A leopard spotted in the Satkosia Tiger Reserve. Photo: Aditya Panda
- Until 2015, the population of both carnivores and ungulates declined in the Satkosia Tiger Reserve due to bad management and uncontrolled poaching.
- In 2018, officials reintroduced two tigers to the Satkosia Tiger Reserve, but the initiative came to nothing after one had to be moved and the other was killed.
- Since then, however, the leopard population in the reserve has been bouncing back, signalling that their threats are on the decline.
- Reserve officials are encouraged and are already preparing to reintroduce tigers in the reserve.
Gouro Chandra Sahu’s daily patrol deep inside the jungle now leads him to pugmarks made by leopards. For Sahu, a forest guard in the Satkosia Tiger Reserve’s Raigoda East section, this is good news.
“Earlier, scat marks and pug marks of leopards were rarely seen. But currently even direct sighting is common,” he said.
Such conviction on Sahu’s part can mean only one thing: that the leopards have bounced back in Satkosia, a reserve spread over Odisha’s Angul, Cuttack, Boudh and Nayagarh districts. Aside from direct sighting, the big cat’s presence is visible from its scat and pug marks as well as images snapped by the 18 camera-traps in the Raigoda East section.
The Satkosia Tiger Reserve is spread over 968 sq. km and is bisected by the Mahanadi river. Despite its name, however, the reserve is devoid of tigers. It expects to host some in 2024.
Four years back, in 2018, state officials introduced a male tiger from the Kanha Tiger Reserve and a tigress from the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, both in Madhya Pradesh. The local population rose in protest after the female tiger, named Sundari, killed two people. Officials later moved her to a zoo in Bhopal. The male tiger, Mahaveer, was killed by a poacher’s snare. And so the reintroduction programme failed.
According to Sahu, when the tigers left, the quiet success story of the leopards came to the fore.
“In the absence of tigers, competition for prey and territory reduces for leopards, and they thrive,” Aditya Panda, a conservationist and the honorary wildlife warden of Angul district, told The Wire Science. “In the case of Satkosia, the tiger has been functionally extinct for several years now.”
There was a lone female tiger in the reserve from 2012 but she reportedly died due to old age last year.
Panda is happy about the leopards’ comeback. “Increasing leopard signs and sightings are an indication that things are on the right track,” he said. “I believe that the state wildlife wing has learnt many lessons from the last attempt at tiger reintroduction.” The credit lay with the reserve management and field staff. “Next time, no stone will be left unturned to ensure a successful second tiger reintroduction.”
Panda recalled that the population of carnivores and ungulates fell drastically in the reserve from 2000 to 2015. This was a result of poor protection, bad management and uncontrolled poaching. That the local leopard population is increasing is a sign that these problems no longer persist.
“These issues have been addressed over the past five years. As a result, improvement in protection, habitat quality and prey base is being seen, causing a visible revival of leopards in the reserve,” Panda said. “Unfortunately, these corrective measures were too late to save the local tiger population, which fell below viable numbers by 2010.”
In Jhalana in Jaipur and Aarey Colony in Mumbai, human-leopard conflicts are an important issue – but not so around Satkosia, where the conflict is limited to the occasional livestock kill. This is primarily thanks to the leopards being able to access a large and undisturbed habitat and sufficient natural prey. According to the forest department’s data, there were only six cattle-lifting incidents in 2019.
This is particularly true for the Raigoda East Section, where there is no human settlement. Here, camera-trap evidence suggests there are 10 leopards at present. There used to be a village named Raigoda (for which the section is named), whose residents had been petitioning the reserve management to be relocated for many years. They were finally shifted in 2017, ahead of Sundari’s and Mahaveer’s arrival.
The locals, who are mostly farmers, were settled in New Raigoda village some 9 km away.
Satkosia is a scenic reserve. Its tiger conservation plan reserve forbids safaris in the core area but there are popular community-run ‘eco camps’, jungle trails, trek routes and, most of all, 45-minute boat cruises.
The dense forest is primarily moist deciduous trees, with portions of dry deciduous forests in the hilly western regions. “Earlier, signs for leopards were tough to obtain,” Sahu said. “There was not much movement also due to the presence of the two tigers in the range. After their absence, the movement of leopards has increased.”
Dukhobondhu Behera, a forester and Sahu’s senior, patrols the four beats to which he has been assigned in Raigoda East. He has been in Satkosia since 2009. “Leopard pugmarks are common even though, due to heavy rains, they are washed away,” he said. “During the monsoon, it rains almost every day.”
In Sahu’s telling, Satkosia is currently home to 55 leopards. This is a small fraction of India’s 12,852 leopards, and even Odisha’s 760, according to the 2018 report ‘Status of Leopards in India’ – but it’s a significant start.
Tigers and leopards coexist across most of their respective ranges in India. Satkosia had both species until as recently as 2021. Their coexistence – and thriving, even – requires enough undisturbed habitat, protection from external threats and shocks and sufficient prey.
The reserve also has around 139 villages in its buffer zone and 34 that infringe on its core area. Because of the resulting anthropogenic pressure, the prey base in the buffer area is still lower than optimum.
“After the death of the male tiger Mahaveer and the recapture of Sundari, the project was temporarily suspended,” Saroj Panda, the divisional forest officer of the reserve, said. The National Tiger Conservation Authority subsequently recommended a host of corrective measures before the state officials attempted to reintroduce tigers, he added.
“So the department is preparing a roadmap. Until now, one village has been shifted. By the end of 2024, about five villages will be relocated,” according to him.
Why will the people move? Saroj Panda used the example of Raigoda: “The local population in Raigoda lacked good roads and power supply. As there are villages inside the reserve area, there is no permission for overhead electric wires. So they moved out to avail relocation packages offered by the government.”
“There is a land crunch in Satkosia,” he added. “Though homestead land can be given, handing over cultivable lands is an issue.”
Apart from water and power supply, the residents also received Rs 10 lakh in cash per family and houses under the Indira Awas Yojana. The Odisha government currently offers Rs 15 lakh per family.
But the forest department has also been reaching out to villagers and conducting awareness campaigns vis-à-vis wildlife conservation.
The leopards’ revival reflects the revival of the big cats’ prey base.
According to the divisional forest officer, the National Tiger Conservation Authority requires inviolate space for tigers, so local officials are working to reclaim meadows and grasslands. The first of the five villages is Katrang village: once it is moved, the reserve plans to reclaim 440 hectares of land and populate it with herbivores.
“The population of sambar deer, the favourite food of tigers, is less than what we would like it to be, but chital is doing well,” Saroj Panda said. “The sambar population will be supplemented through captive breeding. For this, two pairs will be brought over and released after breeding.”
The leopards have brought glad tidings. Will the tigers, too?
Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a freelance reporter who writes, among other topics, on the environment.