Saving the tiger’s land

Print edition : August 05, 2016

Munna, one of the most photographed tigers, in his habitat in Kanha. Photo: ANAT ZANZALE

Prolific breeders, chital are the commonest prey of tigers. The survival of the tiger is directly dependent on the ungulate population in a protected area. Photo: ANANT ZANZALE

Tigers are solitary animals and need an inviolate space throughout their lives. Photo: Anant Zanzale

In areas with high tiger density, tiger deaths owing to fierce infighting is common. Photo: Naren Malik

A herd of gaur at a pool in Kanha. The habitat improvement programme ensures that species with different food habits can coexist in a protected area. Photo: Anant Zanzale

Such a sight was unimaginable a few years ago when there was a village. Photo: Anant Zanzale

The barasingha (swamp deer) population in Kanha has not only increased, but the founders from Kanha have also established a geographically endemic population at the Satpura National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Subharajan Sen

Co-predators like leopards survive in tiger land because of niche partitioning of food habits. Photo: Anant Zanzale

An old village pond. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

The landscape, after a village was relocated, has perfectly integrated into the wildlife habitat. Photo: SUDHIR MISHRA

Male Asian paradise flycatcher. Photo: Aniruddha Dhamorikar

Only in a protected area can steps be taken to conserve an endangered and endemic cervid such as the swamp deer. Photo: Subharanjan Sen

A stable tiger population in India in the past four decades sends out a clear signal that there is a need to establish “conservation zones” where all development activity is prohibited.

IT was a summer morning in the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. The rising temperature had begun to alter the spring panorama of wilderness. The famous Kanha meadows, dotted with trees, had turned greyish-yellow. Except for the sal, almost all the other tree species of this tropical dry deciduous landscape were in various stages of denudation. It was going to be a rather long summer this year. We drove past a large mixed herd of barasingha and chital grazing near a grove. The vehicle took a sharp turn, descended to cross the watercourse, and climbed up the slope to meet the plain. And, lo and behold, we spotted Munna the tiger. I adjusted my field glasses to confirm that it was indeed Munna. He was walking leisurely along the forest road towards us. Interestingly, the markings on Munna’s forehead had contrived at birth to read “CAT”. The black lettering had become more prominent now as Munna had grown bigger. Some Munna fans even discovered the letter “M” below CAT, which stood for “macho” or “male” in their view. It was so unsettling when Munna continued to come towards us. All romantic feelings that forests evoke suddenly vanished into thin air. We were in an open vehicle, and I started having butterflies in my stomach. Munna, however, ignored us in a most royal way. He left the road to move on to the meadows without losing any of his majesty. This handsome and ferocious cat is one of the most photographed tigers in India and has taken social media by storm.

The sighting of Munna coincided with the Third Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation held in New Delhi in April, which was a logical and significant continuation of past international conferences on tiger conservation. The majesty and flamboyance of the tiger, arguably the most iconic wildlife species of our times, defies all description, and the significance of its conservation needs no elaboration.

The tiger population in countries where the big cat occurs had a chequered existence. Although assiduously conserved, tiger populations in some of the range countries are awfully precarious; their numbers lie around the presumed ecological thresholds as far as their viability is concerned. The world has already lost three of the nine subspecies of this charismatic species, further restricting its world population genetically to only six subspecies or geographical variations. Tiger numbers vary in six countries where the animal occurs—from 103 in Bhutan to 433 in Russia. Laos, Vietnam and China have between two and seven tigers. In some of these countries, tiger populations are unviable and in others they are almost functionally extinct.

India, despite a wide range of problems and issues, supports 2,226 tigers, which is 57 per cent of the world population of around 3,900 tigers. The rest occur in the other 12 tiger-range countries. Against all odds, these 13 countries remain committed signatories to a joint resolution to double their tiger populations by 2022 under the Global Tiger Recovery Programme.

The Indian government resolved to protect the diminishing tiger population by launching Project Tiger in 1972. The project has been commendable despite a plethora of problems thrown up by the country’s increasing population and its consequences, and the sheer constraints of development. In spite of the best efforts of conservationists, the tiger population has remained almost stable in the past 44 years. If one takes the numbers at face value, the journey from 1,827 tigers in 1972 to 2,226 in 2016 has been an arduous and slow one. In the 1980s, the tiger population did record an increase for some time, a hard-earned achievement in which conservationists played a big part.

Tiger habitat

India has all along initiated a wide range of tiger conservation measures. Slowly but consistently, the protected areas network has been strengthened. The protected areas support a significant percentage of the wildlife population. The country has around 530 sanctuaries, 100 national parks, 65 conservation reserves and 25 community reserves. Among these protected areas, there is a special network of around 50 tiger reserves, wherein 40 protected areas have been notified as the core, or critical, tiger habitat (CTH).

While India’s forest area constitutes around 21 per cent of the country’s total geographical area, the protected area network is around 1.56 lakh square kilometres, which is, of course, less than the targeted 5 per cent of the country’s geographical area.

The National Wildlife Action Plan (2002-16) recommended that 10 per cent of the total landmass be covered under the protected area network. Despite improvements in the national conservation situation, and the existence of a firm legal framework, clear policies, a cooperative judiciary and a scientific approach, inherent constraints and challenges hamper the achievement of higher tiger conservation goals and the mechanism for pursuing them.

Conservation and Development

It has to be conservation and development, rather than the other way round. It does not mean that conservation should prevail over development. Some critical wildlife areas and their surrounds should be excluded from development and the remaining protected areas should be treated with such consideration as envisaged in the various Acts and laws.

Cliches such as “development should coexist with conservation” and “conservation is not a drag on development” abound and their tone is always in favour of development rather than conservation. Understandably, as only human interest is involved in development, conservation is automatically marginalised as a sort of cerebral pursuit of a contrived philosophy with hardly any immediate relevance. The cliches will start making sense only when areas that are valuable from the conservation and environment standpoint are declared “conservation zones”, where all activity relating to development is prohibited. Besides, there is a need to save forests in general for the around 10 crore tribal people and 40 crore rural people who are fully or partially dependent on them. Around 275 million heads of cattle also graze in the fringe forests. Even nature, owing to climate change, is taking its toll on forests, pushing them towards drier conditions and making them unstable.

The projection that India’s population could double by 2050 is horrifying because the consequent demand for more land can discourage conservation efforts.

Tiger conservation basically demands stringent protection laws, vast landscapes and a good prey base. While these demands may sound innocuous, they are in conflict with the country’s land-use planning for development, and as a result conservation is sidelined in favour of more human-centred priorities.

The home truth is that as things stand now, tiger conservation in India will keep all the players seriously occupied in the foreseeable future (and beyond). It will be self-delusional to expect the tiger population to reach such a high mark that conservationists can lower their guard for some years. India lost 69 tigers in 2015 and 52 in 2016. While poaching did not claim all these tigers, it does remain a serious threat to the tiger population. Among the tiger conservation practices, protection and intelligence gathering should be accorded priority and made more professional.

The multidisciplinary Tiger and Other Endangered Species Crime Control Bureau should be staffed well and expanded to coordinate more frequently and effectively with the conservation efforts of States. Complacency and disregard of laid-down procedures can play havoc with a protected area. The member countries of the bureau should strengthen agreements to control cross-border wildlife offences, including smuggling of tiger parts.

Tiger corridor conservation

Effective tiger conservation needs large landscapes. Evolutionary tendencies and historical fate impel tigers to claim large tracts of forest land for survival. While there is nothing better than inviolate habitats, a large forested landscape, even supporting human habitations, with good functional connectivity can strengthen conservation under the “source-and-sink population” concept. There is an urgent need to expand protected areas in good and even modest tiger landscapes. Large protected areas make for robust wildlife ecosystems and conserve large populations of prey base more effectively. While India has around 700 protected areas, the average size is no more than 300 sq km.

Currently, only around 20 per cent of the protected areas are larger than 1,000 sq km, and around half of the 49 tiger reserves have CTH zones smaller than 700 sq km. Some are even smaller than 500 sq km. It is also hoped that the habitat quality for the tiger’s prey base in these protected areas is good.

There is also a dire need to expand some, if not all, of the geographically representative protected areas by means such as offering attractive monetary packages along with incentives of permanent government jobs and loans for business for relocation of villages. Besides, while effective habitat corridors have been identified on the map and on the ground, the actual action to restore and strengthen them needs to be taken up early. This task is enormous and requires new approaches and ideas, especially to deal with the human/livelihood aspect of this undertaking. The success of corridor conservation depends on the effectiveness of the collaborative project of the forest department and non-governmental organisations with expertise on site-specific human and social aspects.

Even in a well-protected area, there is a clear correlation between tiger density and the ungulate population. Factors such as a good ungulate population, water and stringent protection against all forms of poaching make for high tiger density areas. There are several tiger reserves in the country commanding areas with 20 or more tigers per 100 sq km. Ungulate populations should be monitored seasonally, at least twice a year, to understand their growth trends and to take managerial steps accordingly.

A viable tiger population needs a good prey base, whose survival itself depends on healthy habitats. Wildlife habitats need regular attention for improvement, depending upon their types and management objectives. They also need to be monitored regularly for any adverse ecological change such as weed infestation, appearance of unpalatable grass species, change in grassland communities and insect attack/disease in forest habitats. Wildlife managers should take an interest in conservation science in the protected areas. This is important and can be ignored at the managers’ peril. Besides using basic field instruments and computer programmes, undertaking standard management techniques and reviewing monitoring data, they should also welcome new ideas/field methodologies emanating from premier forest and wildlife institutions.

A lot of patience and persuasion is needed to inculcate the culture of tiger conservation practices outside protected areas and tiger reserves. It is, however, crucial that the staff of forest divisions surrounding the protected areas are trained in stringent protection and basic wildlife-monitoring practices. Burdened with multifarious responsibilities of pure forestry and forest management activities, the staff of managed forests cannot be expected to do much more in the near future. Training and skill development have to be pursued regularly.

No conservation project can be successful without public support. Therefore, people, especially those living in tiger landscapes, should be encouraged to participate fully in conservation efforts. On the lines of the joint forest management programme, which involves local communities in the Forest Department’s conservation efforts, those dependent on forests at the village level should be involved in the management of protected areas. Conservation practices should create employment throughout the year for the local communities. Ecological development of villages and the involvement of local communities in ecotourism will also help strengthen tiger conservation efforts.

Rakesh Shukla is Research Officer, Kanha Tiger Reserve.