By K. Ullas Karanth, Director for Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society
The Malenad Tiger Landscape in southwestern India, located in Karnataka and covering adjacent areas of neighboring Kerala and Tamil Nadu, today harbors what is possibly the largest wild tiger population in the world, about 400 animals or so. Camera trap research supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has thus far photographically “captured” over 750 individual tigers in the landscape in the past two decades. The adjacent tiger reserves of Bandipur-Nagarahole, which cover only 1,500 square kilometers out of 30,000-square-kilometer tiger habitat in the landscape is its richest source of tigers. Occupying only 5 percent of the landscape, they hold 50 percent of its tigers. Tiger densities here fluctuate between 8-15 tigers per 100 square kilometers, very high levels for any big cat species. Only a few sites in the Terai and Central India are as densely packed with tigers.
In the tiger reserves of Central India, the relatively more open terrain, dense networks of roads, high tourism intensity, and possibly the practice of artificially baiting tigers, have combined to make the big cats more watchable. On the contrary, watching tigers in action and photographing them is much harder in southern India, because they are less tourist-friendly. Predation by tigers is very rarely seen or photographed in in south India.
Therefore, two recent YouTube videos (embedded above and below) of a large male tiger boldly attacking a herd of 21 domestic buffalos on the fringe of Bandipur on July 1, 2014, thoughtfully uploaded by wildlife photographers Praveen Siddannavar and Balasubramanyam Sastry, offer us a rare glimpse of tiger behavior (and buffalo behavior) in the Malenad landscape.
A quick analysis enabled us to identify this tiger as the animal BPT-222 in the WCS database. He is a 200 kilogram-plus male that we had photo-trapped since 2009 (Image 1). He was born in the central part of the reserve and dispersed eastwards at the usual age of two years, to establish his home range (Map 1).
BPT-222 has been camera-trapped a total of nine times in our annual surveys between 2009 and 2014 at various locations (Map 1).
In the tourism zone where he has settled down, BPT-222 is often seen by visitors and recognized by park guides. Having been born in the well-protected reserve and never been harried by humans, BPT-222 has become quite bold. Many of Bangalore’s acclaimed wildlife photographers have obtained brilliant portraits of him. In fact, on October 28, 2013, this tiger was videographed, by an unknown tourist, while efficiently killing an adult female gaur (subject of an earlier blog of mine). Furthermore, the tiger had surprised the gaur in dense cover, while rolling on his back to get a lethal grip on its throat. With a prey thrice his own size, the tiger had made no attempt to grasp and pull the gaur down. He kept his four feet fully anchored to the ground–simply waiting for the gaur to crumple to its knees, slowly choking to death in his relentless, vicelike grip (Image 2).
While attacking buffalos half the size of gaur, however, the same tiger boldly charged right into the herd across open ground. While the buffalos scatter in panic, he catches a laggard animal, which turns and faces him. He manages to get a throat-grip by rolling under her, exactly like he did with the gaur. However, he also easily pulls the buffalo down to ground with his mighty forepaws, despite two other buffalo’s valiantly trying to push him off his victim groaning in agony.
In the subsequent chain of events we see the tiger repeatedly fending off the aggressive herd by clawing at his attackers, almost wading into the herd once again. Only after determined counter attacks by the feisty buffalos does he reluctantly abandon his prey. Clearly, relative body sizes of the cat and the prey are critical to how the attack is launched, the prey subdued and killed. According to the park officials I talked to, the tiger subsequently returned that night to feed on the dead buffalo.
At about seven years of age, BPT-222 is now in his prime. However, the world of male tigers in the Bandipur-Nagarahole tract is a tough, competitive one. Tiger densities are among the highest in world, with many young floaters eyeing the coveted territories. A big male would be lucky to hold on to a territory for 5-6 years, giving him access to mating with resident females within it. All this is too good to last, although I hope for the sake of BPT-222, that it will.
Even as I write these lines, park officials of Bandipur have sought my assistance in identifying another tiger that has been attacking cattle on the Western forest fringes of Bandipur, 43 kilometers away, and arousing anger among local farmers. My team has identified that tiger as BPT-214, a male first camera-trapped in 2008, and four times subsequently (Image 3 and Map 1). Aged about 7-8 years now, BPT-214 appears to have lost his status as a resident breeder and has been pushed to the fringes. From now on, BPT-214 can only go downhill to a certain death. He can possibly die from a variety of causes: conflict with other tigers, hunting injuries, or starvation. In the worst case, at the hand of the deadliest of tiger’s enemies–man. Unfortunately, this is the fate of every wild tiger alive today, including BPT-222.
Lastly, I cannot but admire the incredible courage of the scrawny buffalo sorority of Bandipur. The Asiatic water buffalos are incredibly bold and tough animals, known to fearlessly charge at big cats. They were used as an advancing phalanx by erstwhile tiger-hunters when tracking their injured, dangerous quarry. While on a visit to the jaguar paradise in Pantanal, Brazil, a few years ago, I saw ranchers employ water buffalos as guardians of their zebu herds. Buffalos fearlessly chase jaguars away, saving the lives of the pricey beef cattle.