Kanha

Space crunch for tigers

Print edition : March 16, 2018

Breeding tigresses are important to maintain a viable population of the animal. Photo: Sanjay K. Shukla

India harbours around 57 per cent of the world’s tiger population of some 3,900. Photo: Sanjay K. Shukla

The famous Neelam of the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh with her four cubs. Photo: Sudhir Mishra

The endangered barasingha, which is endemic to Kanha, at a relocated village site. Photo: Anant Zanjale

Chital that were translocated to a relocated village site. Photo: Suresh Deshmukh

An aerial view of the boma arrangement, which is used to capture and transport ungulates. Photo: Sanjay K. Shukla

The famous Bamhanidadar plateau, the highest point in the tiger reserve, is now a completely inviolate wildlife habitat. Photo: Suresh Deshmukh

Inviolate wildlife habitats are critical for a good prey base for tigers. Photo: Subharanjan Sen

One of the most majestic wildlife species, the tiger has a chequered conservation history. Photo: Sanjay K. Shukla

Excellent waterbodies such as this are also part of the reclaimed wildlife habitat. Photo: Sanjay K. Shukla

Villages exert biotic pressure on critical tiger habitats. Photo: R.B. Pathak

Villages exert biotic pressure on critical tiger habitats. Photo: Suresh Deshmukh

The blackbuck. It had become locally extinct at Kanha and was reintroduced some years ago. Photo: Sanjay K. Shukla

Excellent natal areas are important to maintain a viable tiger population. Photo: Sanjay K. Shukla

IT was a cloudy September morning at the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, and a light mist had hazed far-off views of the extensive savanna with groves of stately sal trees. Besides a herd of endangered and endemic hard ground barasingha, there were a large number of grazing chital superimposing their brownish-white colour over the lush green grassland. The grassy carpet had milky-white patches of flowered sugarcane grass, locally known as kans, a staple diet of the barasingha. While I was scanning the panoramic landscape through binoculars, my vehicle slowly passed by the grassland and drove along a slope to reach the spot where, as per a wireless message, a tiger family was to be found. And yes, all five tigers were there, not faraway! The tigress, lying on her right flank, raised her head for a while and looked at me nonchalantly. The four cubs, around six months old, sat huddled together, forelegs half-resting over a fallen tree trunk. A bit confused, they all looked at me with curiosity and uneasiness, frequently licking their lips, blinking their eyes, yawning and shifting their positions. It was a picture-perfect moment and an extremely heart-warming sight. Especially so, as this place had been a large forest village until several years ago. At that time, even in my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined so grand a prospect in such an unlikely place.

I remembered my past visits to this site when it was a forest village. So much anthropogenic occupation nestled on such a verdant forest landscape had looked starkly out of place, of course, from a conservation point of view. Only after the voluntary relocation of this village did the Kanha management integrate the site into the surrounding wilderness area through a wide range of measures: Existing structures were demolished, agricultural fields were levelled, and basic habitat improvement practices were carried out. The management also translocated many chital from high-density areas of the reserve to this site to expedite ungulate growth. Now this fully integrated site supports a large number of ungulates of different species, which in turn attracts tigers.

Inviolate tracts

Secretive and mysterious in many ways, adult tigers are inherently peripatetic. Occupying the top of the ecological pyramid with no predators of their own, and also highly territorial, these carnivores need large inviolate tracts to search for prey, rest, loaf, breed and rear and train their cubs. Such tracts tend to harbour quality habitats, which in turn add to the prey base for tigers. Some of India’s tiger reserves are high tiger-density areas, and they lose tigers on account of infighting every year. Therefore, large inviolate tracts and tranquillity are directly correlated to viable tiger populations. Over the years, studies on sustained tiger populations of some of the finest protected areas of India and Nepal have provided conservationists with a workable basis for conserving viable populations of tigers in the country. This rule of thumb suggests ensuring an inviolate core or critical tiger habitat (CTH) of around 1,000 square kilometres, with around 100 tigers of either sex and of different ages. This population should, however, contain around 20 breeding females to ensure viability in the foreseeable future.

Demographically speaking, India has a population of over 1.3 billion now as against 350 million in 1947. The corresponding figures for population density are around 382 and 117 persons per sq km. (The projection is that the population could double by 2050.) Consequently, the per capita forest area has decreased to 0.064 hectare as against the world average of 0.64 ha. While no government or organisation is consciously against tiger conservation, the above ominous statistics put it under tremendous compulsion to sometimes overlook conservation in favour of the populace and more pressing development issues. In spite of this, the country is always lauded for its consistent stand and resolve on tiger conservation. This is the sole reason why it now harbours around 57 per cent of the world’s total tiger population of some 3,900 tigers. Incidentally, the ambitious fourth four-yearly All-India Tiger Estimation is under way in the country.

However, India can aim higher and strive further towards expanding and strengthening its protected areas for tiger conservation. The total protected area coverage is still less than the targeted 5 per cent of the total geographic area, and far less than what was envisaged in National Wildlife Action Plan 2002-2016. Besides, the CTH area in India’s 50 tiger reserves forms only around 25 per cent (around 40,340 sq km) of the total protected area. While there are 40 tiger reserves with a CTH of less than 1,000 sq km each, 22 have a CTH of less than 700 sq km.

Humanised wildlife ecosystems

Lately, there has been a serious debate between wildlife managers and activists—who have carved out a niche for themselves in the wildlife, sociological and economic fields to make it a distinct discipline dealing with park-people affairs—on the possibility, or rather necessity, of maintaining humanised tiger reserves/protected areas where people along with their livestock and agricultural fields can coexist with tigers. All those in favour of humanised wildlife ecosystems are of the opinion that wildlife conservation in the country is based on the flawed Western model wherein forests are accepted as wilderness areas. Their contention is that in India millions of people inhabit forest areas as dependants and that all strategies of wildlife conservation that in any way disturb their lifestyle are bound to play havoc with them and ultimately fail.

The above concept, which automatically sets the clock back at least several decades, does not allow for the relocation of villages and/or strict enforcement of any law prohibiting villagers and their livestock from making the most of this symbiosis. Such an Arcadian philosophy is, sadly, nothing but another fanciful approach to the realisation of the Indian version of the ever elusive utopia. There is no denying the fact that people’s participation in conservation measures goes a long way towards effective management of protected areas, and cooperation, not conflict, with the managers will ensure sustainability of tiger reserves in the country. This has already been recognised by the government in the form of eco-development and joint forest management in the buffer zones of tiger reserves.

However, this is easier said than done; there is such an intricate interplay of demographic, ecological and economic limiting factors in the ever increasing biotic pressures that it is a Herculean task to control them in a humanised ecosystem, and huge ecological losses incurred at the initial stages will be irreversible.

It has to be agreed upon at the outset that the population explosion and the rapid shrinkage of forestland are responsible for the plight of wildlife ecosystems in general and tigers in particular. In this situation, the concept of a humanised ecosystem is nothing more than a desperate bid to accommodate the expanding population. There must be a realistic approach, not an emotional or a philanthropic one, to reconsider seriously this vis-a-vis the fast growing consumerism among the rural people and the government’s own efforts for their socio-economic upliftment. Progression is an evolutional and materialistic reality in every social community and it is bound to clash with the lives and habitats of wild animals more seriously and decisively in a humanised ecosystem than otherwise. The catchword “coexistence” when observed in its “true” sense held good until a few decades ago, and later it gave way to mindless sportsmanship and the materialistic and expansionistic attitudes of people, which brought wildlife to the verge of extinction. Therefore, the setting aside of a small percentage of the total forest area as a CTH is still the best and most effective arrangement to ensure the management of whatever remains of India’s wildlife, especially tigers. Coexistence is the most inexpedient option in a situation where one has no control over any of the human dimensions that lead to competition with wild animal populations, and India will bid adieu to its precious wildlife forever sooner rather than later. One must not forget that in spite of the country having a large area of forested land, scientific information on the status of wildlife suggests that it is only the protected areas that still sustain viable wild animal populations of any consequence.

Humane village relocation

To expand the area for tigers, villages need to be relocated not only from CTHs but also from close to the peripheries of CTHs. There are still around 750 villages in the CTHs of many tiger reserves. So far, only around 180 villages have been relocated. Madhya Pradesh alone, which has always been at the forefront of wildlife conservation, has relocated 79 villages from protected areas. It was Kanha that witnessed the first ever relocation of a village, Sonf, way back in 1969. The idea was met with bewilderment or even scepticism at the time. Regarded as the first village relocation after Independence, this site has since morphed into an excellent habitat of the hard ground barasingha, with, of course, other mega fauna and tigers. So far, Kanha has relocated 37 villages, reclaiming around 80 sq km of wildlife habitat, and the CTH is now completely free from biotic pressure.

The government has often been accused of having a coercive and top-down approach to managing protected areas, which has resulted in sociocultural interference and serious neglect of those living in these areas as far as their livelihood options and cultural heritage are concerned. While there might have been some aberrations in the past when the concept of relocation was new, at present there exists a collaborative paradigm that integrates humane relocation with conservation. The National Tiger Conservation Authority in collaboration with State governments offers two options for village relocation. Under Option I, a family is paid Rs.10 lakh for relocation. This option does not involve any departmental relocation or resettlement process. Under Option II, the Forest Department is responsible for the relocation and resettlement of villages.

India is changing fast, and villagers, too, often find it arduous to live inside CTHs. They suffer because many welfare schemes of the government cannot be implemented in villages in notified inviolate areas. There are always instances of man-animal conflict. Villagers lose cattle to predation by tigers. In general, their natural way of life is appallingly restricted by the “Don’ts” of tiger conservation, which is understandable. Besides, village residents have their own aspirations for future generations and want to join the mainstream of national development. But, relocation must be voluntary, well-compensated, transparent and hassle-free.

One must ensure that those who are relocated are well provided for in all possible respects at their new sites and that they do not consider themselves “displaced” or “dumped”. The government can also think of raising the current compensation package, which has been in force for around the past 10 years. This will encourage more villages to relocate. The compensation package for relocation can be made very attractive at least for some pioneer and high potential tiger reserves. This can only be achieved with some foresight and by interacting with the target villages.

Rakesh Shukla is Research Officer, Kanha Tiger Reserve.

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