Over the past five months, a tiger in India has undertaken an epic journey, traveling more than 800 miles—the longest road trip ever recorded for one of the big cats.
BBC News reports that the 2-and-a-half-year-old tiger, equipped with a radio collar and known to researchers as C1, set off from the Tipeshwar wildlife sanctuary in the state of Maharashtra at the end of June. The big cat wandered through seven districts in Maharashtra before crossing into the neighboring state of Telangana, where he was most recently spotted at another wildlife reserve.
Experts are unsure why the animal decided to leave the Tipeshwar sanctuary.
“The tiger is possibly looking for territory, food and a mate,” Bilal Habib, a senior biologist at the Wildlife Institute of India, tells BBC News. “Most of the potential tiger areas [in India] are full and new tigers have to explore more.”
Since researchers fitted C1 with a tracking collar last February, they have recorded him in more than 5,000 locations. Typically, the cat hides during the day and travels at night, hunting wild pigs and cattle along the way. So far, C1 has only come into conflict with humans once, when a man entered a thicket where the tiger was resting.
Per the Press Trust of India, C1 isn’t the only tiger researchers are currently tracking. One of C1’s two siblings, a male named C3, was also collared for a study on tiger movement.
“The purpose of the study was to monitor the dispersal pattern of the sub-adults which are normally in the process of exploring new area to set up their territory,” says Ravikiran Govekar, field director of the Pench Tiger Reserve, as quoted by the Press Trust of India. “After initial movements inside Tipeshwar, C3 and C1 started exploring adjoining Pandharkawda division and bordering Telangana area.”
While C3 took a month-long tour of the surrounding area before returning home to the Tipeshwar reserve, C1 opted to continue his adventures. The duo’s third sibling, C2, also covered considerable distances but was not collared by the researchers.
As Vijay Pinjarkar reports for the Times of India, C1 reached Dnyanganga Wildlife Sanctuary on December 1. His arrival marked the sanctuary’s first confirmed tiger sighting since 1998. Officials say the reserve offers plenty of potential prey and could be a viable long-term home for C1 and other tigers.
“We were waiting to welcome the tiger since when it was 20km away,” MS Reddy, field director of the Melghat Tiger Reserve, which manages the Dnyanganga Sanctuary, tells Pinjarkar. “It was sighted by some forest laborers near a water body. …The tiger needs to stay for [a long time] to be declared a resident.”
According to BBC News, wildlife officials may intervene and relocate C1 to “avoid any untoward accidents” moving forward. Since the battery on the tiger’s collar is already 80 percent depleted, researchers aren’t sure how much longer they’ll be able to follow the feline.
The team’s findings are still preliminary, but Pinjarkar writes that the research suggests tigers may need to cover much longer distances and navigate human-dominated areas in order to find suitable territories and mates. The researchers also suggest that sanctuaries like Tipeshwar can serve as breeding grounds for tigers that will then repopulate other areas.
As Nature’s Gayathri Vaidyanathan reports, roaming tigers can refresh the gene pool by spreading their unique genetic material to populations in far-off locations. But habitat fragmentation linked with human development has left some tigers isolated in small reserves, and if current trends continue, the government may need to artificially maintain the gene flow by moving tigers between sanctuaries.
In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed the planet’s wild tiger population between 2,200 and 3,200. Today, the animals have vanished from some 93 percent of their historic range.
Two-thirds of Earth’s remaining tigers live in India. The country’s government has touted its conservation success in recent years, declaring that tiger numbers have doubled since 2006 to nearly 3,000, but Vaidyanathan reports that these figures are inconsistent and may be unreliable.
Ullas Karanth, a tiger researcher and critic of the current government claims, tells Yale Environment 360’s Richard Conniff that he thinks India has enough intact forests to support a population of 10,000 to 15,000 tigers. The major hurdle, however, is subsistence hunting, which has decimated the species’ prey base in many potential habitats.
“We have a fair amount of connectivity even now,” says Karanth. “But these are actually large blocks of connected forests in central India and northeast India. They’re devoid of prey, and devoid of tigers for that reason. Fixing that requires tough enforcement and intelligent planning of major projects to maintain connectivity.”