Archita Sharma MSc student, University of Delhi
Kanha Tiger Reserve, a popular tiger tourism destination, is a mixed forest characterised by patches of sal, bamboo and beautiful vast grasslands. These different habitats support a large population of ungulates – a diverse group of hoofed mammals. Ungulates like chital, chinkara, wild buffalo and many others form a major part of tiger diet. In fact, survival of large carnivores such as tigers depends directly on the prey base or the ungulate density. Understanding specific requirements of different ungulates is hence crucial for maintaining a healthy and diverse ungulate population and in turn high tiger numbers.
Barasingha in Kanha Tiger Reserve. Photo credit: Himanshu Chhattani
In a recent study, researchers from Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, Mandla, documented the effect of human use, season and habitat on ungulate density in Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. Researchers walked on 200 pre-determined paths covering 1200 sq km for estimating densities of six species of ungulates which were barasingha, barking deer, chital, gaur, sambar and wild pig for each management area and habitat type. Kanha Tiger Reserve (KTR) contains two management areas, first is the core area which contains no human settlement and second is the buffer zone which is a multiple use area with human settlements and is often comparatively more disturbed. The study considered 4 different habitat types in KTR which were grassland, pure sal forest, miscellaneous forest and bamboo mixed forest.
The study finds that the ungulate biomass in the core area is much higher, almost 4.8 times, in the core area compared to the buffer zone. Among all ungulates studied, chital was the most abundant with higher density in the core area compared to the buffer zone. A consistent result was obtained for both gaur and sambar. Barking deer and wild pig densities showed no marked difference in the two management areas. Nilgai was the only ungulate with higher densities in the buffer zone compared to the core area whereas barasingha and chousingha had no records from the buffer zone in this study. Absence of these two rare and endangered species from the buffer zone which has moderate to heavy human disturbance and their restricted presence in the core area highlights the need to maintain intact core areas which provide critical habitats for threatened species. To put simply, ungulates don’t like humans except maybe nilgai.
Interestingly it was found that ungulate densities varied according to their preference for certain habitat types in different seasons. While Chital showed a high preference for grasslands in both summers and winters, sambar showed a preference for bamboo-mixed habitat in both seasons. Gaur displayed a marked seasonal shift as populations were found to shift from sal forest in summer to miscellaneous forest in winter. Wild pig showed preference for bamboo-mixed forest in both seasons. Barking deer also preferred bamboo mixed and miscellaneous forest. Barasingha was found to stick to a single habitat type which was grassland. These interesting patterns in the ungulate densities are a response to seasonal shift in nutrient availability in different habitat types. For example, as explained in this study, in hot summers gaur prefers sal forests because it is the right time for sprouting of its favourite food plants like Mallotus philippensis, called Kamala locally. In winter, gaur shifts to miscellaneous forests with dense plant cover that provides them with plenty of food.
Detailed studies on such seasonal shifts in ungulate densities over a large spatio temporal scale in India are lacking. Such studies can be useful in designing alternate conservation strategies which focus on protection of both seasonal ranges and movement corridors for such ungulate species. Data generated in this study provides new baseline information of such seasonal patterns in the distribution of free ranging wild ungulate populations in Kanha Tiger Reserve which can be used in formulating new management strategies for protected areas in central India.
Original Paper: Awasthi, N., Kumar, U., Qureshi, Q., Pradhan, A., Chauhan, J. S., Jhala, Y. V. (2016). Effect of human use, season and habitat on ungulate density in Kanha Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, India. Regional Environmental Change 16(Suppl 1): 31 https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-016-0953-z