For future footsteps

Sure, India has come away from the brink of losing its tigers through concerted efforts over the years, but are they enough? Sanjay Gubbi attempts to answer where the country stands in its attempt to save this feline population

Tiger — a species that arouses sentiments, interest, and passion, and is at the centre stage of India’s, possibly the world’s, wildlife conservation movement. Where does the country stand in its attempt to save this iconic species?

Few would be surprised to know that our national animal — the tiger — was allowed to be hunted legally until it was banned in 1970. Elite safaris, considered a royal sport, were advertised to attract tourists to come and shoot tigers in this land of Mowgli. But in the late 60s, it was suspected that we had only 1,200 tigers left in the wild. A country long-known for its wildlife, specifically the tiger, was on its way to losing one of its iconic species.

A responsive government brought in legal modifications, new laws were enacted, reserves were gazetted, and many other initiatives were undertaken based on the low tiger numbers. Thus, numbers played a critical role in setting the alarm bells ringing. And, to this day, this continues to be one of the most critical questions that interest everyone.

How many tigers are there?

This is a key question for a common man, policymaker, tourist, and anyone interested in tigers. The question gets repeated at various spatial scales, for an individual reserve — to a state, from the national to the international scale. Though a few organisations started answering this question at a local scale, the big initiative came from the government, in the year 2005, after the uproar over the local extinction of tigers from Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. The government, through the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), in collaboration with The Wildlife Institute of India (WII), commenced a humongous exercise. Since then, numbers have been crunched to answer this question.

Though various critiques do exist about this population-monitoring exercise including methodological issues, it is commendable that an attempt is being made to answer a question at such a colossal scale. Despite all the climatic and geographical variations, paucity of skilled manpower, political and social problems, I wouldn’t fully discount the intent and results coming from this pursuit.

Positive criticism would help improve the methodology rather than merely carping at the entire process. It is akin to any other scientific exercise where protocols and quality of field data collection has its drawbacks and methodologies are regularly improved.

Perhaps we will never have a perfect monitoring exercise at the scale that works for a large country like India. All we can hope for is improved efforts.

These counting exercises act as a thermometer that serves as a health indicator of the species we are trying to conserve. Their numbers fluctuate for various reasons, both natural and unnatural. Natural deaths include animals dying due to old age, fights for dominance, natural accidents and other reasons. These are not causes of worry. However, it is a cause of serious concern if substantial animal deaths result from unnatural deaths such as poisoning, poaching, vehicular and train accidents, and retaliatory killing.

The government maintains an online, open access repository of tiger deaths, which it hasn’t done for any other species. This provides some indication of the threats the tiger faces. In the last seven years (2012-2018), it has recorded a total of 656 tiger mortality cases across the country (this does not include the mortalities that go undetected). Alarmingly, nearly 30.6% of the recorded tiger deaths are due to poaching and other unnatural causes. This is excluding 83 incidences of tiger body part seizures.

Even more worrying is that a total of 118 (18%) tiger deaths have remained inconclusive and reported as ‘under scrutiny’ even to this day. For instance, during 2018, of the 102 reported deaths, 61.7% deaths continue to reflect in the ‘under scrutiny’ category. And, the number of tiger deaths that have remained as ‘under scrutiny’ is on the rise annually. The deaths due to unnatural causes need to be brought down, and the cases in the ‘under scrutiny’ category have to be investigated and brought to their logical end.

This tiger death database needs to be regularly updated. Similarly, all records including postmortem, necropsy, mahajar, toxicology reports including pictures, should all be made public by hosting them on the forest department websites. This will ensure higher transparency, credibility, and support from the public. 

After all, tiger is our national animal and truly belongs to the people of this country.

Human-tiger conflict

One of the reasons for unnatural deaths is conflict. With an increase in tiger numbers at a few sites, due to ‘boots-on-the-ground’ protection, conflict seems to be on an upward trend. Tigers are prolific and adaptable species. Their populations reach their ecological carrying capacity (optimal number of animals an area can hold) when provided with the basics — sufficient space and food. At this juncture, older tigers are ousted from their territory by younger individuals and are forced to move out to forest edges or agricultural fields, plantations, and other such suboptimal habitats. Even severely injured tigers are displaced to such habitats. Here, they prey on livestock and occasionally kill people.

Since the conflict has a consequence on communities who live on the edges of tiger habitats, they respond with retaliatory actions. They poison livestock, and when the carnivore returns to finish the cache, it meets its end. Other extreme steps are taken too in order to reduce losses. Around the famed Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, the death of tigers due to electrocution correlated sharply with conflict incidences.

Such conflict does not end with the killing of tigers or people. But it builds up large-scale animosity towards tigers, and against wildlife conservation in general. This, at times, leads to intentional burning of forests during summer, non-cooperation to implement any conservation measures, assault on forest department staff and other similar consequences.
So how do we reduce conflict? There is no silver bullet to this problem. Conflict in high-density tiger areas has to be dealt with proactively, while the current measures are mostly reactive and ad hoc. Capacity-building to handle conflict situations, dedicated conflict mitigation teams, sufficiently trained wildlife veterinarians, and cordial relationships with local communities, are the need of the hour.

On the one hand, tiger numbers are increasing in small pockets, but their habitats are shrinking and getting disconnected. We, therefore, need to ensure that forests adjoining tiger reserves also receive adequate protection, so that injured and displaced animals can move into these buffer areas and still find natural prey. Similarly, we need to ensure that young, dispersing tigers are provided safe passage to reach newer and larger habitats. This can be achieved by protecting corridors that connect two large tiger habitats. This is no different from ensuring a new house to children who move out of their parents’ abode.

Currently, we manage individual tiger reserves as though they were ecologically independent. But in Karnataka, our studies show that tigers move between reserves based on their ecological needs. In the Male Mahadeshwara Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka, we have documented tigers coming in from the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple and Satyamangalam Tiger Reserves. Hence a management plan that encompasses all these areas that cut across reserves and state boundaries is required. Further, studies to understand how and where young tigers disperse are required, which can help implement landscape-level tiger conservation.

Conflict & animal rights

Conflict also has strange angles to it. In November 2018, a tigress was shot dead in the Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, who was named ‘Avni’ by enthusiastic nature lovers. The larger conservation community was divided in its views as the story around this animal unfolded. The tigress was alleged to be the cause of several human deaths, as she kept moving with her two cubs. Officially declared a ‘man-eater’, it was decided to put down the tigress. The entire episode went into a roller coaster of controversies, court battles, online campaigns, candlelight protests, and even political sledging. Two issues took centre stage ­— that it was unnecessary to put down the animal, and secondly, the fact that an external shooter was employed by the Maharashtra Government for the task. Finally, there were issues of procedural lapses after the animal was put down.

Most people with experience in tiger conservation, who could have provided some logical suggestions, remained mute and stayed away from making any public statements fearing backlash and negative publicity. Finally, when the animal was put down, local villagers celebrated while the largely urban activists called it ‘state-sponsored fake encounter’.
This incident highlights the direction in which wildlife conservation, especially with celebrity species, has been drifting towards in the country. The divide has become extremely wide with very little rational thinking about solving an incidence of a negative interface between man and a wild animal.

Unfortunately, little action happens or evokes similar passion when tens of tigers are poached, or large swathes of tiger habitats are ripped to construct dams, highways, dug up for mining natural resources, thousands of acres of wildlife habitat are set on fire or, tigers, leopards or elephants are killed in vehicular or train accidents.
Ironically, the forest area where Avni was found was recently given away to a private firm. Unfortunately, the once vociferous warriors who took Avni’s side after her death are disinterested in raising objections to this. When such wanton destruction of wildlife habitat is carried out with total disregard to existing laws, voices are not raised except by a microscopic set of people.

Loss of habitat & food source

Though the country needs infrastructure development, the recent expansion of rail and road networks, industries, and activities that extract natural resources have all reached colossal scales with total disregard to wildlife conservation, and the laws that protect them.

The death of tigers due to unnatural reasons other than poaching is increasing, where the majority is contributed by road and train accidents. Solutions that are sustainable for both wildlife and development are needed, and not answers that are a mere greenwash. As we offer suggestions, and at times implement mitigation measures, we need to ensure that post-implementation evaluation is scientifically undertaken and corrective measures are implemented in future projects. Mitigation measures should be arrived at after seeking expert inputs from biologists, and should not be based on the opinions of engineers who excel in road construction. The recent report on linear infrastructure brought out by the Wildlife Institue of India (WII) has valid and implementable points.

Though we are a mere three-and-a-half months into 2019, 11 tiger deaths have been recorded due to poaching so far, or have been documented as tiger part seizures by the Wildlife Protection Society of India. This is a rather high number of unnatural mortalities in just three months.
In the recent past, there have been a high number of incidences of elephant poaching and seizure of tusks recorded from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Is this an indicator of renewed poaching efforts? Is the tiger also being targeted in a similar fashion something that needs to be ascertained?

Without a doubt though, the hunting of tiger’s prey — gaur, sambar, chital, four-horned antelope, chinkara and wild pig — is widespread and rampant. This is especially higher outside protected areas where tigers continue to survive. Such rampant poaching greatly imperils the survival of tigers outside protected areas, and could also be a key cause of conflict.

The future

The future of tigers in our country will not look bleak if we did the right things at this juncture, as many of the after-effects such as fragmentation impacts can be seen after a few years, or sometimes after decades. Though the government, and in particular the forest department, accomplished the challenging task of stabilising tiger numbers, the future is what needs to be considered while implementing present policies and actions.

Unfortunately, among conservationists, tiger, or in reality wildlife conservation, is now a matter of mere notional activities through various medium, or short-term emotional outbursts, or social media posts.
Any conservation work that needs a long-term sustained campaign and collaboration with government and other key stakeholders that can bring about real change, or activities that will remotely displease anybody, are all seen as ‘controversial’, and those who involve themselves in it too are deemed ‘controversial’.

Is this an obituary to India’s famed conservation movement that contributed immensely to save the tiger and other wildlife in our country?
It is high time we looked at the larger picture of tiger conservation that includes the protection of habitats from various threats, and managing conflict.

Mere notional or celebratory activities or outbursts, though appealing, are perhaps not the recipe to save the iconic species or any other wildlife species and their habitats.

This is especially true in a country that is complex, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and where conservation is driven by many facets of society.

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