In the past few months, reports on tigers in India and other countries have drawn mixed reactions. One was compiled by the World Wildlife Fund and Global Tiger Forum on the increase in tiger numbers in the wild from 3,200 to to 3,890. India’s tiger population is estimated to be around 2,230 according to a 2014 survey; an increase from 1,700 in 2010. On 29 July, on the occasion of International Tiger Day, a report titled Fierce but Fragile: Coexistence in a Changing World was released by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but this one puts forth more questions than gives answers.
The IUCN report warns, “In the future, the situation for tigers could worsen as land is converted into industrial-scale palm oil plantation, and motorways and other infrastructure cut through tiger habitats. This leads to isolated and fragmented tiger populations which suffer from social and genetic problems.” So despite the rise in tiger numbers, they are not entirely safe from the inescapable footfall of development. The report further cautions, “If conservation efforts succeed in boosting tiger numbers and human populations continue to grow, the potential for conflict between tigers and humans will only increase and needs to be managed.”
The IUCN and the German Development Bank (KfW) run the Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Programme in several countries including India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Sumatra, etc. Tigers have vanished from nearly 90 percent of its original range which extended from parts of Central Asia and Siberia to Indonesia. The programme aims to achieve several objectives to ensure tigers and humans coexist. It aims to reduce human-animal (tiger) conflict and over-exploitation of forests while at the same time managing tiger habitats and combating poaching. In India, the programme funds projects in the Terai Arc Landscape (TAL) which includes areas of Nandaur wildlife sanctuary in Uttarakhand and Valmiki tiger reserve in Bihar, Manas and Dibru Saikhowa national parks and Kaziranga tiger reserve in Assam, Namdapha tiger reserve in Arunachal Pradesh and Cauvery and Malai Mahadeshwara wildlife sanctuaries in Karnataka.
What do these increase in tiger numbers mean? What are the threats they face in the future? And is it really possible for tigers and humans to live side by side in 21st century India?
Bivash Pandav, a scientist at Wildlife Institute of India who works extensively in the Terai landscape, promises the future to be very challenging for tigers. According to him, there are two main challenge: protecting tigers outside protected areas and maintaining forest connectivity between protected areas. These areas are recognised as wildlife corridors that large-ranging animals like tigers, elephants, leopards, etc use to move from one area to another. The Terai region is the alluvial plains of marshy grasslands and subtropical forests. It is a linear landscape unlike the hilly regions of central India and Western Ghats.
In such a continuous landscape, rail and road infrastructure projects have devastating consequences resulting in fragmentation of otherwise connected forests. From 2005 to 2016, the area has seen tremendous pressure from developmental projects. In this time, the TAL has lost an important wildlife connection in the Gola river corridor. Now there is a border road project along the Indo-Nepal border that severely threatens the movement of tigers between trans-boundary protected areas of India and Nepal. The intimately connected areas of Dudhwa national park in India and Suklaphanta wildlife sanctuary and Bardia National Park in Nepal would be highly damaged by this project. So although tiger numbers show better readings than what they did 10 years ago in the landscape, the western part of about 2000 sq. kms of the arc compromising Rajaji National Park has a presence of only two tigers.
Recently 400 Gujjar families have been resettled outside Kalagarh forest division which forms a part of Sonanadi wildlife sanctuary. This adds an important inviolate connection with the Corbett tiger reserve.
Similar efforts in Rajaji enthuses Pandav to be hopeful of tigers making a strong comeback in the areas. With this projection he warns, “For any landscape embarking on tiger recovery programme, we need to keep human-animal conflict in mind and gear-up for it.” One of the ways he recommends is training frontline forest department personnel in dealing with conflict situations when large carnivores enter a human dominated area. They should be trained in chemical immobilisation and relocation techniques, and capture and release methods. The other more durable method is integrating conservation planning with developmental plans of the government. Protection of wildlife corridors should not be negotiable. They should be accorded protection status on par with larger protected areas. But there is no one common solution to different problems plaguing various areas. One thing though is common in a populous country like India and Pandav advocates “without people you cannot save tigers, you need to earn the goodwill of the local people if you are serious about saving tigers.”
In another another natural landscape of Manas National Park which was once a stronghold of tigers, Firoz Ahmed, head of tiger research at Aaranyak, an organisation based in Guwahati working towards conservation of nature, concurs with the sentiment when he says, “Tiger conservation is not for tigers but for humans. Tiger reserves provide huge social services in form of clean water and pure air, etc. We are protecting forests in the name of the tiger.” Ahmed and his colleagues like Bibhuti Lakhar who heads the elephant research have been working with the local communities around Manas for the past two decades. In an area which was rife with insurgency and still sees some sporadic violence for demands of a separate Bodoland, the concepts of conservation are relatively new. The teams work with the local populations on alternative livelihoods and impart training for development of skills. They also run education programmes and engage with over 100 schools in the area to pass on the importance of natural resources. Such slow seepage of knowledge will take time but they are trusting the close relationship Bodos have with forests for their message to take deep roots. Although the Indian side of the landscape has seen fragmentation, protecting areas that are left and the continuous habitat on the other side of the border in Bhutan offers hope that tigers and elephants will be able to endure.
Hope is not something Anish Andheria, president, Wildlife Conservation Trust, is banking on. He has a more pragmatic view of the situation tigers find themselves in. He opines only a handful of states namely Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Maharashtra contribute to the present tiger numbers in the country. The rest of the states like Orissa, Nagaland, Chattisgarh, etc present a grim picture of not even holding more than 10 tigers each. The overall tiger habitat, mainly areas of the parks outside of corridors and territorial forests, has shrunk in the last 40 years. So he thinks it would be naive to pat our backs for a handful of parks contributing to increase in numbers. In fact according to him these parks would have even reached their carrying capacities for the top predator. So adding more tigers would not be easy unless the states lagging behind speed up their resurrection efforts and more areas are left for tigers to disperse.
According to Andheria, along with habitat degradation, hunting for bushmeat especially in the North-Eastern states and man-made fires in some of the lesser known parks are major causes for low tiger densities. So even though the forests may be left intact, paucity of prey species cannot support viable predator populations. Even if there were to be tigers, they would invariably come in contact with humans in form of livestock predation. This usually leads to retaliatory killings, slowly wiping out any populations of tigers that could survive. He calculates about six lakh families extracting 12 kgs/ household of wood everyday. That puts immense pressure on the resources shared by both man and animal. To mitigate such scenarios, his organisation works closely with the local population, tapping into impressionable minds of school children. He also works with forest departments in training and capacity building. They have covered over 1,100 remote forest camps donating nearly 4,000 various items from blankets to four-wheel drives to make lives of forest guards easier.
Despite such efforts, he thinks, “If the Prime Minister wants roads, there will be roads.” He is under no illusion of developmental needs of a country like India. He recommends that conservationists should speak a language that governments understand instead of being at loggerheads with them. They have an obligation towards the tigers, elephants and trees that cannot vote, to think beyond short-term targets that fit in the five-year election calendars of governments.
Otherwise a different kind of fragmentation will happen: one where animals are not only scarred by mega developmental projects but also by empty forests syndrome. In such a case we will end up like many of South African parks where animals are fenced in and people are caged out.