Two cheers for Project Tiger

Print edition : August 28, 2020

Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar and Minister of State Babul Supriyo releasing a poster on the eve of the Golbal Tiger Day 2020, in New Delhi on July 28. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

MYSURU KARNATAKA 28/07/2020: Tiger numbers and density are high in Bandipur and Nagarahole in Karnataka. Photo:M.A.SRIRAM Photo: THE HINDU

The fourth tiger estimation report says India has achieved significant growth in its tiger population but conservation challenges such as poaching and fragmentation of habitats remain.

On July 29, on the occasion of Global Tiger Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released “Status of Tigers, Co-predators and Prey in India, 2018”, or the Fourth All India Tiger Estimation report. The 656-page report, which was due for release in September 2019, estimates India’s tiger population at 2,967, that is, 80 per cent of the global population. It has assessed the status of tigers across India in terms of spatial occupancy and density of individual populations. The report also states that India does the world’s largest camera trap survey of wildlife.

The detailed report is in addition to the summary report released by Modi in July 2019 on the “Status of Tigers in India”. It compares information obtained from the previous three tiger surveys, done in 2006, 2010 and 2014, with data obtained from the 2018-19 survey “to estimate population trends at country and landscape scales, patch colonisation [an individual or group of tigers establishing a new population in a previously empty habitat patch] and extinction rates along with information on likely factors responsible for changes in tiger status at the fine spatial resolution of 100 km.” The report acknowledges that “information generated by the earlier three cycles of tiger status evaluation exercises resulted in major changes in policy and management of tiger populations and provided scientific data to fully implement provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, as amended in 2006, in letter and spirit.”

The document evaluates the status of habitat corridors connecting major tiger populations and highlights vulnerable areas that require conservation attention for each landscape. It also provides information regarding the distribution and relative abundance of major carnivores and ungulates.

The report is an outcome of research and field work done by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the State forest departments. It is unique in that it has prepared an abundance index of co-predators and other species which was hitherto restricted to occupancy; for the first time calculated the sex ratio of tigers on the basis of camera trap images at all the sites; elaborated the anthropogenic effects on tiger population; and demonstrated for the first time tiger density within pockets in tiger reserves.

India’s commitment to global tiger conservation was affirmed on the release of the report. Apart from 80 per cent of the global tiger population, the country is home to more than 60 per cent of the global genetic variations in the species. In 2010, heads of government of 13 tiger range countries met in St. Petersburg, Russia, and agreed to mark July 29 as Global Tiger Day. The countries signed the St. Petersburg declaration on tiger conservation, which pledged to double tiger (Tx2) numbers across their range by 2022. Prime Minister Modi claimed that India could achieve this ahead of schedule.

A note from the Press Information Bureau issued after the release of the report said: “ During Global Tiger Day 2019, it was a proud moment for India as the Prime Minister declared to the world fulfilment of India’s resolve as it had doubled its tiger numbers four years in advance to the target year highlighting resolute action taken by all concerned.” In 2010, the National Tiger Assessment estimated the total population of tigers in India at 1,706. The 2018 estimation report has put the figure at 2,967. If India had achieved the target, number should have stood at 3,416. Is Modi’s claim correct?

The most obvious threat to large animals is encroachment, denudation and de-reservation of forests. The report estimates that India lost 4,685 square kilometres of tiger forests between 2011 and 2017. This loss was largely in the central Indian, Shivalik and Western Ghats tiger landscapes. There is unofficial information that high-altitude forests have increased slightly and this, to some extent, explains the tiger numbers declared in the summary report. That earlier report said that India’s tiger numbers had increased by 741 in four years ---from 2,226 in 2014 to 2,967 in 2018. With the forest cover shrinking, where did these tigers with their highly territorial nature go? The explanation seems to lie in the recordings made of tiger sightings in high-altitude forests.

The depletion of forest cover has to be halted and then reversed with reforestation and prevention of loss of protected areas. The report points out that “nearly 30 per cent of India’s tigers [are] outside tiger reserves...” which is why human-animal conflict is on the rise. While releasing the report, Babul Supriyo, Minister of State for Environment, remarked that “human-animal conflict can be avoided but it cannot be ruled out”. The problem is far greater than Supriyo’s perfunctory mention. News of wild animals being shot, stabbed or clubbed to death by people for entering human habitations is common, despite the fact that human habitations are encroachments on forest land. In 2018, in Maharashtra, a State known for its superior conservation record, the tigress Avni was labelled a man-eater and was shot dead by a state-hired shooter.

While the Maharashtra government has, on the whole, shown signs of concern for wildlife and forests, there is no such obvious commitment from the Centre. The gigantic infrastructure projects and the coal mines are examples of the so-called development initiatives that directly threaten the tiger’s survival. Coal is linked to forests and is, therefore, in competition with wildlife habitat. As the recent coal auctions held by the Centre show, commerce is getting priority over the environment.

Some committed individuals, forest staff and government officials in Maharashtra have helped increase the State’s tiger population to 312. Kishor Rithe, founder of Satpuda Foundation and a member of the Maharashtra State Board for Wildlife, has spent more than three decades in tiger conservation in the Vidarbha landscape in eastern Maharashtra and is familiar with the conservation challenges. . He is member of the Governing Council of the Maharashtra Zoo Authority and a partner in the Satpuda Landscape Tiger Partnership, and has served on the State Biodiversity Board and the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife. Rithe attributes the steady rise in the tiger population “to the positive results of village resettlement work and the arresting of the poaching threat”.

Satpuda Foundation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), has been instrumental in shifting human settlements out of protected areas in a manner satisfactory to all. He said the foundation’s aim 30 years ago was to restore the tiger population and to this end it focussed on removing the hurdles in tiger conservation. Pressure from villages situated in the core areas of tiger reserves and rampant poaching were two major issues. The Maharashtra government came up with a lucrative resettlement and rehabilitation package, expedited village resettlement work and took several measures to stop poaching. As a result, in 30 years the tiger population in the State increased from 100 to 300. “The credit for this goes to political will and hard-working forest staff/officers,” Rithe said.

There are similar stories across India.

In a news report on its website on July 29, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said India’s tiger recovery was a story of “astonishing hope”. It said: “With a number of India’s tiger reserves monitored since 2006 now holding tiger populations above carrying capacity, this presents a complex set of challenges ranging from loss of tiger corridors, habitat degradation to managing human wildlife conflict…. This is because humans and tigers overlap in extensive areas of tiger habitats and corridors, with communities relying on forests for fuelwood and other essential resources for their sustenance. Finding alternative solutions that improve community livelihoods and allow nature to flourish is crucial. One solution comes in the form of green enterprises and alternative income generation opportunities. These can alleviate excessive dependence on critical forest habitats, and help to garner active support for tiger conservation in the long run.”

In Uttarakhand, the WWF supports a micro-enterprise called Hameri, which involves women of six villages that fall in the critical buffer zone of the Corbett Tiger Reserve in the Terai Arc tiger landscape. The initiative provides livelihood options and garners support for tiger conservation by reducing the community’s dependence on forests.

The micro-enterprise “capitalises on traditional knowledge of the rural women, building their capacity to set up green enterprises selling traditionally produced food products such as pickles, juices and jams”.

But NGOs and committed wildlifers continue to face challenges. One persistent menace is mindless policies. Rithe said: “I hear there is a plan to shift 50 tigers from the Vidarbha landscape and sterilise 20 male tigers to control their growing numbers. These ideas come from people who do not understand the intricacies of tiger conservation. Only a few people understand the subject, and they still push such ideas because they don’t have the courage to convince their political bosses. Tigers have not reached the population level that calls for sterilisation or translocation. What is required is strengthening of tiger corridors.”

Rithe has for years been advocating that the “real issue lies in the weakening of tiger corridors and the fragmentation of habitats due to infrastructure projects and agricultural encroachments. Very few forest officers have the courage to tell their political bosses that this is one of the key issues to be tackled in tiger conservation. Linear infrastructure projects such as expressways, highways, railways, irrigation canals and transmission lines are coming up in corridors. Agricultural encroachments are fragmenting tiger corridors outside the protected areas and tiger reserves. The Ministries concerned hesitate to accept the responsibility of avoiding tiger corridors or adopting appropriate mitigation measures on their own while deciding their project alignments. Why do they need conservationists and courts to tell them to do this?”

Hopeful that the attitude of the government will change, he cited some positive developments. He said that in a May 2019 order the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways had called for bypassing protected areas while deciding road alignments, even if it involved taking a longer route. “The previous Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis, allocated enough money for wildlife mitigation structures on the Mumbai-Nagpur Samruddhi expressway. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray declared that the upgradation of the Akola-Khandwa metre gauge railway could be done outside the core area of the Melghat Tiger Reserve,” he said.