India's tigers struggle for space

India's tigers struggle for space


India's tigers struggle for space

In March this year, the Ministry of Environment announced that the tiger population of the country had increased from 1,411 in 2006 to 1,706 in 2010.

This caused a flutter among environmentalists around the world, who hailed India’s efforts to finally usher in some good news when most other species under threat were still in the danger zone. But amidst the celebration, what got overlooked was the other revelation of the census - the fact that more than 12 per cent of the habitat of the Indian national animal has shrunk in the past four years.

The combined effect of the two statistics therefore alters the picture in a major way. It signals a warning that if the imbalance continues, it can only lead to further problems for the animal and the entire ecosystem of the country.

The report ‘Status of Tigers in India’ cited two important points. The surveyors found that compared to 2006, the estimates showed a 20 per cent increase in the tiger population. They also found that tigers now occupied an alarmingly lesser area than 2006. From 93,600 square kilometres to just 72,800 square kilometres, their home had shrunk. What further added to the worry is that close to 30 per cent of the  estimated tiger population was outside the 39 tiger reserves and India does not have a strategy to protect the big cats in these areas.

The real picture
For tigers in India today, therefore, the scenario is far from being less threatening. In fact, it has turned more complicated because while the number of tigers has increased, there is not enough space to contain them. According to the report, the loss of habitat has been mostly in places outside the protected areas. This means that man is literally eating up the forests, and beyond the protected fences, tigers face a certain death.

Biologists say this is a rather alarming turn of events because it may not just lead to more human-animal conflict in the future but also restrict the healthy growth of tiger numbers. With no access to different breeding populations in other parts of the country, the genetic exchange will be reduced to zero and inbreeding will eventually weaken the entire tribe of an area.

The greatest fear now is that if the tiger population is wiped out at one place, it can still be re-introduced, but if it does not have any place to live, no amount of re-introduction and relocation can help in its survival.

Y V Jhala, lead author of the report says, “The loss of corridors does not bode well for the tiger. Poaching can wipe out individual tiger populations, but these can be re-established by reintroductions as has been done in the Sariska and Panna Reserves. However, once habitats are lost, it is almost impossible to reclaim them for restoration.”

The most natural progression for the tigers looking for new territories is to roam outside the protected areas and under current circumstances that is what might spell their doom. First they will not find a habitat they are used to and second they will face humans. Looking at India’s history of tackling incidents such as these, the wild animal will unquestionably be the last one to be saved if human life is threatened.

Tiger and its habitat
India is home to half of the world population of tigers with just 3,600 tigers worldwide. We have a significant role in ensuring that the species is protected not just for the sake of the country, but for the whole world.

Within the country, the Nagarhole-Mudumalai-Bandipur-Wayanad reserve forests have 534 tigers, which has the single largest population of tigers in the world. This proves that especially in the Western Ghats belt, the increasing population needs more habitat, and the major hindrance to declaring more protected areas is infrastructure growth.

“Many tiger reserves are under threat from coal mining, hydel power projects and irrigation projects. There is a need for nine per cent economic growth and there is no dispute in that, but we have to reconcile growth with environment,” said former environment minister Jairam Ramesh. The task now is to have a multiple action plan. Reduce poacher insurgency, increase forest cover, reduce human-animal conflict and increase protected areas.

India’s chance to save the tiger is also a chance for the country to save its forests and create a self-sustaining ecosystem. Rising tiger numbers is not a hindrance to growth but a means to sustain it. The problem is not restraining the tigers, but finding equilibrium between development and biodiversity. If India can step up to the challenge, then the country can rightly take pride in its efforts to save tigers.