[Commentary] Tiger-tiger burning bright: Historical efforts have yielded conservation results

  • From following an archaic method to adopting a scientific method of estimating the tiger population, India has come a long way over the past decade in tiger conservation, ensuring that there is a steady rise in the population of tigers.
  • However, India’s national animal continues to face threats from the shrinkage of its habitat, biotic interference, hunting of prey animals, poaching and poisoning.
  • While a lot has been done for tiger conservation in India over the last 15 years, a lot more still needs to be done, argues former Deputy Inspector General of the National Tiger Conservation Authority S.P. Yadav.
  • In this commentary, Yadav calls for the establishment of more tiger reserves, protecting habitat fragmentation, aggressive use of technology to protect them, heightened security measures, protecting wildlife corridors, control tourism pressure, win the support of local people and control human-tiger conflict.

The hall at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s residence was filled with a sense of jubilation as he announced the results of the 2018 countrywide tiger estimation on July 29, 2019, Global Tiger Day. The PM announced that India’s tiger numbers have risen to 2,967 and the country has achieved its target of doubling tiger numbers, four years ahead of the scheduled deadline of 2022, as per the 2010 St Petersburg Declaration on tiger conservation

Now, among all 13 tiger range countries in the world, only India, besides Nepal, has the distinction of doubling its tiger numbers from the baseline year of 2010, well ahead of the 2022 deadline. While the tiger population has shown an increasing trend in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Russia, in all other countries the population is declining. In countries like Cambodia and Vietnam, either they have lost all their tigers or do not have functional tiger populations in the wild. 

India’s tiger estimation which shows an increase in tiger numbers over the last decade, is a testimony of the hard labour put in by thousands of forest and wildlife staff, who are the foot soldiers at the frontlines, fighting the battle tirelessly, round the clock to save the national animal and its habitat, despite the vagaries of weather, floods, forest fires, drought, frost. 

Improvement in survey techniques

It is not just the tiger numbers that have improved but the very method of estimating tigers has improved too over the decades. E.P. Gee (1966) estimated the existence of 40,000 tigers in India at the end of the 19th century and about 4,000 in 1965. According to Jim Corbett (1955), the number of tigers in the country was not more than 2,000. A systematic state-wise estimate was made in 1969 and the number of tigers existing then was considered to be about 2,500. 

But in 1972, a more systematic pugmark based census was organised by collecting field information from each forest block by tracing footprints and assessing the tiger population by direct or indirect intersection. This estimated their numbers at 1,827. The systematic, pug mark basis, census of the tiger population started in 1972 and continued till 2001-02. 

But what brought a huge change in the estimation method of the tiger population was the disappearance of tigers from the Sariska Tiger Reserve in 2005. I would say that this was the biggest crisis faced in the history of tiger conservation in India. The government responded by appointing a tiger task force that was mandated not only to look into causes of tiger disappearance from Sariska but also to look into the practice of tiger conservation in the country and give recommendations so that a Sariska-like situation does not arise anywhere else. 

The report of the task force observed that the pug-mark method of counting tigers as the best example of the practice has become unscientific over time, and agreed that this method needs to be replaced by more scientific robust methodology.

The pugmark method of the total count was seriously flawed and had a lot of scope for manipulation of data. Based on the recommendation of the tiger task force, the scientific methodology of tiger estimation, using camera traps and sign surveys in statistical framework, was adopted. 

The first countrywide estimation, following the new methodology, was conducted in 2006 and its results were declared in 2008. This estimation resulted in an all-time low tiger estimate of 1,411.

After accepting the recommendation of the tiger task force, the government kickstarted several transformational actions. The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 was amended in 2006 and a separate chapter on tiger was inserted, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau were created, methodology of tiger estimation was changed to more robust and scientific one using camera traps, core-buffer-corridor strategy was adopted, village rehabilitation on a voluntary basis with generous incentive was introduced and so on. All these actions paved the way for tiger recovery in India.

India is home to nearly 3,000 tigers. Photo by S.P. Yadav.

Read more: More tigers recorded, but with habitats under threat will the uptick continue?

[Commentary] Does India’s tiger conservation policy impact local people and the forest?

Factors adversely affecting the tiger population

The depletion of the tiger population in the country has been mainly due to shrinkage of tiger habitat, biotic interference in habitat, hunting of prey animals, poaching of tigers and poisoning. In a mass hunting tribal tradition in Odisha and West Bengal, and some parts of Chhattisgarh, for example, hunters wipe out any wild animal they encounter.

As estimated in the 2014 all-India tiger estimation, approximately 26 percent tiger population is outside tiger reserves. These tigers are most vulnerable to poaching as the status of protection is lesser in such areas as compared to the tiger reserves. 

The big cat is also facing threat from the degradation of forest status outside protected areas/tiger reserves due to human pressure, livestock pressure, ecologically unsustainable land uses, fragmentation leading to loss of gene flow from source populations, loss of forest quality in terms of prey biomass, loss of reproduction due to disturbance on account of heavily used infrastructure like highways and lack of adequate protection in outside areas, insurgency, law and order problems. 

Over the past decade or so, tiger conservation has received a lot of attention. Backed by solid science, tiger conservation in India has evolved more into scientific management based on reserve specific tiger conservation plans. In 2010, when the tiger numbers were 1,411, an all-time low, the number of tiger reserves was 38 and, at present, the number of tiger reserves has gone up to 50. 

The protection level for tigers has also increased over the years. Now, funding support is provided to deploy local people as tiger protection force which is a great means of providing a livelihood to the local people besides ensuring their support in tiger conservation. The Special Tiger Protection Force Battalions have been created and stationed in sensitive tiger reserves. 

As envisaged by the tiger task force, now all tiger reserves have buffer areas notified which provide a cushion to the core areas of tiger reserves from the adverse impact of biotic pressure and the threat of poaching.

Huge investment has gone into the creation of inviolate space which acts as the nucleus from where tigers disperse into surrounding areas and which facilitates breeding of tigers. Since the inception of Project Tiger in April 1973, approximately 14,441 families have been rehabilitated outside tiger reserves from the core areas. All the vacated lands from such relocation have been converted into grasslands supporting a large number of herbivore population. 

Since the launch of Project Tiger, the funding support provided till 11th plan was only Rs 1,092.85 crore (Rs 10.92 billion), followed by Rs 166.7 (Rs 1.6 billion) and 172.29 crore (Rs 1.72 billion) during 2012-13 and 20113-14 respectively. Whereas, from 2014-15 to 2019-20, the total budget allocation to Project Tiger has gone up to Rs 1,768.23 crore (Rs 17.68 billion). This significantly higher central assistance during the NDA regime has helped the tiger reserves in strengthening protection, infrastructure in reserves, deployment of human resources, intensive monitoring and so on.

Human-tiger conflict is a significant threat to the tiger population in India. Photo by S.P. Yadav.

Read more: Save tiger reserves and reap trillions in economic benefits, says report

Tigers are vanishing outside protected areas in the northeast

What next?

Looking into a long history of successful tiger conservation in India, the question arises — what’s next? What more could be done to sustain the tiger population in the country? Can the tiger population be increased further? 

Yes, there is a scope for more improvement. 

There is a low density of tigers in many tiger reserves and in some tiger reserves, there are pockets of low density. Buxa, Dampa, Achanakmar, Palamau, Udanti-Sitanadi, Nagarjunsagar-Srisailam, Amrabad, Dandeli-Anshi, Sanjay-Dubri, Satpuda, Namdapha, Dibang, Similipal, Satkosia are some tiger reserves, where tigers may be translocated but only if enough prey population exists. In such areas, in-situ prey population augmentation must be taken up first besides improving the status of protection. 

The government also needs to bring more areas under Project Tiger. There are several tiger rich habitats with great potential like Ratapani, Ranipur, Sohagibarwa, Suhelwa, Durgawati, Karbi-Anglong, Wayanad, Sunabeda, Guru Ghasi Das, Megamalai, Mhadei, Dibang, Cauveri-MM Hills and Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary/National Parks, which should be declared as tiger reserves.

Though voluntary rehabilitation of people living in the core and critical tiger habitat is ongoing since the launch of Project Tiger, the pace is too slow. There are still about 42,398 families in villages inside the core areas of tiger reserves. Therefore, on a voluntary basis, generous incentive-driven aggressive efforts are needed on the ground to create more inviolate space for tigers and bringing these people in the mainstream of development of the country. 

The tiger cell in the Wildlife Institute of India may be entrusted to develop protocols on use of technology in monitoring, tracking, intrusion detection, limiting movement of animals, virtual fencing, sensors to detect animal/poacher movement, e-surveillance, drones, robots, drones with night vision, drones with capacity to dart animals and so on. 

India shares its tiger landscape boundaries with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The status of tigers on either side will have positive or negative effects on each other. Therefore, it is imperative to establish transborder tiger reserves/protected areas with these countries, and conduct joint monitoring and patrolling on a regular basis. 

Also, tigers cannot survive in islands of protected areas. They need a corridor for dispersal to establish their territories in the newer areas. Though corridors have been identified at the macro level as a part of the all India tiger estimation, they need to be identified, managed and restored at micro-level besides regular monitoring. 

Some tiger reserves in the country like Corbett, Ranthambhore, Kanha, Pench (MP), Bandhavgarh, Tadoba, Periyar, Bandipur face tremendous pressure of tourism. A large number of resorts and hotels have mushroomed in the vicinity of these tiger reserves. The number of beds in such facilities is far greater than the cap on the number of tourists allowed to visit the tiger reserve based on their carrying capacity. In such high demand areas, tiger safaris must be established on a priority basis to ease out the pressure on tiger reserves. These safaris will also help in generating much-needed resources for tiger conservation, besides generating local employment.

When the ongoing centrally sponsored scheme of Project Tiger was revised in 2008, a component of rehabilitation of hunting tribes was included. However, no state has used funding support under this component so far and not a single family from the hunting community has been rehabilitated. This needs greater attention of the state governments to wean the people away from the traditional hunting practices and join the mainstream of development.

The benefit of tiger conservation must flow to the local people who sacrifice the most for the sake of the animal’s conservation. This benefit must be direct and substantial to win the support of local people in conservation. India being a heavily populated country, conservation cannot succeed without the support of local people. There is hardly any state sharing the direct benefit of ecotourism with the local people as envisaged in the ecotourism guidelines notified in 2012 by the NTCA. Payment of ecosystem services to the locals will make them partners in tiger conservation.

The human-tiger and other wildlife conflict is the biggest challenge before the wildlife managers, and the frontline staff lacks the capacity to deal with it. The ever increasing human-wildlife conflicts in several parts of the country call for the creation of a National Centre for Human-Wildlife Interface (NCHWI) which would develop protocols, conduct research, and devise strategy and techniques to deal with different situations of conflict, besides building the capacity of the staff and rapid response teams of states. 

Wildlife corridors are vital for the survival of tiger population. Photo by S.P. Yadav.

This is also the time to create a Wildlife Rapid Action Force (WRAF) which will be a highly skilled commando-like force with an acumen to deal with emergency situations arising out of straying of tigers, leopards and elephants in a human-dominated landscape. Supported by airlifting, this elite force will be always available to conduct rescue operations in any part of the country. 

With 1.3 billion people, the creation of jobs, feeding the population, growth and development is a complex issue. There is a huge challenge of balancing competing economic interests without compromising the integrity of our tiger landscapes and corridors. About 350 sweetwater streams either originate from the tiger reserves or have their major catchments in tiger reserves, therefore, for water security of the country alone, we need to conserve and protect the tigers and their habitat.

For the future, the task is formidable. 

[Dr. S P Yadav, IFS, is the former Deputy Inspector General of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Government of India.]


Banner image: Tiger reserves are important for India’s water security. Photo by S.P. Yadav.

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