How the lockdown impacted our tiger reserves | Analysis
Nadia, a four-year-old Malayan tiger, inhabitant of Bronx Zoo (New York, USA), tested positive for Covid-19 in early April this year and soon six other feline zoo inhabitants showed similar symptoms. These animals had got the virus during a lockdown from a zoo employee, a human.
It seems that no species is safe from the clutches of this deadly virus.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) in India responded to the situation with specific guidelines on how to protect the wild animals from Covid-19 in the Indian subcontinent. But what will be the impact of this lockdown on the tigers and tiger reserves across the country?
No tiger reserve in the country has reported any case of wildlife being infected by this Sars-Cov-2 virus that causes the coronavirus disease.There were reports that the camp elephants in Uttarakhand’s Rajaji Tiger Reserve were showing symptoms of Covid-19. But these reports were wrong and many senior veterinarians confirmed that elephants cannot be infected by Sars-CoV-2.
Also, the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan has reported that two tigresses have given birth to four cubs during this lockdown and the total tiger population of the reserve has risen to 20. This is a cause for celebration as the tigers had become locally extinct in Sariska around 2005 and the species had to be re-introduced from the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Initially, a few cubs were born to these tigers but then for a long period, no new births were recorded.
Now there is less plastic and pollutants in the clear water of the rivers that originate from outside the boundaries of the tiger reserves. Because of the lockdown, incidents of illegal collection of honey have not been reported. This activity, along with the presence of tourists in the buffer zones of the reserves, contributed immensely to the incidents of forest fires. As a result, there has been a drastic reduction in the number of forest fires this year as a result of the lockdown.
Another way in which this lockdown may have had a positive impact on the wildlife is by the reduced levels of glucocorticoids, a stress hormone in tigers. There are some scientific studies that indicate lower levels of glucocorticoids in tigers during the closed season when tourists are not permitted inside national parks.
A higher level of this stress hormone has been linked to an adverse impact on the reproduction of the tiger, and consequently, the very survival of this creature. Therefore, these studies would suggest that this lockdown has been a boon in disguise for the tigers in India.
But I would like to point out that in the last four estimates of tiger population in India, a constant rise in tiger numbers proves that tourism is not as lethal for tigers as concluded in these studies. If tourism, and the presence of humans around, did lead to a much higher production of stress hormones in tigers, then zoos all over the world would not have had any tiger in their enclosures. Because tigers in zoos are generally more stressed due to limited space and constant flow of the visitors throughout the year. But tigers are breeding well, producing litters, and surviving more in zoos than in the wild.
So this takes us to the next part, the humans (officers and front line staff) involved in conservation work to figure out how this lockdown is affecting the tigers and tiger reserves? One has to take into consideration the impact on these people to get a complete picture of the impact of the lockdown on the wildlife.
A discussion with them has revealed more about the ground situation in these areas.
As per the guidelines of NTCA, tourism is permitted only in 20 percent area of a tiger reserve and most of our tiger reserves are open either for five or six months in a year. As per the policy of the government of India, tourism in Protected Areas (PAs) is permitted to educate people to elicit public support for conservation. I agree that unregulated tourism should not be permitted, where encircling tigers by tourist vehicles becomes a common sight and the management should come up with strict regulations to save the animal from such behavior by the tourists.
Such regulations could include a ban on the driver of the vehicle and accompanying guide for a duration which should give them a chance to realise their mistake (but such scenarios are confined to only a few tiger reserves in India).
Therefore, the lockdown is a big relief to the management of tiger reserves as the inflow of tourists has stopped and such untoward incidents are not happening.
The constant phone calls to officers with requests to facilitate trips that are out of the usual routine have stopped completely. As a result, they are able to spend more time protecting the tigers. There is also more time available to the management of the reserves to contain poaching of animals, illicit felling of trees and land encroachment.
Villagers within the vicinity or in the enclaves of the tiger reserves have limited access to resources for livelihood and food. Initially the lockdown aggravated the situation. To combat the issues of unemployment and lack of supply of essential commodities, the management of these reserves have come up with innovative initiatives to provide employment, health care and supply of rations from their own resources during this lockdown.
The frontline staff in remote posts of the tiger reserves had it worse. They were not prepared for the lockdown and could not store food items, medicines and other essentials as they do during the monsoon when the tiger reserve is closed to tourists. Their regular supply of food, medicine and other essentials items are either delivered by vehicles involved in tourism or departmental vehicles every six to ten days. That supply chain got disrupted for staffers living inside the reserves.
Let us take the example of Corbett Tiger Reserve to understand the initial impact of the lockdown on the frontline staff, where these frontline staffers live 40 to 65 km from the nearest habitation. The staff is totally dependent on camp elephants or boats for supply of essential items. But these vehicles weren’t coming. On many days, they slept without proper food, surviving by eating boiled potatoes, wild fruits or rice with salted water. That ended only after the nationwide lockdown was eased and the supply chain was restored.
It was a difficult time for the frontline staffers on the personal front too. Their families live either in small neighboring towns for the education of the children or in their native villages. They visit them at the beginning of the month after getting their salaries and make payments to shop keepers for groceries and other items purchased on credit.
But they are putting in extra efforts. Some of them described their own problems as miniscule, comparing their plight with that of villagers in the forest enclaves. The villagers, they told me, neither have a permanent source of income nor a steady supply of essential items. The staffers called it their duty and privilege that they were able to help the villagers during the lockdown despite their limited means. And for this, I salute the zeal and spirit of the frontline forest staff of the tiger reserves.
Now focusing on the people who work in the area around the reserve and are a part of the tourism sector. The nature guides, vehicle drivers, lower staff in resorts are helpless and many have lost their livelihoods. Resort owners, vehicle owners, and suppliers of goods and services have not been able to repay their loans because of the lockdown. With the closure period of the tiger reserves just round the corner, the recovery will take some more time. They need an alternate source of income and employment to sustain themselves.
Overall, this means that the tiger reserves benefited from the lockdown because the managers had more time to focus on the protection and preservation of the wildlife. The animals were also positively affected because of the reduced human presence in their territories. And the frontline staff, in spite of the hardships, had been very effective in maintaining their areas and in performing their duties. Of course, the situation is not perfect but things are under control and the majestic beast with black stripes is safe.
(Digvijay Singh Khati is a former Indian Forest Service officer and retired as principal chief conservator of forests and chief wildlife warden, Uttarakhand)