Tiger conservation: Cheers amidst concerns of habitat destruction and land usurping

The latest tiger census brings much cheer to tiger conservationists. However, the work is far from over. Image credit: By Charles J Sharp - Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography.co.uk, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65574915

Tiger conservationists have much to cheer with the release of the tiger census figures in July. As per the latest census, India's tiger population has gone up from 2,226 in 2014, to an estimated 2,967 tigers. With this, India has achieved its target of doubling the number of wild tigers by 2022, as per the St Petersburg Declaration on Tiger Conservation. India’s tiger population is the largest for any country, and accounts for nearly 80 percent of the global adult tiger population (3,159) tigers. Nepal, is the only other country which has the distinction of doubling its tiger population from 2010, much ahead of 2022 deadline.

The survey, which is conducted across the 18 tiger states of India, spanning over a period of four years, is said to be the world’s largest wildlife survey effort. The exercise employed more than 15,000 cameras which were placed at strategic spots, apart from satellite mapping and data gathered from field personnel.

Conserving the big cat

For a country which had nearly 40,000 tigers (as per some estimates) at the turn of the century, the 20th century saw a drastic drop in its numbers as tigers became widely hunted during the colonial era. In 1965, there were only around 4,000 tigers, which further went down to 1,827 tigers, in 1972, where tiger census was conducted using a systematic pugmark based method. This was also a time when tiger hunting agencies abounded in India, enticing visitors from around the world.

The shocking figures prompted the Indian government, under Indira Gandhi to swing into action and impose a ban on tiger hunting in 1968. This was followed by a ban on export of tiger skin, a flourishing business till then. The Indian government also took up tiger conservation actively and launched Project tiger in 1973 in Jim Corbett National Park with the aim of protecting the Bengal tiger in its natural habitats and preserving areas of biological importance. Then, nine tiger reserves, which encompassed an area of 9,115 sq kms, were identified to be brought under protection. The Indira Gandhi government also enacted the Wildlife Protection Act in the same year.

After tiger count was at an all-time low in 2006, at just 1,411, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) was set up following the recommendations of the Tiger Task Force. The Wildlife Institute of India, funded by the Ministry of Environment has been tracking and estimating tiger numbers since 2006. In 2010, the Institute moved to a more accurate and scientific method of capturing data using camera traps, rather than just relying on pug marks. Since then, conservation efforts have gathered speed.

The Panna National Park is a clear success story of how concerted conservation can pay dividends. The National Park witnessed a crisis in 2009 when the number of tigers dropped from around 24 in 2006 to near zero when there was only one male tiger remaining. Most of the tigers had fallen prey to poaching, poisoning by local villagers, dacoits and death because of old age/natural illnesses. By bringing in tigers from neighbouring Pench, Kanha and Bandhavgarh and through the combined efforts of the forest officials, conservation biologists and the local community, the numbers were brought up to 20.

Concerns remain

However, the picture is not all that rosy for the future of the tiger or the people who share their lives and habitats with them. Poaching, habitat destruction, man-animal conflicts, the reduction of prey and the effects of inbreeding among tigers have all been issues that have hampered the progress. The NTCA’s 2010 assessment shows that while the tiger population has increased, there has been a reduction in tiger occupied areas, which is an indication of loss of tiger habitat quality and extent. This loss in tiger habitat can be largely blamed on the burgeoning human population, development and encroachment into forest land.

As per a report released by the wildlife conservation group, during the 18th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), India has been identified as one of the main hubs were tiger poaching takes place. Maharashtra is turning into a hotbed for poachers, with the state recording the highest number of tiger body parts that were seized between 2000 and 2018.

Human-tiger conflicts abound as well, as has been seen by the recent case where a tiger was beaten to death by villagers after it strayed out of the Pilibhit Tiger reserve in Uttar Pradesh and attacked locals.

Habitat loss due to natural causes, is another major concern. A study published in the Science of the Total Environment, by a group of researchers from Bangladesh and Australia have claimed that the Royal Bengal Tiger could go extinct in the Sundarbans area in the next 50 years, due to climate changes and rising sea levels. The Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangroves, which covers an area of 6,000 sq kms, is one of the last few strongholds of the Bengal tiger.

Nearly 70 percent of the Sundarbans is at sea level, currently. Using computer simulations, the researchers figured out the time left before the Sundarbans region was completely submerged in water and for how long species such as the tigers would be able to survive there.

As seawater gradually rises, it makes it harder for plants to grow. This affects the population of prey such as the spotted deer, and, in turn leads the tigers to search for food in the villages and human settlements in the vicinity, leading to human-tiger conflict.

Finally, conservation efforts have also been strained by the forceful relocation of the Adivasi communities who live in the forests and have the right to live on and protect the land that they have been cultivating within the forest boundaries. Accused of harming the wildlife, the adivasis live in constant fear of harassment and eviction by the authorities. As per a report by political ecologist, Nitin Rai, the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Tiger Reserve is a classic case of a successful conservation project, which has resulted in the loss of a means of livelihood for the local adivasi population.

A controversial Supreme Court judgement which could have resulted in the eviction of millions of adivasis from their lands, whose claims for forest land rights had been rejected, as per the Forest Rights Act (2006), was thankfully stayed with the court acknowledging the need to further delve into whether due process was followed by gram sabhas and States' authorities.

While the current figures may deem India’s tiger conservation a success story, efforts would remain incomplete if aspects such as habitat destruction, poaching, the human-animal conflicts are not looked into. Further, conservation efforts also need to keep in mind that the adivasis are not the adversaries of wild animals. Rather, any conservation effort would remain futile if the original inhabitants of the land - the tribals, are not taken along.