After fires roared through around 15,000 acres of Bandipur Tiger Reserve this past February, the woodland savanna it left behind looked in many ways like a photo negative. Black bark replaced the lighter tones of unburnt wood, white ash splattered across dark earth, and an eerie emptiness took up the space meant for an array of plants and animals, including that most famous and elusive creature that gives the reserve its allure.
South India’s connected woodland savannas of Bandipur, the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, and the national parks of Nagarahole and Mudumalai were estimated to be home to more than 570 tigers as of 2014, the last time tiger census data was published (though new data is expected to be released this month). That population is thought to be the “world’s single largest,” according to the report. The Western Ghats as a whole was estimated to have 685-861 tigers, a number that has gone up in part because researchers and their cameras have gotten better at spotting tigers outside protected areas, but also because these mosaics of grass and trees are largely unbroken by man-made intrusions such as cities, roads and train tracks, giving tigers the ample space they need to roam, hunt and mate. Fires, however, are a different type of man-made issue that are becoming a larger threat to their terrain.