Historic Reintroduction of the Indian Bison
(Translocation from Kanha to the Bandhavgarh National Park)
By Rakesh Shukla
Madhya Pradesh has over the years enjoyed an enviable status of harboring an effective network of wildlife protected areas, and conserving a wide range of wildlife and their habitats, including some endangered species. While there are many finer goals and objectives of the management of these wildlife protected areas, the basis of conservation philosophy lies in biodiversity conservation. And conservation practices in these protected areas aim at the maintenance of species diversity and prevention of species extinction where species are preserved as part of functioning ecosystems
The Bandhavgarh tiger reserve is one of the most beautiful protected areas of the state. Harboring lush forests of sal, bamboo and miscellaneous species, the tiger reserve is renowned worldwide for tigers and many other wildlife species. Till around 15 years back, the national park also supported a small population of the Indian bison (Bos gaurus gaurus), or the gaur, regarded as the largest species of wild cattle. These mammoth animals live in social groups, and due to their formidable body size and power they have few natural predators. Tigers, however, sometimes kill even full-grown bulls. Watching these animals in different shades of black and brown colours roaming in the wild is an unforgettable experience.
This small population rose to 38 animals in 1990 and later a steady decline was recorded coming down to 30 animals in 1995. And after this, no herd was seen either in the national park or in the surrounding areas. While the local extinction of this species was a blow to conservation and caused serious concerns, its existence in several other wildlife protected areas somehow lessened this anxiety. No major managerial interventions in protected areas at that time were possible due to various financial and infrastructural inadequacies and limitations, and this beautiful national park carried on without the gaur. The park management and old watchers however, have been feeling twinges of sadness over such sudden departure of this species.
As this species is generally not poached due to religious sentiments, the causes of this local extinction that readily come to mind are: bovine diseases, selective predation by tigers, upsetting the sex-ratio; the small population itself, but most importantly, local migration away from the national park. Though very unlikely, small populations are also challenged by a number of limiting factors that increase the chances of the population going extinct simply because the population is small.
Dr. HS Pabla, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and also former director of the Bandhavgarh national park in the late 1980s, had been pursuing the idea of reintroducing Indian bison into these wilds. An experienced wildlife manager and an ardent proponent of proactive wildlife management, he is also credited with the translocation of a tigress from Kanha to the Panna tiger reserve last year by an Indian Air Force helicopter with great success. He views such managerial interventions essential for promoting species diversity of endangered animals and breeding of lesser wildlife species. Dr. Pabla was also the architect of this ambitious bison reintroduction program. He had been in touch with a lot of experts of different disciplines simultaneously in India and abroad for the past almost five years, exchanging ideas, discussing modalities, finalizing mutually agreed terms and conditions of the operation, and encouraging all concerned to discuss the same among themselves. The entire exercise also resulted in receiving remarkable cooperation from Taj Safaris (Taj Group of Hotels) of India and And Beyond Africa (previously known as Conservation Corporation Africa) of South Africa, promoters of responsible wildlife and adventure tourism. These organizations also arranged services of three experts for this reintroduction program, which was otherwise fraught with many risks.
Mr. Les Carlisle, Group Conservation and Sustainability Manager of And Beyond Africa is a very experienced professional and has so far caught and relocated thousands of larger African mammals. Dr. Dave Cooper is the Senior Wildlife Veterinarian of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, a government organization of South Africa, and has handled a vastly wide range of wild animals for immobilization and treatment. Mr. Jeff Cooke, the Head of the Game Capture Unit for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, has been credited with the success of many translocations of wildlife in South Africa. Besides these South African experts and naturalists of Taj Safaris, experts from the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and wildlife veterinarians of the Kanha, Pench and Panna Tiger Reserves and the management of Kanha and Bandhavgarh tiger reserves were also involved in this enormous conservation venture. It is well known that Kanha has a sizeable population of the Indian bison.
All the practitioners converged at Kanha before the D-day of 21 January. The entire field operation was discussed and planned in great detail under Dr. HS Pabla. Duties were assigned, medicines and equipment were rechecked, and a mock field trial with ground crews was also carried out to make doubly sure that everything was fine and would go as planned. The Kanha management had already got an iron-sheet structure called boma built and set it up at Kisli to temporarily house the captured bison for some time. The boma was connected to a specially designed large trailer having several compartments to lodge captured bison safely. Openings were provided in the closed trailer for proper ventilation and even administering injectables to the animals in transit.
In the early morning, Mr. HS Negi, field director of the Kanha tiger reserve, took command of the field operation and led the teams on elephants’ backs searching for a bison herd. After almost two hours, he saw a large herd grazing on a wooded slope. As the terrain was not fit for tranquilizing the animals, the grazing herd was gently moved to a suitable terrain.
Then one of the animals selected by experts was immobilized by a dart gun. The rest of the herd was lightly moved away by elephants and the teams got off the elephants to radio-collar the animal and record required veterinary health parameters and to attend to any health eventuality. The unconscious animal was then quickly pushed onto a specially designed stretcher handled by 16 crews and loaded onto a vehicle. The animal was offloaded into the boma and the veterinarians revived it in seconds by giving a sophisticated antidote. The boma already had feeds consisting of several palatable species of leaf and grass to sustain the captured animals for some hours. The same capture operation was repeated several times a day for a few days and 14 bison were captured for translocation under mild sedation.
Later, these animals were lured and pushed into the trailer with the help of an electrically charged stick. The captured bison were transported to the Bandhavgarh national park under a prescribed speed limit. Wildlife veterinarians, experts and several other staffs also accompanied the trailer to Bandhavgarh. All the animals were later released into a large solar powered electric fence surrounding a typical wild habitat of bison. These animals will remain in this fence under a prescribed monitoring protocol for some days and will be released later into the wild. The reintroduction operation is still underway.
This was a unique and historic translocation, and wildlife conservationists hope that the initial population of 20-25 animals and subsequent translocations in future will rise gradually and reach a safer status adding to the biodiversity of the national park.