50 golden years of Tiger conservation in India
Project tiger is a unique and an unparalleled conservation success story in the world. India deserves all praise for this achievement.
In mid-1960s, it was found that the tiger population was on the brink of extinction in India due to hunting and habitat loss. As a result, tiger hunting was banned in 1968. The need for a nationwide act for the protection of wild animals, birds and plants and issues related to ecological and environmental security of the country was realised. The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, came into existence.
After tiger was declared the national animal in 1973, the ambitious 'Project Tiger' was launched by then Union tourism minister Dr. Karan Singh at nine prime habitats of the country. From nine, the number of tiger reserves have grown to 54.
India now boasts of 70 per cent of the world's 13 tiger conserving countries. As per the last estimates, the tiger population is said to be 2,967. On April 9, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will release the latest tiger population figures to mark 50 years of 'Project Tiger'. It is expected that the tiger population will witness a significant jump.
The past 50 years of tiger conservation in India have not been smooth. Poaching and habitat was the main threat to tiger population in India, with 1993 and 2006 being the most challenging years. In 1993, several conservation organisations propagated a theory that tigers might be extinct in India by the end of 2000 due to massive poaching. Fortunately, their prediction went wrong. In 2006, there was a significant drop in estimated tiger population to 1,411. Due to poaching, Panna and Sariska tiger reserves faced complete loss of population.
The improvement in protection measures, modern techniques of surveillance and public support in protection have been responsible for steady improvement of tiger population in India. Threat of habitat fragmentation due to linear infrastructures and habitat loss due to dams, hydroelectric projects and transfer of land for infrastructure development are still looming around as threat in tiger habitats.
The creation of Tiger Reserves, resulted in the preservation of many rivers and bio-geochemical cycles essential for maintaining healthy forests. The river’s water-and the minerals and organic manure produced by bio-geochemical cycles- make agricultural land nutrient rich and productive. It has been observed that agricultural lands near tiger bearing forests are very fertile.
The soil water regime, mineral and organic soil content of these lands are making the human communities richer and healthier. Till date, the significance of tiger in ensuring food security and livelihood for communities has been overlooked as an aspect of tiger conservation.
The presence of tigers is an indicator of the good health of the forests. Although we have 54 tiger reserves, there are other forests which are inhabited by tigers and hold approximately 30% Indian tiger population.
Several forests are holding more tigers than many tiger reserves. Unfortunately, these forests are still away from the ambit of 'Project Tiger' and are no match in terms of infrastructure and facilities for tiger protection in comparison to a tiger reserve. We have taken an approach where we have created 54 islands with good tiger population.
The tiger is a territorial animal and fearlessly defends its territory, as its size decides the availability of food, water and cover. Territorial fights among tigers are common and sometimes lead to deaths of weaker ones.
The weak and young tigers leave their territories to dominant one and venture out to establish a new home in other areas, sometime more than 800 Kms away. This is called the tiger dispersal phenomenon.
Tiger reserves are a source of population with the adjoining forests and other non-forest areas work as sink for the dispersing tiger population. Dispersing tigers use agriculture fields, coffee and tea gardens, degraded forests and river beds to move to a new territory. This leads to conflict with communities on these habitats.
We need a paradigm shift in tiger conservation policies in India. A landscape approach is the urgent need of time to protect the entire landscape instead of a few islands. Landscape planning emphasises on corridors which allow free movement for dispersing tigers, equal protection to tigers living outside tiger reserves, better surveillance measures, more information gathering, habitat improvement outside tiger reserves to improve availability of food water and cover for tiger and its pray base.
Uttarakhand was first in the world to implement CATS [Conservation Assured Tiger Standers] to protect tiger in the Lansdowne Forest Division. This initiative is the WWF initiated effort to protect tiger outside tiger reserves. It is expected that CATS will further enhance tiger population in India and will act as first step for landscape planning for tiger conservation in India.
Tiger-human conflicts and persistent demand by affected people to control the animal is a big challenge in ensuring long term survival of tiger. Retaliatory killing of tigers and persistent demand for its organs are big hurdle to its survival. Illegal trade of tiger organs needs a coordination among forests, customs, postal and police departments and paramilitary forces like ITBP, SSB and BSF to curb internal and border transaction of tiger organs.
We also need special engagements with CITES, IUCN and Traffic to monitor factors responsible for demand of tiger organs, identify hot spots and nexus operating outside our borders. Strong surveillance, intelligence gathering and coordination among national and international agencies would ensure a safe journey for tiger conservation in India.
Estimation of carrying capacity of tiger reserves should be our priority for coming years to assess an optimum level of tiger population a reserve can sustain. Translocation of excess animals can be carried out to tiger deficit reserves to further strengthen tiger population. Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh and Rajaji Tiger reserve in Uttarakhand are doing well with their translocated population of tiger.
Tiger tourism in India is gaining unprecedented popularity but needs a thorough review. Several reserves are facing the menace of tiger tourism, where animals are surrounded by vehicles and many time disturbed during hunting and resting.
There are many options viz. distribution of tourist vehicles in time and space, rotation of tourism zones, mass tourist transport vehicles instead of small vehicles and high value and low volume to reduce the number of tourists but getting equivalent revenue. There are many counter arguments against my views on tiger tourism. My experience of implementing few of them in Corbett Tiger Reserve were encouraging.
Project tiger is a unique and unparallel conservation success story in the world. India deserves all praise for this achievement. This would not have been possible without those unknown faces of men and women working in the ground, many of them lost their life and many incapacitated for life. These foresters need a well-deserved salutation from nation.
The author is a retired Indian Forest Officer. The views expressed in this article are personal