Increasing the global number of tigers Panthera tigris is a key conservation target. Recovery of tiger populations in contiguous, well-protected habitat is a critical step in achieving this goal. Across their range, tigers respond negatively to human presence, largely as a result of depletion of prey numbers, conflict with people and poaching for illegal trade. The demarcation of protected areas with strict protection measures is therefore the cornerstone of tiger conservation.
The forested landscape of south-east India, the southern Central Indian tiger landscape, has large tracts of habitat and the potential to hold viable tiger populations. Currently, however, because of persistent anthropogenic threats and weak protection, these forests are largely depauperate of large mammals. The Wildlife Conservation Society India Program (WCS India) has been working with local conservation partner Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society to further the recovery of tigers in this landscape. The two NGOs have been involved in enhancing awareness of and interest in tiger conservation; training forest department personnel in monitoring of tigers, their prey and threats; mitigating direct anthropogenic threats to tiger survival by assisting the forest department in protection; supporting families that wish to voluntarily resettle from forest interiors; and mitigating human–tiger conflict.
In 2012 the Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary and adjoining Reserved Forests in this region were declared a Tiger Reserve following a survey that highlighted the potential of the area for the species. At the time tigers had been functionally extinct in the area for at least a decade. Nonetheless there was evidence of the area's conservation potential, with the occasional signs of tiger presence, extant prey populations, and nearly 1,500 km2 of good quality habitat. With enhanced protection as a Tiger Reserve, conservationists expected anthropogenic stressors in Kawal to reduce, allowing tigers to gradually recolonize the area. To facilitate immigration into the area, the state additionally enforced protection measures in the 1,000 km2 forested corridor linking Kawal to the neighbouring Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, with stepping-stones of tiger breeding territory along the way.
WCS India and Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society have been working in close coordination with a team appointed by the Forest Department to monitor tigers in Kawal and its corridors. Following a recorded tiger dispersal into the Kawal corridor area in 2013, these organizations initiated a citizen-science programme in which c. 200 local community volunteers residing in and around the corridor were integrated into tiger monitoring and conservation.
In September 2015 a female tiger was detected by a camera trap in the core area of Kawal Tiger Reserve, and in December 2015 a male tiger was similarly photographed in the same area. In March 2016 the tigress was seen with four cubs in nearby forests. WCS India and partners have been closely monitoring these new recruits into the population, particularly as mortality rates of tiger cubs are high. As of December 2016 two of the cubs have survived and remain in the tigress's territory, and one has dispersed to a new territory and is still being monitored by WCS India and the Forest Department. The remaining cub and the mother have not been seen in this territory since November 2016.
For more than a decade reproducing tigers have not been recorded in this area, but strict protection, combined with stakeholder involvement, has resulted in immigration and reproduction within the Reserve. Close monitoring of the immigrant tigers will continue. With 900 km2 of core habitat, and a 1,100 km2 buffer zone, Kawal Tiger Reserve has potential to be an important tiger population in this landscape. With continued protection, this protected area can serve as an example of how effective threat mitigation can assist in species population recovery and, ultimately, in increasing global tiger numbers.