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The Tiger’s World and Ours

There are both bright spots and persistent problems with India’s tiger conservation efforts. Despite the rise in tiger numbers India needs to remain vigilant about the many threats.

environment Updated: Jul 29, 2017 14:32 IST
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How does India ––a densely populated nation with a depleted forest cover support half the world’s tigers today? And what does the future hold for the species?(HT file photo)

When we think of tigers in India, two questions come to mind. How does India ––a densely populated nation with a depleted forest cover support half the world’s tigers today? And what does the future hold for the species?

The persistence of tigers in India’s human dominated landscapes is linked to the establishment of Project Tiger over four decades ago and the subsequent creation of over 50 tiger reserves.

However, it would be naïve to assume that protected areas alone have saved tigers, or that they will, in themselves, ensure the species’ survival. The large cats’ abrupt disappearance from prominent reserves like Sariska in Rajasthan and Panna in Madhya Pradesh, and the documentation of fewer than five tigers in Achanakmar in Chhattisgarh and Buxa in Bengal are well known. There are many factors that determine whether Protected Areas (PAs) have positive conservation outcomes- habitat connectivity, park management regimens and human acceptance of living alongside tigers, risks and costs notwithstanding.

The willingness of communities to accommodate tigers is shaped by the degree to which communities are included in environmental governance and natural resource management. Tiger Reserves in India largely censure access and rights of local communities, resulting in the real or perceived alienation of communities from forests. Resulting attrition between communities and forest administrators can ultimately undermine tiger conservation. However, several Tiger Reserves like Periyar and Parambikulam in Kerala have made tangible headway towards inclusive conservation.

Tiger populations have also persisted in India because the species is generally resilient and adaptable and can breed quickly given adequate prey and secure habitats. As conservation biologists, we are becoming aware of the presence of breeding populations in areas beyond extant boundaries of PAs, including areas with extensive timber harvest practices or high human use, like Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, Sathyamangalam in Tamil Nadu and 24 Parganas in Bengal. Thus, to hedge on the species’ bet against extinction, it is important to disburse conservation resources over large landscapes that could comprise a mosaic of protected areas, reserve forests, agricultural tracts and settlements. Such a strategy is well aligned and allows for dispersal and immigration of wide-ranging mammals. However, the ability of tigers to persist in human dominated landscapes has sharp limits. If humans and cattle overrun tiger habitats, the species’ populations may be restricted to small and isolated patches or in larger tracts that lack effective protection.

Importantly, the tiger’s persistence in modern India’s human dominated landscapes has been made possible by the acceptance of many millions of people living adjacent to tiger habitats. Tolerance for tigers is woven into India’s cultural fabric, as has been exemplified in the Terai and in Central India, where large tiger populations exist near habitations, where the felines prey on livestock, and occasionally claim human lives.

While it is clear that the species has ultimately survived in regions where people have willed it to live and co-existed with tigers, it would be imprudent to over-simplify human tolerance, or that such attitudes are ubiquitous. Regular news stories about big cats being poisoned, bludgeoned, snared and electrocuted in various parts of the country serve as reminders of these limits of tolerance.

What is then the future of tigers in India?

Poaching remains the greatest and most immediate threat to wild tigers today. In India, reported tiger deaths related to poaching reached an all time high in 2016. Worryingly, these reported figures only represent a fraction of actual mortality.

The systemic overhaul of protection measures in India has been slow and many areas still remain understaffed. Growing human populations, expanding settlements, and the proliferation infrastructure networks resulting in smaller habitats further challenge their future. Projections of sea-level rise indicate that the future of tigers in the Sunderbans also remain uncertain .

Though the challenges are many and complex, we remain optimistic. Tigers will likely persist in large, connected landscapes where the big cats can move freely and safely between habitat patches, such as those in the terai and Western Ghats. However, with rapidly expanding linear infrastructure these and other landscapes continue to be carved up into ever-smaller fragments. If critical corridors are lost, the future occurrence within habitat fragments may increasingly require the species’ active translocation from one area to another. This will require further advancing of our capacity to undertake complex tiger translocations and developing systems to monitor tigers and ensure their protection. Some important steps have been taken towards these ends. A large number of frontline-forest department staff are being trained in technology-aided law enforcement and monitoring, and are better equipped to curb poaching than they were a decade ago. This month, India became the third country to have a tiger habitat site (Landsdowne Forest Division in Uttarakhand) accredited under the global Conservation Assured Tiger Standards scheme.

While we persevere in our efforts to ensure the survival of this majestic species, it is hard to envision what their world and ours will look like. Will cultural ethos, that today engender coexistence, remain intact and large numbers of humans stoically continue to live in the shadow of fierce carnivores? Or will we fence off our reserves, and harden boundaries between human spaces and wilderness? Is it conceivable that we will be able to engineer landscapes, through prescient land use planning, that maintain permeability and facilitate tiger dispersal while also developing mechanisms to rapidly contain individuals that stray into settlements? Time alone will bear witness to these questions.

‎Pranav Chanchani is coordinator ,Tiger Conservation at WWF-India

First Published: Jul 29, 2017 14:30 IST