Earning the stripes

Targets for timelines make for a good start but as a crucial tiger census report is set for release, experts say numbers alone don’t explain the complex make-up of tiger recovery in India, writes R Krishnakumar, on the occasion of Global Tiger Day


When the Global Tiger Recovery Program (GTRP) was rolled out in 2010, it announced the exigency and intent in rather dramatic terms. The programme, endorsed in the St Petersburg Declaration on Tiger Conservation, was billed as the “last best hope for tigers”. Inaction could lead to extinction of the “world’s most magnificent species”, the
programme’s executive summary had warned. Nine years into the ambitious programme, designed over the period between 2010 and 2022, the intent appears to have translated to a rise in the number of big cats in India, one of the 13 Tiger Range Countries (TRCs) in the GTRP. The TRCs’ shared goal of doubling the number of tigers globally by 2022 could still be viewed as unrealistic but conservationists see in these numbers a possibility to optimise ongoing efforts — in restoring a depleted prey base, reviving habitats, building new resources for site-specific strategies and more crucially, in improving protection of forests with minimal conflict.

Y V Jhala, scientist at the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India, sees in the task for 2022 a “good target for politicians” to work toward and feels that the post-2010 thrust has, despite setbacks in some of the TRCs, had impressive returns. The senior scientist is working on the 2018 tiger census, a project that monitors the status of tigers, co-predators, prey and their habitat in India. The report is scheduled to be released by the end of July. The previous report, compiled in 2014, put the total number of tigers in India at 2,226, a substantial jump on the 2010 figure of 1,706. In the 2014 report, tigers in India were recorded as occupying an area of 89,164 sq km; in 2006, the figure was 93,697 sq km, and in 2010, 81,906 sq km. Predictive estimates put the present number of tigers in the country at about 3,000, approximately 70% of the
global population.

“Since we didn’t have a clear baseline in terms of tiger numbers to start with, it’s difficult to compare the counts as they stand now. Countries including India and Bangladesh have shown a rise in numbers while Myanmar and Cambodia are losing tigers. The numbers are also dwindling in Malaysia and Thailand,” says Jhala. He observes that conserving the gene pool in its entirety will be a tough ask but the numbers do indicate a creditable start. Some of the conservation studies have pegged predictions on tiger population exclusively to the availability of prey, specifically ungulates.

Need of the hour

Conservationists and wildlife experts acknowledge that poaching, still a serious impediment to tiger recovery in India, is not quite the threat it used to be. With vast tracts of potential habitats available, the need to devise site-specific strategies and targets to enhance prey availability becomes key. Avani Kumar Verma, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka, points to the increased presence of invasive weed species in the Bandipur and Nagarahole tiger reserves to highlight the stress the prey base in these regions is in. Poaching is still happening but is under control, as the numbers reveal, says Jhala. Of the 103 tiger deaths that were reported in the country in 2018, 13 were traced to poaching. In 2017, poaching killed 27 tigers; the total number of deaths was 117.

“There’s sufficient habitat available — about 3,00,000 sq km across the 20 tiger range states; but there’s no prey in these forests. Reviving the prey base in these forest areas is crucial in taking conservation efforts forward. It takes time and political will,” says Jhala. Reports on deer and other animals straying out of their natural habitats,
in search of water and food, make a grim margin note to the story. Praveen Bhargav, trustee of Wildlife First, a Bengaluru-based conservation advocacy organisation, says prey populations have recovered in reserves with inviolate habitats where there is a multi-tiered protection mechanism comprising foot patrols, mobile patrols and
strategically located anti-hunting camps. “But many reserves are crying for improved protection. The key is in not lowering our guard. Eternal vigilance is the best mantra for wildlife protection,” he says. The overlapping of human settlements and wildlife is a reality that often contradicts the idea of peaceful co-existence.

Unnatural deaths

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), in its status report on tiger mortality between 2012 and 2018, said 138 of the total 657 deaths during the period happened due to poaching. Of the total number of tiger deaths, 35 were attributed to ‘unnatural’ causes, including accidents and conflicts. Only one of the 35 deaths was reported in 2018. Of the 60 tiger deaths reported so far this year, 25 happened outside tiger reserves. The latest in these deaths were reported on July 8 from the Chimur
Range of Maharashtra where an adult female and her two cubs died of suspected poisoning. The NTCA lists 87 of the 657 tiger deaths between 2012 and 2018 as ‘under scrutiny’. Verma recalls recent incidents involving tiger attacks on livestock and poisoning of tigers in ‘vengeful’ retaliation. “These incidents of conflict are disturbing. Given the shape and size of their present habitats, the tigers will stray. The way forward is in sensitising the local communities and trying to arrive at means to a viable co-existence. I don’t see outright relocation of people from protected areas as a very successful model,” he says.

The GTRP, in its summary note, lists “insufficient attention” to needs of local communities that live near tigers as a “likely risk”. Conservationists argue that inconsistencies in the execution of wildlife protection policies continue to set off confrontation, legal and otherwise. Mitigation of conflict is often endorsed as the first step, before possibilities to avoid the conflict are explored. A more proactive bureaucracy and dedicated budgets to address issues of conflict could drive the change but dialogue
has to start at the policy-framing level. The debate over the rights of forest-dwelling tribes and traditional forest-dwellers to the land they occupy has invariably drifted to confrontation. This appears to be a debate without conciliation, at times steered by questions based on selective evidence – has relocation of human settlements from protected areas not led to the resurgence of wildlife? Should we not bring man into the mix, as a stakeholder, when we are discussing wildlife conservation?

Fostering wildlife

Many conservationists oppose granting forest-dwellers rights to forests which they view as having contributed to forest decline, a position countered by activists who argue that the traditional practices followed by forest-dwellers over centuries has continued to foster wildlife. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 prevents eviction of forest-dwelling
scheduled tribes and traditional forest-dwellers without settlement of their forest rights that also entitle them to a “due compensation in case of eventuality of displacement”. Jhala feels that “incentivised, voluntary relocation” is the model to adopt. The NTCA’s relocation package – a compensation of Rs 10 lakh per family – has found takers but questions over delayed disbursement and loss of traditional livelihoods have not stopped. The dispute over relocation of people from 29 villages in Sariska Tiger Reserve (STR), in Rajasthan, is among the more recent cases.

Translocation of tigers was launched in STR after it lost its big cats in the mid-2000s, leading to a long-drawn, problematic relocation of villagers from the reserve. In 2014, STR had nine tigers. In June this year, the presence of three cubs in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan was authenticated through trap camera images. Forest Department officials, while welcoming the cubs to the reserve, are also looking at long-term plans to accommodate a potential rise in numbers. In 2014, the reserve had 37 tigers. “We haven’t had issues of prey unavailability in Ranthambore but tiger territory has expanded and man-animal conflict is a problem. The state government is identifying areas for potential relocation from villages. It’s an ongoing process; there could be resistance but some of the villagers support the move too,” says Sunil Saini, divisional forest officer, Ranthambore National Park.


The case for co-existence doesn’t find favour with conservationists who dismiss arguments that forest-dwellers have contributed to the rise in tiger numbers. Bhargav seeks a shift in focus — from banking on ‘number games’ to validate conservation efforts to raising questions on how India should protect its forests; questions that assume greater significance against the backdrop of interpretations of the Forest Rights Act. “Incentive-driven voluntary resettlement is indeed a win-win solution for both people and wildlife. There are many successful case studies in Karnataka and other states. One important ingredient is the involvement of dedicated local NGOs who can interface between the community and the bureaucracy,” he says.

Bhargav, who has represented his organisation on the National Board for Wildlife, believes that tiger conservation efforts were backed by stringent laws implemented before the rise in development activities around protected forests, and now it’s time to conserve these gains with enhanced protection. The Nagarahole-Bandipur-Mudumalai-Wayanad-BRT complex, spread over 6,000 sq km and home to about 400 tigers, is one region which has faced tremendous infrastructure development pressures, he says. Karnataka has topped national charts — 406 tigers in 2014, 300 in 2010 — but experts assert that the job’s far from done.

Efforts to take the idea of wildlife conservation closer to the people are seeing a shift in approach — from the rigours of top-down awareness programmes to the inclusiveness of community-based initiatives.

The Western Ghats chapter of WWF-India has, over the past couple of years, been promoting the message of tiger conservation by organising local volleyball games involving members of the Irula tribal community. D Boominathan, Landscape Coordinator of WWF India – Western Ghats Nilgiris, says a tournament organised last year in Kallampalayam in the Moyar River Valley, in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu, has doubled as campaign for conservation in the region. “The sport is played by over 15 local teams, all comprising youth from the community. The idea was to bring these teams and settlements together on a platform where they could share food, experiences, and work towards building a community dedicated to conservation,” says Boominathan.

Tournaments in the Kallampalayam settlement have entered the fifth year. Boominathan says the idea has caught on, setting off greater participation from other villages and in turn, opening up discussions regarding the community’s role in conservation efforts taken up in this crucial biodiversity zone which falls within the buffer limits of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve. The GTRP cites participatory, incentive-based initiatives that involve local communities as crucial in turning poachers – of both predator and prey – into protectors. “By having local communities as partners in these programmes, we are also trying to bring in a sense of ownership and responsibility among them on issues related to conservation. Mitigation of man-animal conflict has also been a key objective,” says Boominathan.

Imagined harmony

Ahead of the Global Tiger Day (July 29), an internet search for tiger-related news from India throws up reports diverse in content and tone. An in-principle clearance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests for exploration of Uranium in the Amrabad Tiger Reserve, in Telangana, has prompted questions on commitment to protection of tigers. In flood-hit Assam, a female tiger – reported to have fled the Kaziranga National Park – was found “relaxing” on a bed, at a shop. Plans are on to widen safari tracks inside the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. A study by the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology has traced high stress levels and poor reproductive health among tigers in three reserves to rise in tourist activity.

This is where we celebrate the tiger on tourism brochures and then, go on to make blockbuster films where the animal morphs into a stealthy, snarling super-villain. The irony is not lost on people who work on the ground but some of them also see possibility in the ingenuous model of conservation – co-existence with contradictions. Bhargav discredits that possibility by pointing to the Nagarahole National Park – “In a protected area, 6,000 people, more than 60 tigers and 100 elephants cannot live in some imagined harmony”.


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