India’s tigers need bigger homes

Jai, the tiger, emerging from a waterhole at Ranthambore National Park in June 2018. Photo/Dinesh Allamaprabhu

India’s tiger conservation efforts have been richly rewarded with the latest tiger census revealing a sharp increase in the tiger population. According to Tiger Census 2018, there are 2,967 tigers in India, up from 2,226 in 2014. This is a whopping 33% leap in the number of tigers in the country over a four-year period. The absolute number of tigers as well as the rate of increase in the tiger population has grown over the past decade. Tiger numbers rose from 1,411 in 2006 to 1,706 in 2010 and 2,226 in 2014. This was a 21% increase between 2006 and 2010 and a 30% increase between 2010 and 2014. The conservation efforts of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have been a roaring success; tiger numbers rose in those states by 71% and 64%, respectively. This has enabled Madhya Pradesh to snatch the title of India’s ‘tiger state’ from Karnataka. As for Panna, which lost all its tigers some years ago to poachers, it has bounced back now with 30 tigers.

However, overall figures mask underlying problems. Tiger populations are dwindling in states like Chhattisgarh, where numbers dropped from 46 in 2014 to 19 in 2018. No tigers were found at reserves in Buxa (West Bengal), Dampa (Mizoram) and Palamau (Jharkhand). The robust performance of a few states appears to be pulling up nation-wide figures. Authorities need to figure out the reasons why some states are laggards when it comes to tiger conservation. Is the presence of Maoists in Chhattisgarh enabling poachers to operate freely in its forests. Are areas near India’s border with China, which is the main market for tiger body parts, more prone to poaching?

Going forward, India will need to rethink its unplanned infrastructure development in forests and surrounding areas. Currently, roads and railway lines are cutting through tiger habitats. Extension of NH-7, for example, is seriously fragmenting the Kanha-Pench tiger corridor. If forest corridors vanish, so will the tiger. Movement of tigers should not be restricted as the consequent increase of stress levels over prolonged periods reduces their immunity and lifespan. The rise in tiger numbers can prove detrimental if we do not provide them enough land to roam free and without fear. If protected areas are not expanded, man-tiger conflicts will increase. Instances of mobs lynching tigers or tigers mauling people will grow. There is a need for conservation activists and forest officials to work with people living in villages bordering tiger habitats. They must be made important stakeholders in the conservation of forests and wildlife.

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