Wildlife Survey

Tiger triumph

Print edition : February 20, 2015

Tigers are prolific breeders and respond well to conservation measures, affording assured protection and a prey base. Photo: SUDHIR MISHRA

Protected areas like Kanha offer tigers natal areas with excellent cover and prey population. Photo: SUDHIR MISHRA

The sambar (above) and the spotted deer form the most common diet option for tigers. Photo: SUDHIR MISHRA

Death lurking in perfect camuflage for this sub-adult gaur. While adult gaur are rather difficult to handle, their young are easy target for tigers. Photo: SUDHIR MISHRA

While the results of the four-yearly survey showing a 30 per cent increase in the tiger population in India signal a victory for the recent conservation efforts, there is little room for complacency.

THE much-awaited, suspense-evoking declaration of the status of the tiger population in the country brought immense relief, almost globally, to a wide range of stakeholders in tiger conservation. They include, besides the Central and State governments, forest department personnel, wildlife professionals, conservationists, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and tiger lovers throughout the world. Having waited so far with bated breath, they all heaved a sigh of relief that the Indian tiger has ultimately found the elusive safe road to recovery.

The results of the third round of a four-yearly population estimation of tigers, co-predators, and prey, undertaken simultaneously in January 2014 in potential tiger forests of 18 States, have revealed that there are now 2,226 tigers in the country, an impressive increase of 30 per cent over the 2010 tiger population of 1,706 and around 58 per cent over the 2006 number of 1,411. Besides, the country can now also take pride in supporting around 70 per cent of the world tiger population. Going down memory lane for a bit, one recalls that in 2002, the last tiger estimation by the old pug- mark (footprint) method had thrown up a figure of 3,700 tigers, and the 2006 figure of only 1,411 tigers, arrived at by a more reliable and robust new methodology, was a big shocker whose reverberations, compounded by conservation fiascos in some protected areas in the country, were felt for a long time and that helped strengthen tiger conservation immensely. The reconstitution and rechristening of Project Tiger as the National Tiger Conservation Authority, a statutory body; suitable amendments to the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; effective coordination between the Centre and the States; and the constitution of some powerful committees were some of the important features of the revamped and reinvigorated conservation organisational structures.

It is worth mentioning here that this important event almost coincided with the retirement of Dr Rajesh Gopal, Member Secretary and Additional Director General of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. And thus ended an extremely illustrious career, dedicated wholeheartedly to wildlife conservation, leaving an inspiring legacy of outstanding professionalism and commitment. This tenure, however, was probably also most unenviable. The conservation fraternity hopes that the seminality of Rajesh Gopal’s vision, ideas and approaches will further pave the way for systematic/ technical tiger conservation in the country.

Tiger, technology and tallies

Before 2006, the estimation of tiger population in the country used to be conducted by the pug-mark methodology. This indirect method of counting tigers, taken as a total count, was based on the identification and documentation of the pug marks of tigers, tigresses and their cubs in the wild, on the broad assumption that each tiger or tigress possesses morphometrically distinct pug marks. It was, however, realised that the method had many shortcomings which led to either under-count or over-count. The method, which used the expert knowledge system, came to be regarded as subjective and lent much scope for conjectures and arguments, and thus also for controversies.

At that time there was no computer, and the main thrust of conservation was on overall preservation of wildlife species. Besides, the entry of conservation science into wildlife management was late and rather slow. New field methodologies, concepts and ideas, however, gradually got infused into tiger conservation practices.

Against the above backdrop, the National Tiger Conservation Authority, together with some forest officers of Madhya Pradesh and field biologists of the Wildlife Institute of India, developed a new methodology, or a comprehensive monitoring protocol, known as “Monitoring Tigers, Co-predators, Prey and their Habitats”. The technique involved state-of-the-art technology involving geographic information system, remote sensing, camera traps, and relevant computer software for analysis. Carried out throughout the around 3,78,000 square kilometre forest area of the country, this ambitious exercise involved around half a million data collection man-days of the State forest departments and thousands of trained field biologists, volunteers and observers in a well-conducted week-long programme in January 2014.

Technically speaking, the dynamics of this increase in tiger population is more or less on expected lines. First of all, almost all the major tiger reserves in the country have registered increases and contributed significantly to the total population of their respective States. Managed forest areas in recognised and prominent tiger landscapes in the country with requisite welfare factors have also added to the respective tallies. No wonder the Western Ghats landscape, with all its diverse floral and faunal riches, has shown a substantial increase in tigers, and the Mudumalai-Bandipur-Nagarhole- Wayanad landscape is now said to foster the world’s largest single tiger population. Karnataka has successfully defended its coveted status as the “tiger State of India” with 406 super cats. It is followed by Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh with 340 and 308 tigers respectively.

The remarkable increase of around 50 per cent tigers in Uttarakhand over the 2010 estimation figure can be attributed to the strengthened conservation efforts in a State that harbours part of the Terai Arc Landscape, considered historically potential forests/habitats for tigers and several other endangered wildlife species. The composite Terai Arc of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar encompasses a number of protected areas. The Uttarakhand part also fosters a network of habitat corridors of varying degrees of protection status, resulting in transboundary movements between these States and also between India and Nepal.

Continuous monitoring of tiger reserves by a large number of researchers over the years may also have contributed to intensive wildlife surveys and information-gathering. Madhya Pradesh, ranked third in the State tally, has rather unexpectedly registered an increase of only around 20 per cent over the 2010 estimation. Owing to some technical glitches, the tiger population there seems to have been underestimated, and the figure may have to be revised in future and this may add a few more tigers to the total tally of 2,226. Always in the forefront of wildlife conservation, Madhya Pradesh maintains excellent protected areas, including six extremely well-managed tiger reserves. Four of its six reserves, namely Kanha, Pench, Satpuda and Panna, have been categorised as “very good” in all the four-yearly “Management Effectiveness Evaluation” of tiger reserves of the country conducted by very senior forest officers, conservationists and scientists.

Interestingly, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh foster close to 50 per cent of the total tiger population in the country, and the remaining half occurs in 15 other States, four of them with less than five tigers each. Technically ranked fourth, Tamil Nadu, with an impressive tally of 229 tigers, leads these States, followed by Maharashtra with 190 tigers and Assam with 167 tigers. Interestingly, around 70 per cent of the 2,226 tigers were actually photo-captured (camera-trapped) during the exercise, with total images of 1,540 distinct tigers. While celebrating the population rise, we should also not lose sight of the fact that since 2010 the country has lost 316 tigers, 110 to poaching and 105 to natural causes; the deaths of the remaining 101 tigers are still under scrutiny.

Rough road to recovery

Over the years, closer tie-ups between the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the tiger States, mutual appreciation of each other’s concerns/reservations, and, of course, joint commitment to conserving this magnificent species, our national animal, have been mainly responsible for this tremendous success in conservation.

The media, some celebrities and activists have also played their roles well. Mutual understanding between the Centre and the States and conviction on this great cause have helped evolve a wide range of policies, strategies and initiatives to protect and manage tigers for their natural and unhindered growth.

The tiger is a conservation-dependent species and responds perceptibly well to conservation measures. Primarily, it only needs protection against persistent threats and availability of a good prey base. The Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh is an excellent example of how a totally desolate forest can be changed into a tiger landscape in a few years.

The history of tiger conservation in India is rather chequered, with frequent highs and lows. These situations have caused either complacency or panic, rendering little help in conservation. The tiger’s path to recovery was fraught with a wide range of threats. It was the close Centre-State cooperation that gradually made things better. An impressive network of 47 tiger reserves with a total area of around 68,677 sq. km in representative forest areas throughout the country has lent tremendous support to the exclusivity of tiger conservation. Adherence to the core-buffer strategy for the management of tiger reserves has ensured creation of buffer zones in almost all tiger reserves to mainstream conservation concerns in these human-dominated areas.

Protection, the topmost conservation practice, has been strengthened throughout the year under area-specific strategies to prevent forest and wildlife offences. Special Tiger Protection Forces were mobilised commendably in several tiger reserves.

Attractive packages are being offered for village relocation and people are willingly moving out of protected areas to join national mainstream of development. This scenario has helped reclaim extremely important chunks of forest land to develop them into good wildlife habitats. The constitution of a multidisciplinary “Tiger and Other Endangered Species Crime Control Bureau” has imparted considerable professionalism in the investigation of offences/ poaching of tigers and other high-profile endangered species.

Every tiger reserve is evaluated under a “Management Effectiveness Evaluation” system at regular intervals with a view to understanding its managerial/budgetary constraints and help it improve its management. Practice of conservation science has also been encouraged in tiger reserves. This has resulted in scientific monitoring/assessment of floral and faunal status, including four-yearly estimation/monitoring of tigers, co-predators, prey and wildlife habitats. The staff of managed forests are regularly sensitised about wildlife conservation issues.

The tiger reserve managements also organise workshops/hands-on training to acquaint these personnel with basic protection and investigation practices. Now, it is also mandatory for working plans of managed forests to have a separate chapter on proposed wildlife conservation activities for the respective areas. Besides undertaking the above generic conservation practices, Madhya Pradesh has received accolades for continual improvement of wildlife habitats in terms of prey base, rearing and training of orphaned tiger cubs for successful rewilding, capture and translocation of tigers under reintroduction programmes, and the tremendously successful restoration of tigers in the Panna Tiger Reserve.

No complacency in conservation

We have to accept the home truth that saving tigers in a country like India, with its inherent problems of population and poverty that result in a great demand for rapid economic growth, is a Herculean task. It will be self-delusional to expect that the tiger population will reach a very high mark in the coming years and will allow us to relax and lower our guard for some years. We are left with no scope for complacency. There are still many threats, some still unidentified, running silently counter to the conservation efforts.

Around half of the 47 tiger reserves have critical tiger habitat (CTH) zones smaller than 700 sq. km, some even smaller than 500 sq. km. We have to find ways to expand these zones, for instance, by offering attractive monetary packages along with permanent government jobs/ loans for business, etc., for village relocation.

This may sound fanciful, but let us not forget that it is only these protected areas that actually form source populations of tigers. Besides, while most effective habitat corridors have already been identified, actual action to restore and strengthen them needs to be taken early. This task is enormous and requires new approaches and ideas, especially to deal with the human/livelihood aspect of this undertaking.

These ecological corridors are densely inhabited and form a large number of weak links. A viable tiger population needs a good prey base, whose survival itself depends on healthy habitats. Wildlife habitats need special attention for improvement, depending upon their types and management objectives. They also need to be monitored regularly for any rampant adverse change such as weed infestation, appearance of unpalatable grass species, change in grassland communities, and insect attack/disease. Many ecological intricacies are also cropping up in wildlife ecosystems that need to be understood from the standpoint of climate change.

Wildlife managers, fortunately all science graduates and postgraduates, need to be interested in the practice of conservation science in protected areas. This is so important that this can only be ignored at the managers’ own peril. Besides using basic field instruments and computer applications, undertaking management techniques and reviewing monitoring data, they also need to be welcoming to new ideas/field methodologies emanating from premier institutions.

India is a vibrant democracy, and no conservation project can be successful without public support. Therefore, people, especially in tiger landscapes, need to be kept in good humour in all possible ways—for instance, employment through conservation, eco-development of villages, joint management, ecotourism, etc.

And lastly and most importantly, protection of forests, wildlife and its habitats must form the topmost conservation practice in protected areas. As far as conservation practices outside protected areas and tiger reserves are concerned, it still needs a lot of patience and persuasion to inculcate this culture. Burdened with multifarious responsibilities of pure forestry and forest activities, the staff of managed forest cannot be expected to do much better in the near future. Training and skill development need to be pursued unceasingly.

Rakesh Shukla is Research Officer, Kanha Tiger Reserve.