King is still endangered

JULY 29 IS WORLD TIGER DAY

Tiger in a beautiful golden light in the nature habitat, Ranthambhore National Park, Indiacorbett national park

The tiger, measuring on average some 3.3 meters (11 ft) in length and 300 kilos in weight, is truly a majestic animal. Hunting mostly in the night, and able to run at nearly 60 kmph, it brooks no competition in its territory.  It can swim up to 6 kmph, and rules whatever it surveys in the jungle. Thus, it’s truly the king of the forest. It’s also India’s ‘national animal’.

There are six sub species of tigers -- namely Sumatran, Siberian, Bengal, Indo-Malay, South China and Indo-China tigers. As a species, they are highly endangered and threatened with extinction, notwithstanding all the conservation measures being taken for some 3,890 tigers in the wild the world over, up from 3,200 in 2010. The aim was to double the tiger population by 2020, which looks like a daunting task when one remembers that the Cambodian tiger is already extinct in so far as productive tiger population is concerned.

There were 2,226 tigers in India in 2015, up 30% since 2010 (although this figure is contested by some conservationists), which is slightly more than 60% of the world tiger population. This population survives in 50 tiger reserves covering some 71,000 sq km across the country. Poaching is still the biggest threat. Some 120 to 140 tigers are reported dead every year in India alone. This has spurred the above-mentioned nations to jointly take measures to save them through global action.

The threat and conservation patrol perception was recently assessed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority through a security audit by the Global Tiger Forum, along with other tiger range countries, namely, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Russia. But unless the demand for tiger parts as mythical magic potion stops, these animals will continue to be endangered.

There are other reasons for this situation. These include the alarming rate of deforestation of tiger areas and the destruction of their habitats, despite declaring the latter as tiger conservation areas the world over. These forests are destroyed in the name of development, expansion of agriculture, plantation crops like soya, rubber, palm oil, and the like. Tiger corridors get fragmented and invasive species destroy the prey base. The spiralling growth of hugely attractive tiger tourism (worth millions of dollars) has become another major concern for conservationists.

On top of it all is the still persisting pathetic condition of the measures taken for tiger protection, including dwindling, untrained, ill-equipped and demotivated staff, poor infrastructure and the absence of larger goals in the management of tiger protection areas. Even the half-hearted and semi-stitched measures taken to address some of these issues have suffered due to lack of sufficient budgets and timely release of the same.

Another major reason is the complete absence of empathy with the tiger projects in the minds of the locals who live in and around these protected areas. The villagers and the locals still see these programmes as government-owned and see no role or stake for themselves in tiger protection. The resulting apathy of the natives has meant that these conservation measures are not people-oriented, which is what it must be if the objectives of tiger conservation are to be achieved.

In India, one big jolt came when the central government slashed the funds for Project Tiger -- from 100% share to 60% in the centrally sponsored schemes. This has left the project hugely starved of budget, despite increased allocation by the Centre of Rs 300 crore, up from Rs 160 crore, this financial year. This needs to be reversed as states have hardly any funds to cough up the remaining 40%.

Yet another critical gap is the lack of follow-up action on unnatural deaths reported in the project areas. Very few cases are thoroughly investigated by the authorities, and it is business as usual after an initial flurry of routine noises.

Some steps that need to be taken are to protect the habitat, build capacity in tiger range states, reduce conflict with human populations, conduct scientific research, promote tiger-centric policies and monitor tiger population trends along with making a threat assessment.

The human factor

A debate has been raging as to whether people should be allowed to stay in core areas or they ought to be persuaded to come out. Despite lots of financial incentives, not many are willing to take up the offer for voluntary relocation, primarily due to a lack of faith in the bureaucracy, besides of course the fear of being uprooted, howsoever tough life may be in the jungle.

The passage of the Forest Rights Act of 2006 has also dissuaded many from leaving their traditional dwelling areas. Then, there are vested interests that force people to decline relocation offers. It is seen that in many extremist-effected tiger zones, the tribals are not allowed to exercise the relocation option, lest it is considered a victory for the establishment, and loss for the Maoists.

Although a few protected areas have been brought within the ambit of eco-sensitive zones, this gets nullified when the government itself allows diversion of Project Tiger areas for non-forestry purposes. Recent diversion of forest land in Melghat is a classic example. Many such projects have been cleared in the recent past and many more are in the pipeline.

What is needed is a statesman-like approach and for governments to learn to explore alternatives. It is not that one project is the issue; it is the corridor connectivity that gets affected. Moreover, it sends out the wrong signal about sincerity of purpose and betrays lack of total commitment. There should be zero tolerance for diversion of tiger lands in the name of development.

(The writer is a former principal chief conservator of forests, Karnataka)

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