&Beyond’s pioneering Gaur translocation project in Bandhavgarh National Park
&Beyond’s pioneering model of low-impact, high-yield wildlife tourism is based on our ethic of Care of the Land, Care of the Wildlife, Care of the People. Tried and tested for more than twenty years, we believe in sharing the skills we have gained through the implementation of this model to benefit the preservation of wildlife not only in Africa but further afield. Our passion to ensure that we protect the great wildlife areas of the world, leaving a legacy for the next generation, has driven us to partner with conservation authorities in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to carry out a ground-breaking translocation. Aimed at reversing the local extinction of the gaur in Bandhavgarh National Park, an additional goal of this public-private partnership was to carry out training and create the capability for Indian wildlife officials to complete subsequent relocations of other species on their own.
For years, Indian conservation policy had focussed solely on the preservation of protected areas, with limited wildlife management. Indian forestry officials were aware that gaur had gone extinct in Bandhavgarh National Park, but were not sure how to reverse this extinction. While working with Madhya Pradesh Forest Department (MPFD) on establishing our circuit of four jungle lodges in India, &Beyond became aware of this situation. We immediately saw this as an opportunity not only to help restore a species to its natural habitat but to share our knowledge of translocation techniques and develop this capacity in the MPFD.
As a pioneer in responsible sustainable travel, &Beyond’s model of restoring and conserving regional biodiversity has often required animal translocations and re-introductions. As a result, the company has considerable experience in this area and Group Conservation Manager Les Carlisle has planned and implemented the translocation of more than 40,000 heads of wildlife in several African countries.
With &Beyond providing the expertise for the project, the initiative required five years of meticulous collaboration and planning with the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department, which oversees some of India’s largest tracts of protected land, and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), which is responsible for the research that is used to help identify priorities and formulate guidelines for wildlife conservation in the country.
In the words of Dr HS Pabla, then the Chief Wildlife Warden of Madhya Pradesh, “Other than retrieving the lost biodiversity of Bandhavgarh, the project was aimed at building the capacity of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department and the Wildlife Institute of India in the field of the capture and translocation of large animals. It was also meant to show what public-private partnerships could accomplish. Mridula Tangirala, Director of Operations at Taj Safari Lodges, and Les Carlisle, Group Conservation manager at &Beyond, worked tirelessly to obtain the approvals of their companies expeditiously. Les made several trips to India just to ensure that the construction of bomas and modification of trucks was exactly as required.”
The transfer of skills was a vital part of the project. Recognising the need to share Africa’s unique conservation skills, Indian conservation officials were invited to &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve to learn the techniques of darting and loading buffalo. During the planning phase, some of the best buffalo specialists in the world focused on teaching and re-creating their skills base in India. KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife staff took the Indian officials to inspect holding bomas and they were also given the opportunity to take part in animal capture exercises at Hluhluwe Game Reserve. The designs for animal capture trucks and stretchers were shared with the Indian team, who arranged for them to be adapted and re-created by an Indian company so that all the required equipment could be manufactured on the spot.
With the initial phase complete, the &Beyond team travelled to India to begin full scale training with the MPFD and WII teams. This stage included a few vital adaptations to the Indian national parks infrastructure. Reserves in India are not fenced, however Les Carlisle argued strongly for the need to build reinforced reintroduction bomas to contain and protect the gaur after translocation. As a result, a holding boma was constructed for the animals at Bandhavgarh National Park, where they were to be released. This would allow the gaur to become habituated to their new home and would keep tigers out of the newly reintroduced population until the animals had settled in.
The next phase of the project included &Beyond’s experts working with Indian officials to obtain the correct permits to import the drugs required and to translocate the animals. It took nearly a year to get the import permits into place and have the drugs sent to India. With a narrow window during the Indian winter when it is cool enough to subject animals to the stresses of the move, the translocation was planned for January 2011.
The total operation team consisted of more than thirty field rangers and another thirty senior officers. The field staff made up two stretcher teams of twelve to fifteen men. Ten days before the operation was due to begin, Les Carlisle began to practice each move of the procedure with the Indian teams. This training was crucial as it ensured that, once the operation began, every member of the team understood exactly what they were to do.
As the operation moved into full swing, it became obvious that the training had paid off. As animal after animal was tracked, darted and then loaded in the translocation trucks, the longest it took for this process to be completed for one animal was 38 minutes. With recovery time after giving the antidote to the drug between one and five minutes, no animal took longer than 50 minutes from the time it was darted to until it was awake and standing in the holding boma, a time really difficult to achieve within the norms of animal translocation.
With the Indian teams rapidly becoming more experienced at what they were doing, after the first 14 animals &Beyond’s experts stood back, allowing them to dart and translocate the last five gaur on their own. Everything proceeded as planned and the relocation was a huge success, with 19 gaur safely darted and transported during the first test phase. A breakthrough achievement in Indian conservation, this translocation was followed by the subsequent movement of another 31 gaur in January 2012, this time carried out mainly by Indian wildlife authorities. This brought the total number of gaur moved to the recommended number of 50.
With the success of reversing a local extinction measured by how well the new population does in its environment, the gaur herd in Bandhavgarh has grown steadily over the years. Despite tiger-inflicted mortalities, the herd is thriving in its new home, with the recent birth of the 19th calf since the reintroduction.
The first partnership between a wildlife tourism operator and the Forestry Department in India, the translocation has cleared the way for the implementation of other conservation initiatives in Madhya Pradesh state and in all of India.
“Encouraged by the success of this project, the state has already proposed the translocation of several other species to reverse local extinctions in Madhya Pradesh. The barasingha is set to return to Bori Sanctuary and the blackbuck is going to return to Kanha. We can even dream of creating whole new wildlife assemblages from scratch if secure space is available, through the translocation of prey and predators from other sources, rather than waiting for ages to let it happen on its own. Let us hope that this project will prove to be a harbinger of change in our approach to conservation, which it was always meant to be. Perhaps we will no longer just wring our hands when the extinction of a particular species looms in front of us. We can now prevent or reverse such local extinctions, thanks to the Gaur Project,” sums up Dr Pabla.