THERE IS HOPE FOR THE TIGER YET

WHILE THE TIGER POP­U­LA­TION IS ON THE RISE, SUS­TAIN­ING THEIR NUMBERS WILL BE AN UP­HILL BAT­TLE

India Today - - WILDLIFE - BY RAHUL NORONHA

AAmid the sto­ries of forests lost to ram­pant min­ing, rivers clog­ging, large dams eat­ing into prime wildlife habi­tat and av­er­age tem­per­a­tures ris­ing came the un­ex­pected and heart­en­ing news that India had recorded its high­est ever in­crease in tiger numbers since the adop­tion of the new cen­sus method­ol­ogy in 2006.

Ac­cord­ing to the find­ings of the fourth cy­cle of the ‘All India Tiger Es­ti­ma­tion, 2018’, an­nounced by Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi on Global Tiger Day on July 29, the tiger pop­u­la­tion in the coun­try in­creased from 2,226 in 2014 to 2,967 (es­ti­mated range of 2,603- 3,346) in 2018, mark­ing a jump of 33 per cent over the last cy­cle. “The story that be­gan with ‘Ek Tha Tiger’ has reached ‘Tiger Zinda Hai’, but it should not end there. That will not be ac­cept­able,” said PM Modi.

Nine years ago, at the Saint Peters­burg Tiger Sum­mit 2010, 13 tiger range coun­tries, in­clud­ing India, had pledged to a global tiger re­cov­ery pro­gramme, agree­ing to dou­ble tiger numbers in their re­spec­tive coun­tries by 2022. At the time, India’s tiger count, ac­cord­ing to the 2006 cen­sus, was at 1,411. The coun­try has clearly made good on that prom­ise and with four years to spare.

With 526 tigers, Mad­hya Pradesh has re­claimed the ‘tiger state’ tag that it lost to Kar­nataka in 2010. The south­ern state is now a close sec­ond with 524 tigers. The sur­vey also found 25,709 sq km worth of new area oc­cu­pied by tigers in 2018.

But, have the threats to the tiger been mit­i­gated and is this growth in numbers sus­tain­able? Wildlife ex­perts sug­gest that one of the biggest causes for the in­crease in numbers has been the breed­ing pop­u­la­tions out­side tiger re­serves. While the cen­sus does not pro­vide a break-up of the num­ber of tigers within and out­side re­serves as yet, there are in­di­ca­tions that the pop­u­la­tions that spilled out of re­serves have, more or less, es­tab­lished them­selves in th­ese new habi­tats. Th­ese pop­u­la­tions have been sup­ported by stronger protection mea­sures. In Bhopal, the for­est depart­ment claims the pres­ence of 10 tigers, some oc­ca­sion­ally mak­ing an ap­pear­ance within mu­nic­i­pal ar­eas. Besides Bhopal, tigers have been re­ported from ter­ri­to­rial forests (out­side pro­tected ar­eas) in Rewa, De­was, Panna, Ch­hind­wara, Balaghat and Shah­dol dis­tricts in Mad­hya Pradesh.

More in­vi­o­late habi­tats have been cre­ated for tigers in the last few years. In 2014, the num­ber of pro­tected ar­eas in India stood at 692, this num­ber has in­creased to 869 in 2019. Even ex­ist­ing tiger re­serves that hadn’t shown tiger

pres­ence ear­lier, have seen a change. “In Mad­hya Pradesh alone we have moved out 50 vil­lages from our re­serves in the last few years. The aban­doned ar­eas have re­sulted in new grasslands, brought in her­bi­vores which, in turn, have at­tracted car­ni­vores. Kanha, Pench and Sat­pura re­serves do not have any vil­lages within their core ar­eas now,” says J.S. Chauhan, ad­di­tional prin­ci­pal chief con­ser­va­tor of forests, wildlife wing, Mad­hya Pradesh. Ex­perts be­lieve that the jump in numbers could, to an ex­tent, also be due to bet­ter re­port­ing of data in 2018 com­pared to pre­vi­ous years, when data may have been un­der-re­ported from the field. Poach­ing too has been con­trolled to a great ex­tent, say ex­perts. It is not clear whether in­ter­na­tional pres­sure on the South East Asian coun­tries where tiger mer­chan­dise is in de­mand has re­sulted in re­duced poach­ing or whether it is stronger en­force­ment of laws, but poach­ing cases are on the de­cline. In Mad­hya Pradesh, the cases of poach­ing, as com­pared to nat­u­ral death, have fluc­tu­ated—from eight out of 31 in 2016, to nine out of 24 in 2017 to six out of 27 in 2018. How­ever, Ar­jun Gopalaswam­y of the In­dian Sta­tis­ti­cal In­sti­tute and renowned wildlife bi­ol­o­gist K. Ul­las Karanth have raised crucial ques­tions about the last three cen­sus method­olo­gies in an ar­ti­cle ti­tled ‘How Sam­pling Based Overdis­per­sion Un­der­mines India’s Tiger Mon­i­tor­ing Or­tho­doxy’. “What has been re­leased is a sum­mary. Once the full re­port is re­leased, it would con­tain suf­fi­cient de­tails on the field and an­a­lyt­i­cal method­olo­gies used and would also al­low in­de­pen­dent analy­ses,” says Gopalaswam­y. Con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist Raghu Chun­dawat, among the first to point out the de­clin­ing num­ber of tigers at Panna Na­tional Park, largely ac­cepts the find­ings, but is cu­ri­ous about some of its as­pects. “In past op­er­a­tions, tigers below the age of 1.5 years weren’t in­cluded. This has been brought down to 1 year. Why? How many tigers has this re­duc­tion con­trib­uted to the count?” he says. “There is some­thing called con­ser­va­tion am­ne­sia. For ev­ery gen­er­a­tion the base­line numbers change. So, while numbers may have in­creased from the 2006 cen­sus, the first cen­sus held in 1973, al­beit with a dif­fer­ent method­ol­ogy, had also pegged the num­ber of tigers at around 2,500,” he adds. The area sur­veyed has also in­creased com­pared to the last three cen­sus op­er­a­tions. “For me, suc­cess of tiger con­ser­va­tion is not grounded in numbers. It’s about keep­ing the tiger ge­og­ra­phy in­tact, which other coun­tries have not been able to do,” he says. The next ques­tion in the minds of wildlife ex­perts is whether there can be a fur­ther in­crease and whether th­ese numbers are even sus­tain­able con­sid­er­ing that tiger habi­tats are con­stantly un­der threat of re­duc­tion. The is­sue gains sig­nif­i­cance given that tigers are ter­ri­to­rial an­i­mals and each spec­i­men re­quires a cer­tain min­i­mum area to thrive. The fact re­mains that forests are still be­ing lost to ‘devel­op­ment’ work. Last week, min­is­ter of state for en­vi­ron­ment, forests and cli­mate change, Babul Supriyo, in­formed the Par­lia­ment that, in the last five years, the min­istry had given permission for the felling of 10.9 mil­lion trees for devel­op­ment work. Another piece of in­for­ma­tion pre­sented to in the Par­lia­ment showed that nearly 55,000 hectares of for­est

land has been lost to around 3,000 devel­op­ment projects in India. Plus, the min­istry re­cently ex­empted 13 pend­ing rail­way projects, spread over 800 hectares, from the process of seek­ing for­est per­mits. The projects could ad­versely im­pact a na­tional park, a tiger re­serve, a tiger cor­ri­dor and wildlife sanc­tu­ar­ies across the states of Ut­tar Pradesh, Mad­hya Pradesh, Kar­nataka and Goa.

Most ex­perts see for­est cor­ri­dors be­tween tiger-bear­ing habi­tats as fu­ture habi­tats for tiger pop­u­la­tions. Ef­forts are on to se­cure th­ese cor­ri­dors, but it is not an easy task. For one thing, the cor­ri­dors have a sub­stan­tial hu­man pop­u­la­tion, which in­creases chances of man–an­i­mal con­flict. Another way ahead is to create more re­serves. “The fact that the bulk of tiger pop­u­la­tion has been re­ported from tiger re­serves, sanc­tu­ar­ies and na­tional parks makes a case for hav­ing more such pro­tected ar­eas. Un­for­tu­nately, the pace of cre­ation of pro­tected ar­eas has slowed down im­mensely over the last few decades,” says IAS (retd) of­fi­cer M.K. Ran­jitsinh, also a for­mer mem­ber of the Na­tional Board for Wildlife.

Some also ad­vo­cate a fo­cused approach on re­serves rather than the ar­eas out­side as tiger habi­tats. “It has been seen, as in Kazi­ranga, Cor­bett and Band­hav­garh, that tigers that ear­lier needed 20-25 sq km of forests have lim­ited them­selves to 10 sq km pro­vided the area has ad­e­quate prey base and is in­vi­o­late. Tigers too adapt to sit­u­a­tions,” says H.S.

Pabla, for­mer chief wildlife war­den, Mad­hya Pradesh, adding that given the lim­ited re­sources with most state for­est de­part­ments, this approach makes more sense. “Presently, tiger pop­u­la­tions in most re­serves are con­cen­trated in a part of the re­serve. More ar­eas within re­serves can be made suitable for tigers by management tools, like se­cur­ing grass­land and strength­en­ing protection mea­sures. This would help in en­hanc­ing tiger numbers within the re­serves it­self,” he says. Pabla has been a vo­tary of re­strict­ing wildlife, even cre­at­ing fenced struc­tures to keep an­i­mals in. “I think cor­ri­dors are wildlife sinks. To al­low move­ment of an­i­mals from a re­serve to a cor­ri­dor, the re­serve has to be kept por­ous. In cor­ri­dors, the chances of man-an­i­mal con­flict are higher. High tiger and high hu­man pop­u­la­tion can­not co­ex­ist,” he says.

Wildlife sci­en­tist and prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor of the ‘All India Tiger Es­ti­ma­tion, 2018’, Dr Y.V. Jhala’s views are sim­i­lar to Pabla’s. “We have about 3,00,000 sq km of tiger ter­ri­tory in India, of which 89,000 sq km have re­ported tiger pres­ence. The re­main­ing ar­eas can sup­port tiger pop­u­la­tions if prey base is made avail­able. This can be done in the next few years, which is why I feel the numbers can in­crease,” he says.

The com­ing months are likely to see a re­newed push for devel­op­ment projects that will take a toll on wildlife habi­tat. While the de­bate be­tween con­ser­va­tion and devel­op­ment rages on, PM Modi is op­ti­mistic. “Both sides present their views as if they are mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive. I feel it is pos­si­ble to strike a healthy bal­ance be­tween devel­op­ment and en­vi­ron­ment,” he said. Amen to that. ■

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