its face. And that worked!
“Those days, I was very athletic and sturdy, and the punch worked. On top of that, my friends were shouting. Alarmed, the beast let go of my leg and disappeared into the bush,” Terang said. “It is said that if a tiger somehow misses its prey, it doesn’t come back again. So, I was lucky that day, I guess.”
The sharp claws of the tiger had, however, ripped his right leg apart, rendering him incapable of participating in any athletic event for the rest of his life.
Sixty-three-year-old Terang, whose right leg now bears the deep scars of that tiger attack, recounted his story sitting in the courtyard of his thatched house at the edge of the Kaki Reserve Forest.
On being asked whether there were tigers in the nearby forests now, he gestured with his hands, “No.”
“In the last decade, we haven’t ever felt the presence of a tiger, let alone see one,” he said.
No more a sprawling tiger abode
Just like the Kaki Reserve Forest, many of the non-protected forests across northeast India have lost their tiger populations over a century.
Although the recent tiger census report states that the number of tigers in the northeast hills and the Brahmaputra plains has increased from 201 in 2014 to 219 in 2018, the region is no longer the sprawling abode of tigers it used to be about half a century ago.
Tigers in the region now primarily stay within the protected areas in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and the recent census has identified the tiger population as “critically vulnerable” and has called for “immediate conservation attention.”
“Tigers once roamed many areas across Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, but acute anthropogenic pressure over time has led to their decline or disappearance,” said Jimmy Borah, a wildlife biologist with conservation organisation Panthera.
Colonial hunting narratives speak of the presence of tigers in places from where the animal has long since vanished. Patrick Hanley, a colonial hunter and tea planter, in his book Tiger Trails in Assam claims to have seen “tigers killing their prey on at least 120 separate occasions” along the Naga foothills—an area now not known to have tigers.
The hunting accounts penned by renowned Assamese like Tarun Ram Phukan and Prasannalal Choudhury mention tiger presence all across lower Assam districts of Barpeta, Goalpara, Darrang, Udalguri, and Kamrup, extending up to Guwahati.
The late 19th and early 20th-century European hunters along with native noblemen and zamindars played a significant role in finishing off a substantial chunk of the tiger population in the region through Big Game shooting. Maharaj Nripendra Narayan of Coochbehar, who used to visit Assam on hunting sojourns, killed no less than 370 tigers in the lower Brahmaputra region in the 1871-1907 period.
That Assam housed a significant tiger population well into the dawn of the Independence years despite a century of relentless big game hunting, can be gauged from a statement on Wild Animals Shot in Assam during 1945-9, prepared by gleaning Annual Reports figures: 208 tigers were shot dead by game hunters in a mere four-year span.
Regardless of the multiple threats to the tiger, of which hunting — and later commercial poaching — were the foremost, certain areas in Assam had sizeable populations of the species. The district where Mangal Singh Terang resides was one such region. According to Anwaruddin Choudhury, a naturalist and bureaucrat posted in Karbi Anglong in the early 1990s, who has documented the fauna of Karbi Anglong in his book A Naturalist in Karbi Anglong, the district had more than 150 tigers in the early 1990s.
In fact, 8-10 tigers could be found near the Kaki Reserve Forest where the attack on Terang took place. “In almost every nullah-bed, pug marks of tigers could be seen those days,” Choudhury said.
The incident involving Terang was not the sole instance of tiger attack in Bokolia in the 90s. Pabitra Rabha, a schoolteacher from Raja Pathar Tiniali Gaon, the village next to Mangal Singh’s Sar-et Terang, remembered a few more such incidents.
“Around 11-12 people were killed by a tiger during that period. Some victims were woodcutters, while others were drunkards returning home late at night. Attacks took place even during the day. People were terrified. Renowned hunter Ziaur Rahman was called to trap the tiger, but he didn’t succeed. The attacks gradually abated on their own,” recalled Rabha.
However, Choudhury said, the number of tigers in Karbi Anglong has seriously dwindled. “Every year during floods, a few tigers looking to save themselves enter Karbi Anglong highlands from Kaziranga. But even if we count them, the number of resident tigers in Karbi Anglong wouldn’t be more than 20-25,” he added.
Similarly, the community forests in the Himalayan foothills close to Pakke-Nameri Tiger Complex was known to shelter tigers until a few decades ago. Rinchin Dorjee Thungon, a septuagenarian in Shergaon, a village on the fringes of Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, said the forests surrounding the village were once home to tigers.
“A tiger was last sighted here about 25 years ago. When we were young, it wasn’t uncommon for tigers to lift cattle grazing near the forest,” he said.
Another important tiger habitat from where the species has been completely wiped out is the Baghbar hills, a cluster of picturesque hills not far from Manas Tiger Reserve. In a 1981 article published in Asom Bani, a popular Assamese weekly, Assamese author Ganesh Das, analysed written and oral hunting narratives and estimated that in the last century, at least a 100 tigers had been killed by native and European hunters in Baghbar.
Akshay Kumar Mishra, a local academician, said “Baghbar hills were historically known to be a tiger habitat, and it also has an ancient temple dedicated to a tiger goddess—Bagheshwari. In fact, one of my uncles used to be a hunter in the early 20th century. But there is no tiger left now.”
A 2015 study titled Wildlife of the Brahmaputra, an anthology of vignettes about the fauna around the great river, co-authored by Panthera’s Borah states that the dispersal and survival of tigers in the Assam plains are governed by the dynamics of the Brahmaputra and the river islands, locally known as char-chapori, which play a critical role as tiger corridors.
“Kaziranga’s tigers use [these] river islands as ‘stepping stone’ corridors to move to the north and the west. These islands are crucial in maintaining the genetic linkages between sites that are otherwise isolated from one another,” the study notes.
Tigers which use these islands depend on preys such as hog deer and sambar; however, the livestock in the khutis, the cattle-grazier settlements, comprise their main prey, Borah said. “If there’s proper protection, tigers can use these islands for breeding,” he added.
Colonial-era accounts do suggest that these islands probably used to host resident tigers before anthropogenic pressure ate into these tranquil tiger abodes.
Firoz Ahmed, a wildlife biologist working for Aaranyak said, “As per the latest survey, while the tiger numbers have increased in Assam, the situation overall in the northeast is not good. In Arunachal Pradesh, we had just one addition, which is a worrying factor. In Assam also, there are not many tigers outside the protected forests like Kaziranga, Manas and Orang. In Nameri, which was a tiger reserve, the numbers have declined. Upper Assam forests like Dibru Saikhowa and Dehing Patkai have virtually no tiger population. Dampa in Mizoram, which is a tiger reserve, has failed to record any tiger in this census.”
However, Kamal Azad, a tiger expert and former member of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), thinks that a proper survey would reveal that in the northeast tigers are there outside protected forests. “Recently, camera trapping detected the presence of tigers in Sikkim. I believe that small tiger populations would be found in certain forests of Nagaland and the forests of Tamenglong district in Manipur.”
Why is the tiger population depleting?
Unlike in the northeast, some areas in the country have seen a boost in tiger populations outside protected areas. For instance, the non-protected forests in the Brahmapuri division of Chandrapur district in Maharashtra have seen a rise in tiger population, having registered more than 40 tigers in the recently released survey.
But what is plaguing the big cat outside protected areas in the northeast hills and Brahmaputra plains?
The single most issue is the prey, which is not as abundant outside compared to the protected areas, said Borah.
Karbi Anglong, for example, has sufficient forest cover, but lacks prey base, contributing to the big cat’s decline in the district.
Abhijit Rabha, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF), Karbi Anglong said, “Karbi Anglong is actually the source area for tigers in this region while Kaziranga is the sink area. In Karbi Anglong, there are herbivores like muntjac, wild buffalo and sambars, but their numbers are not very high. So, tigers migrate from Karbi Hills to the grasslands of Kaziranga looking for food. The main reason behind the depletion of prey base in the forests of Karbi Anglong is community hunting, which is still pretty much prevalent.”
Anthropogenic disturbances such as mining, quarrying and stone crushing in the Karbi Hills have also been cited as major reasons for the decline of the fauna in the district. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in a letter last year, had asked Assam government to immediately stop mining in the area as such activities were “seriously hampering [the] survival and conservation of the tiger, its habitats, co-predators, preys including mega herbivores, and their transit routes during the annual flood season.”
Poaching remains a major cause of decline in tiger numbers in Assam, especially outside protected areas, though it doesn’t grab as much attention as rhino poaching, said Borah. As per a RTI response from Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) filed earlier this year, 42 tigers have been poached in Assam in the last ten years.
“Opportunistic poaching of big cats is a serious issue. But tiger poaching often evades attention because the perpetrators leave hardly any evidence. Nothing is left of the carcass as the entire body of the tiger is in demand,” Borah added.
Then there’s the issue of loss of habitat. As per the recent census report, forests occupied by tigers have decreased from 9,901 square km in 2014 to 3,312 square km in 2018. Owing to shrinking space, these predators sometimes enter human habitation, increasing the chances of conflict. A case in point is an adult Royal Bengal tigress which lived in the private groves in the vicinity of Borobazar village in the northern Assam district of Udalguri for almost a year and a half. The villagers showed commendable restraint in this particular case by not harming or provoking the big cat.
But not all felines are that lucky: in 2016, a tigress was shot dead at Medziphema village in Dimapur district of Nagaland when the animal ventured into human settlements.
Furthermore, the erosion of the Brahmaputra is a serious threat to tiger corridors along the river, according to Borah. Since the 1950s, the state has lost 4.27 lakh hectares of land, which is more than 7% of the state’s total land area and almost three times the size of Delhi, to erosion. The areas lost to erosion also include tiger-dwelling forest patches in Kaziranga and island tiger corridors in the Brahmaputra.
The way ahead
What makes it critical to conserve tiger-dwelling forests outside protected areas is that many of these forests work as corridors for these big cats to disperse and move, thus playing a crucial role in maintaining genetic linkages between different major tiger habitats, Borah said.
Karbi Anglong with its 77% forest cover, is perhaps the best bet for the prized fauna of Assam outside the protected forests. Lying adjacent to the famed Kaziranga National Park, the district is home to five wildlife sanctuaries, two elephant reserves and 17 District Council Reserve Forests (DCRF), where the big cats can thrive once again if better protection and management is ensured.
“In the present situation, the most important factor in tiger conservation is to connect their habitats. Lack of connectivity between different tiger habitats is a hindrance for their dispersal, and survival in the long term. Tigers are territorial animals that need large areas to move around. Currently, they do not have that,” said Azad.
Panthera’s Borah said: “With better and focused protection, both tigers and their prey can quickly bounce back. More boots on the ground, better infrastructure, incentives for frontline staff, community-based enforcement models, and information sharing can help not only boost tiger populations, but also save habitats that house other species.”