Then a second elephant trumpets an alarm call and the slight smile on Karanth’s face vanishes. He comes closer and whispers in my ear, “We’ll be fine, but if anything happens, scatter and follow the line back to the jeep. This is the backup plan.”
We pause for a moment that seems like an eternity, then quicken our pace down the trail. We make it through the forest unscathed but see a potential tiger buffet, including six chital deer, a dozen monkeys and three gaur, the largest wild cattle on earth.
Over the next few months, Karanth, Santosh, other WCS staff and a rotating cast of 150 volunteers will hike more than 3,000 miles through the forest counting prey. Karanth estimates that prey animals currently represent 20,900 pounds of food per square mile, a smorgasbord for the park’s tigers, leopards and wild dogs.
The animal abundance hasn’t come from anti-poaching patrols alone. Strict wildlife-protection laws forbid hunting, logging and the sale of forest products. And since the 1990s, the government has offered a voluntary relocation program to tribal groups living in the park. People willing to move are given a house, a hectare of land and access to health care facilities and schools that aren’t available within the park.
“Relocations have to be voluntary, they have to be incentive-driven, and there has to be no element of force,” Karanth says. “If they are done badly, they give a bad name to conservation and no one is happy. But if they are done well, it’s a win-win situation for people and wildlife.”
In addition to his groundbreaking fieldwork, Karanth has spent countless hours fighting legal battles to protect tiger habitat from encroaching development. “To me the real issue is this landscape with roughly ten million people and a sustained economic growth rate of 10 percent; if you can protect tigers with all of that, that augurs well for the species’ future.”
Karanth’s success has attracted widespread interest. In 2006, Panthera, a conservation organization dedicated to protecting wild cats, teamed up with WCS to implement Karanth’s conservation practices at several other sites in Asia. The project, known as Tigers Forever, is modeled on the intensive monitoring and rigorous anti-poaching patrols in Nagarhole.
The goal for each site is to increase the cat’s population by 50 percent by 2016. Sites in Thailand are beginning to show promising results, and programs in Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos and Myanmar are getting underway. India is moving toward adopting Karanth’s intensive monitoring approach in tiger reserves nationwide. (This year Karanth won the Padma Shri, a prestigious award presented by the president of India.)
In the forests of southwestern India, the tiger’s future looks promising. Rounding a corner on a drive through Nagarhole, we come across two gaur bulls squaring off in the middle of the road. The animals stand with legs firmly planted, ruddy-brown mountains snorting in the late afternoon sun.
The younger of the two bulls tries to assert his dominance by showing off a large shoulder hump that towers over the older male. On rare occasion, gaur bulls will lock horns in fierce territorial battles, a scene depicted on every can of the popular energy drink Red Bull. For the moment, the hulking creatures circle and strut.