International Tiger Day: Big leap in India numbers cause for celebration and also concern

New Delhi:

BY | Saturday, 29 July, 2023
A Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris) walks a dust track at Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh (PC: Dey.sandip)

One tiger and scores of tourists in open jeeps asking each other in piercing whispers to be quiet as they train their binoculars and cameras on it, getting perilously close to the animal while they do so.

The all too familiar scene captured in innumerable social media posts could be from Ranthambore or Corbett, Tadoba or Kanha – a snapshot as it were of the human-animal dilemma that has seen the number of tigers in India go up while their habitat shrinks and often brought humans just too close to the big cats.

The rising tiger population, which has also spotlighted the development versus ecology debate, is cause for celebration and also concern, experts said ahead of International Tiger Day on Saturday.

With 3,167 tigers according to the 2022 tiger census, about 75 per cent of the global numbers, the once elusive bright orange fur and distinct low rumbling roar is not so rare anymore. Scripting a remarkable story of conservation, Project Tiger started 50 years ago in 1973 when the count was just 268.

However, it has come with increasing human interference in wildlife corridors, thinning prey density, a worsening quality of India’s forest cover and change in policies, all of which can offset the gains, the experts said.

“This achievement of conservatising tigers, despite our population density and other pressures hasn’t come easy and it’s been a gradual process since the onset of Project Tiger. We can be justifiably proud that the tiger continues to thrive in India, even as it is unfortunately extinct in some range countries. This success can be attributed to our people’s tolerance, political will and a strong legal and policy framework, one of the strongest in the world,” wildlife conservationist Prerna Bindra told PTI.

Over the last few years, however, the legal framework is being “diluted”, she alleged, citing the recent proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, or “passing of detrimental development projects in protected areas, mining in tiger habitats, and projects like the Ken Betwa river link in Panna tiger reserve”.

“You can’t say you are committed to conserving the tiger while allowing Panna to be drowned in a river linking project, and there are a number of similar examples such as mines and linear infrastructure in the central Indian tiger landscape. Highways are being expanded in the Kanha-Pench corridor and Rajaji National Park, and there is a push for a highway through the core of Corbett Tiger Reserve,” Bindra said.

Royal bengal tiger at Nehru Zoological Park, Hyderabad, Telangana (PC: Karthik Easvur)

Qamar Qureshi, senior scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, gave a counter view and said corrective measures are being taken.

“We have to think of development in an ecological sense. While making highways, we are now thinking of creating safe passageways for tigers and other animals to pass through. It is already happening at several places in India,” Qureshi said, citing recent infrastructure projects, including in Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

A government report on 50 years of Project Tiger noted that the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has ensured any land use change in a tiger corridor likely to have a barrier effect requires approval from the National Board of Wildlife.

But the many stumbling blocks remain.

The Ken-Betwa river linking project, for instance, has faced the ire of environment activists and organisations long before it was approved by the Centre in December 2021.

It is claimed that the Daudhan Dam built as a part of the project will submerge 4,141 hectares of Panna Tiger Reserve, according to the proposal submitted by the Water Resources Ministry.

Human interference can also lead to imbalance in the predator-prey ratio. The balance is naturally maintained by predators like tigers dispersing out of the areas where they are born based on the availability of their prey, noted scientist and former Wildlife Institute of India dean Y V Jhala said.

This natural tendency to move out of their native area is affected when infrastructure like highways, railways, mines, fenced resorts, and orchards become barriers to dispersal within corridors.

“Human-tiger conflict usually happens when tiger prey is depleted and there is no place for tigers to disperse (corridors are lost). Also, conflict happens when humans venture into forests that hold a high density of tigers,” he noted.

The tiger conservationist suggested that proactive dispersal of young tigers and very old tigers (that usually attack humans) in community forests and monitoring them by camera traps and radio-telemetry can be useful in identifying potentially dangerous tigers, which can then be managed before they attack humans.

Tiger-bearing habitats have been divided into five major landscapes – Shivalik-Gangetic plains, Central India and Eastern Ghats, Western Ghats, North Eastern Hills and Brahmaputra Flood Plains, and the Sundarbans.

The initial number of nine tiger reserves across 18,278 sq km of land in 1973 has now expanded to 53 tiger reserves cumulatively protecting an area of 75,796.83 sq km, approximately 2.3 per cent of the country’s geographical area, according to a government report.

While there has been an overall increase in tiger population compared with the last census in 2018 (2,967), there has been a decline in tiger occupancy in Western Ghats (from 981 to 824), and North Eastern Hills and Brahmaputra Flood Plains (from 219 to 194). The decline in these areas has been attributed to human activities, including habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, illegal wildlife trade, human-wildlife conflict, and invasive species, said the Status of Tigers 2022 report.


A royal Bengal tiger relaxing in waters of Ranthambore (PC: Drvidyashankar74)

Tiger population in the Shivalik-Gangetic plains, which hosts several key tiger reserves, including Corbett, Rajaji, Pilibhit, Dudhwa, and Valmiki, has increased from 646 in 2018 to 804 in 2022. Similarly, the number of the big cat has increased in Central India and Eastern Ghats, which has tiger reserves like Panna, Sariska and Kanha, from 1,033 in 2018 to 1,161 in 2022.

As reports come in of the big cat straying into villages and towns far from its habitat, maneaters targeting vulnerable villagers and boundaries between human settlements and forests blurring, Qureshi said it is important to look after tribals.

They are, he argued, among the country’s poorest citizens for whom forests make up for their livelihood and food sources.

To increase the land reserved for tiger conservation and rehabilitate tribals, the government incentivised relocation under the Wildlife Protection Act, 2006 amendment. It made a provision for a monetary package of Rs 10 lakh per adult in the family to relocate from within the core areas of tiger reserves after the settling of their legal rights.

The package was later upgraded to Rs 15 lakh per adult in the family. Project Tiger has since relocated at least 19,478 families, according to the 50 Years of Project Tiger’ report.

While long years of arduous conservation efforts are in India’s rear view mirror, there is still a long way to go. As Bindra put it, “We cannot rest on our laurels and conserving tigers does not happen overnight. It is a steady commitment that is critical to conserving tigers”.

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