By Deshdeep Saxena
‘Golden tiger’ of Kaziranga National Park, sighted again, after a gap of two years, seems to be raising a serious issue that needs to be addressed urgently. First spotted in 2014 in this world heritage , it’s repeated sightings should be treated as a warning. The tiger is saying something, lets decipher it.There is also a misconception among many that the golden tiger carries mystical qualities. In many parts of Asia, they are the subject of legends. But the fact remains that the colour variation is an aberration and not something to revere and rejoice.
The first to be photographed, in 2014 was a female that Kaziranga National Park authorities named Kazi 106 F. Instead of the usual bright black stripes on a shining orange background, this tiger had pale golden fur streaked with faded red-brown stripes, and a face that was mostly white. It was a ‘golden tiger’, an extremely rare .It looked like a soft toy in pictures.
In July 2020, when the golden tiger was spotted again- in fact a tigress- she was caught on camera by a naturalist Mayuresh Hendre. However it is not confirmed that the one sighted in May 2022 was the same big cat that was shot on camera in 2020 and before . After the 2020 sighting the national park issued a report on the unusual colour pattern of the golden tiger . The park authorities stated that such color aberrations have only rarely been recorded in wild tigers. “The biological cause of color aberration may be due to excessive inbreeding caused by habitat destruction and loss of connectivity,” said the national park’s director,
P Sivakumar after the tigress sighting in 2020 . The Kaziranga authorities also cited research that compared genetic data from modern tigers with that from the tigers shot during the time of British rule in India.
A study , published in 2013, by the Cardiff University and National Centre for Biological Sciences also raised a concern that Indian tigers no longer possess 93% of the genetic variation (mitochondrial DNA variants) that existed in the tiger population in the past during the British period. However, it is another subject that massive destruction of forests was also witnessed during the British Raj. India is home to the largest population of wild tigers, hence more care should be taken. It concluded that habitat loss and fragmentation were eroding the genetic diversity of Indian tigers, while subdividing the variety that remains into ever more isolated patches of habitat. Time and again, the golden tiger is raising this issue-restoration of the tiger corridors.
The golden cats are not a separate species. Just like white tigers they look different because of different genetics. Scientists explain further ,” The yellow colour in tigers is controlled by the ‘agouti genes’ and the black stripes by ‘tabby genes’ and their alleles. The agouti genes interact with pigment cells to produce the distinct bands and pigmentation of the skin. The absence or non-production of these genes may lead to colour variation.” A research officer in Kaziranga National Park said, habitat destruction and loss of connectivity with other tiger areas force tigers to resort to inbreeding, which is the reason behind the colour difference. Inbreeding happens when two related individuals mate, hence increasing the chances of an affected off spring. Inbreeding also takes place when a population becomes isolated. More than shrinking of habitat, it is about the loss of connectivity among different habitats,” wildlife experts said.
There is concern that this is forcing tigers to breed with close relatives, with the resulting decline in genetic diversity limiting the ability of the species to adapt to change and they become vulnerable to disease. The tiger population in Assam increased from 159 in 2018 to 200 in 2021. Presently, there are 121 big cats in Kaziranga, 48 in Manas, 28 in Orang and three in Nameri Tiger Reserve. The increase in the number of big cats may sound encouraging but the issue of inbreeding contradicts this. The 914 sq. km Kaziranga National Park is surrounded by the river Brahmaputra on the north and the hills of Karbi Anglong in the south. Apart from being the world’s major stronghold of the one-horned rhino, Kaziranga is home to several globally threatened animal species like the tiger, Asiatic elephant, wild water buffalo, gaur, sambar deer,hog deer, and the hoolock gibbon.
For a very long time, the wild animals here have used the adjoining forests and highlands as a refuge to escape the onslaught of seasonal floods. The situation further aggravated when the National Highway-37 bisected the once-contiguous Kaziranga landscape into two discrete regions: the floodplains of the protected area on its north and the Karbi Anglong hills on the south. The presence of NH and speeding traffic right inside the park and also multiply the problems . Mounting anthropogenic pressure, tea plantations, stone quarries in the hill slopes of Ruthe Pahar, and agricultural practices including monoculture plantation in and around the Mongkrakjuri-Kanchanjuri Corridor are major threats disrupting the tiger movement . Industries and infrastructure development led to the loss of natural corridors and connectivity with adjoining forests.
India is home to around 70% of the world wild tiger population and nearly 93% of the total tigers in India are concentrated in the12 states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and all of them face the issue of fragmented tiger corridors. Tiger Reserves in Assam –Kaziranga, Manas, Orang and Nameri –to gether host some 200 tigers. The Nameri-Pakke-Manas are connected landscapes with issues of loss and shrinkage of habitats. Encroachment has also crippled Manas National Park – also a World Heritage Site with a population of some 48 tigers. The number of villages has grown to over 50 inside the protected area in the last two decades with drastic reduction in forested area under Chirang, Kolmou and the Kuklung Range. Kaziranga – a source population area for the Royal Bengal tigers with an excellent prey base — has the highest tiger density among protected areas in the world. This high density of tigers in Kaziranga has also been a cause of concern. “In general, a male tiger in Kaziranga lives short. They are vulnerable to injuries and get killed during infighting even due to small injuries. Adult tigers photo- trapped in 2009 were not seen in 2014 photo traps.”More than floods, erosion by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries has become a much bigger problem for Assam— its land, people and its famed biodiversity.
Erosion is the major threat to the National Park leading to a loss of significant core area of the Park. Over the years threats to Assam’s tiger reserves like Kaziranga and Orang have increased manifold. While poaching remains a pressing concern, there have been issues from shrinking of habitat, encroachment in wildlife corridors, siltation of water bodies and on top of that–recurring floods and erosion. Orang with the Kaziranga landscape – seen as the only corridor of value.
Restoration of natural connectivity and corridor dispersal routes to link tiger habitats–Orang, Nameri, Loakhuwa and Burachapori should become top priority to conserve breeding populations. Sivakumar, the director of Kaziranga National Park, affirmed that restoring natural connectivity and dispersal routes of tiger habitats is now on the top of the top priority list.” Sivakumar says it is vital that tigers can travel between Kaziranga and other protected areas such as Orang Tiger Reserve, Nameri National Park, and the Loakhuwa and Burachapori wildlife sanctuaries. Restoration of Bramaputra Chars could be a key to the corridor conservation programme. The mighty Brahmaputra not only destroys wildlife habitat, it also creates new areas by depositing sand bars, popularly known as Chars in Assam ,which aid the migration of tigers. But these chars are also used by landless people and their settlements are detrimental to the tiger movement.
“These are areas where animals would try to move in,” says said wildlife experts working on corridors in Assam. “If this particular area is not protected then it becomes difficult to ensure the safety of tigers,” they said. Orang, with a core area of just 7,930 hectares, has a current population of 34 tigers. They are at risk of being disconnected from tigers in other habitat patches, as almost all corridors from Orang’s north,west and east sides have been lost. A formal proposal to expand Orang national park by adding the Brahmaputra riverine area on its southern side was submitted to the government. This would connect Orang to the Kaziranga landscape. “With habitation all around leading to frequent human-wildlife conflicts, the only corridor now left is the Brahmaputra River that forms part of the buffer area of Orang,”, experts said. “If we are able to secure it as a protected area, this could be the only corridor and very, very important for the future of Orang.” A big landmass, encompassing over 452 hectares in the northern bank of the Brahmaputra, will also be added to Kaziranga National Park making the park double to the area from its original size.