Protecting Manas’s Tigers During the Pandemic

By Aditya Malgaonkar
Site Analyst, India

Tiger on camera trap

The Aaranyak-Panthera Team is supporting rangers on the frontlines to protect tigers in India’s Manas Tiger Reserve. Working with surrounding communities is integral to protecting the natural resources of this area. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has made their job more difficult and led to a complex situation that could impact tiger survival.

Since 2016, the Aaranyak-Panthera Team has been providing training and technical support to Manas Tiger Reserve authorities to reduce illegal natural resource extraction. Our work in this northeastern Indian reserve primarily involves training, mentoring and supporting mobile patrol teams to execute law enforcement patrols. To be effective at what we do, we frequently interact with patrollers and park officials as well as other NGOs and community members. The team itself is diverse and consists of staff from neighboring villages and other parts of the country.

Tiger camera trap

We know that armed conflicts, pandemics and environmental crises affect the functioning of conservation programs across the world. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated counter-measures have created an additional challenge to our work. The lockdown resulted in the temporary cessation of day-to-day interactions with park staff as well as periodic meetings and training sessions. This is especially alarming considering incoming reports indicating that illegal hunters could be exploiting the situation.

The mostly agricultural communities around the reserve depend on additional income through tourism-related activities, livestock rearing, small retail businesses and migrant daily-wage labor in urban centers. The lockdown has directly impacted these sources and is expected to extend into the agricultural season in June and beyond. Much of the park staff are part of these affected households, creating possible serious ramifications for the state of wildlife conservation in the park. We depend on the support and participation of local communities in protecting threatened species and their habitats.

A large proportion of people living around the reserve engage in activities such as firewood collection, fishing, cattle grazing, herb and grass collection as well as opportunistically hunting small mammals and birds for the pot.  Although these activities are largely non-commercial and marginally complement primary livelihood means the sheer number of people engaging in such resource collection could have adverse ecological consequences;

  • Large-scale cattle grazing and firewood collection can degrade natural habitats.
  • Extensive fishing is detrimental to populations of threatened fish species but may also eventually affect downstream fishing communities.
  • Use of wire snares and leg-hold traps intended to catch species such as the red jungle fowl and Indian hare could threaten the populations of critically endangered pygmy hog and hispid hare.
  • Hunting of tiger prey such as hog deer and sambar deer remains a persistent threat and if unchecked could adversely affect the survival of tigers in Manas.
River in Manas

The pandemic-induced loss of income and opportunities could result in these activities gaining relative importance in the livelihood of communities thereby potentially increasing the scale and extent of their extraction. It is also likely that the present situation may substantially increase the perceived gains through high-level offences such as hunting of tigers, rhinos and elephants as well as commercial timber felling and land encroachment. Therefore, any shortfall in law enforcement efforts is likely to increase risks of poaching of threatened species as had happened during the armed insurgency period, which affected the region in the past. 

After initial setbacks, the team got together to review the situation and discuss ways of continuing work. Given the scale of the humanitarian crisis, we utilized our local community contacts to identify the most affected households in our immediate vicinity, as it is one of the most deprived areas in the region and helped them procure vital supplies. Additionally, we committed to bringing in other agencies to ensure continued support for these households.

Tiger camera trap 2

We discussed precautions necessary for the safety of our team, associates and the community members we interact with, and resolved to continue our work;

  • Resuming roles critical to facilitating improved vigilance through law enforcement patrols, detection of offenses, and collection, analysis and dissemination of wildlife crime-related information. 
  • Identifying high illegal activity areas based on patrol data collected over the years as well as areas where the lockdown had resulted in a deficit in patrol effort and used information gained through community contacts to delineate specific focus areas and threats. 
  • Continually updating the forest authorities with these findings and recommendations, and facilitating remedial measures such as improvement in vigilance through information-led patrolling and use of PoacherCams to facilitate electronic surveillance.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented in scale and tragic in its consequences, it has provided an opportunity to devise systems of work as well as technical solutions that could help us make our work less vulnerable to future perturbances. In an era of climate change and globalization, developing means to sustain conservation programs against large-scale disturbances such as those caused by the present pandemic are therefore going to become an important consideration for conservation organizations.

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