One of the biggest joys in field work is chancing upon interesting sights, people, and places in the middle of nowhere. The Eastern Ghats are full of such places.
The Eastern Ghats are a discontinuous mountain range along eastern coast of India. These drier Ghats are often neglected by naturalists, scientists, and conservationists in favor of their biologically richer neighbor, the Western Ghats.
In the summer of 2013 I went on a 2700-km road trip to explore six parks in Eastern Ghats located in the state of Andhra Pradesh. I was keen to understand the conservation challenges present in these places. Along the way we visited incredible Nagararjuna Sagar Tiger Reserve which is perhaps one of the few places that houses wildlife from dry and wet landscapes.
While we were driving through Etunagaram Wildlife Sanctuary, I felt a sense of despair. We neither heard nor saw wildlife. We saw large sections of the park that are heavily grazed and burnt, with trees logged and lopped. I was beginning to wonder if we were in an empty forest–a biologist’s worst nightmare.
Then we spotted a shrine.
Wandering inside we found two wooden tiger idols with long tails. These almost comical looking big cat idols were being worshipped actively. The next day we chanced upon another tiger shrine in Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve. Discovering these shrines got me recollecting many other animal shrines I had seen in other places.
In India we often express pride in our strong connections to nature, cultural tolerance towards wildlife, and deep-rooted fascination with tigers. Scientific research emerging from India has suggested that this tolerance plays a important role in supporting the species which persist to this day. My doctoral research mapped historic and current distribution of wildlife including tigers in India over 200 years. We found that tigers have gone locally extinct in more than 60% of places where they were historically seen.
India remains our strongest hope for saving wild tigers in the world. Finding these shrines are a reminder that our ties to nature and tigers still exist. But do these connections run deep enough? They provide hope but make me wonder how are we going to sustain conservation efforts by building partnerships that retain our strong cultural-religious ties to wildlife and wild places.