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For tigers, the game is as good as over

This article was first published on Global Tiger Day.

Depending on which part of the globe you are in, today and tomorrow will see a series of events to celebrate the tiger’s cause. For example, the big cats at the Smithsonian zoo, where the World Bank launched its Global Tiger Initiative (GTI) in 2008 to double the existing population of 3200-odd tigers by 2022,“will receive special treats in their yards at various times throughout the day”.

Their wild counterparts are supposed to have it even better. More than sixty per cent of the $350 million estimated cost for the first five years of implementation, claims GTI, is “in hand or in process”. That makes more than $60,000 per tiger in the wild or more than $1000 per tiger per month. Lavish, one would say, given that most wild tigers are found in south and south-east Asia where per capita income does not exceed $2000.

Clearly, money is not the issue. Less so in India -- home to more than half of the world’s wild tigers -- which is apparently flush with conservation cash. A recent study on biodiversity finance published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences puts India far ahead of the 40 most underfunded countries that included China, Australia and France.

In the five years between 2007 and 2011, officially, tiger numbers increased by 295 in India. A number of tiger forests left out during the 2006-07 estimation were covered in 2010-2011. Comparing the common areas assessed on both occasions, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) modified the population growth to 12% or 170 tigers.

Reuters

Not only the tiger but every long-ranging animal, particularly the elephant, is paying the ultimate price of local extinction for our unplanned growth. Reuters

It is always difficult to sustain a growth rate as the base grows. But even if we assume that the sarkari claim of 12% population gain every five years will be sustained, it will achieve a net gain of just 43%, not even the halfway mark of the 100% target set by the GTI in 15 years. At this rate, unless the government manufactures more paper tigers, it cannot possibly jack up the population beyond 2050 by 2022.

Even that, frankly, would be no mean feat. While many conservationists keep clamouring for 4000 tigers in next 15 or 20 years, it is reasonable to conclude that India does not have adequate forest cover to safely house more than 2400-2600 tigers, a range closer to the GTI target of doubling the 2007 population of 1400. If only we were on track to achieve that realistic goal.

In the same five years between 2007 and 2011, while claiming a net gain of 12% in the tiger population, the MoEF also recorded a loss of 21,000 sq km or 24% of India’s tiger habitat. In simpler terms, the total number of tigers increased but the area where they were found shrunk by one-fourth. This has two very significant implications.

At this rate, the tiger range will shrink by roughly 58% in the 15 years between 2007 and 2022. It is anybody’s guess how the government plans to achieve that 43% growth in tiger population in that time frame while losing nearly three-fifth (58%) of its territory. Every forest has a natural carrying capacity – availability of land area, food and water -- that does not increase dramatically over time. Theoretically, to achieve a 43% growth in tiger number while losing 58% of tiger range will require the remaining tiger forests to increase their carrying capacity by nearly three times – a biological impossibility in just 15 years.

If anything, losing such large chunks of tiger range will only stymie the growth in tiger population. It is easy to blame poachers for the tiger’s disappearance from 22,000 sq km of its 2007 range by 2011. But what equally jeopardises the striped cats is our rush to mine dense forests, drown lush habitats under dam reservoirs and build highways and railways blocking natural passageways that make large areas out of bounds for wildlife.

Not only the tiger but every long-ranging animal, particularly the elephant, is paying the ultimate price of local extinction for our unplanned growth. Ironically, while backing GTI, the World Bank also funds such projects across the tiger range countries. In India, the Plan panel slashed the conservation funds it allocates to the high-profile MoEF, apparently to rein in the ministry which anyway clears 99% of the project proposals it receives.

In such a scenario, whatever success the government claims is limited to “pocket conservation”. Already, a handful of reserves account for more than half of India’s tigers. Business as usual will soon reach a stage where, possibly barring a section of the Western Ghats, tigers will be confined to island forests without any access to the neighbouring population. This will be a genetic disaster in the long term and isolated populations may eventually wither away.

Unfortunately, achieving tiger numbers and the survival of the species in itself is at best of mere welfare value. The importance of protecting the top predator of the Indian wild is in the assumption that the tiger’s welfare reflects the vibrancy of the forests it occupies. The relatively strong focus on tiger conservation has not benefitted many ‘lesser species’ under this umbrella approach. But when the apex species itself disappears from large forest areas so rapidly without a trace of significant reversal, it gives away what is in store.

As increasing pressure on land, water, mineral and timber resources keeps squeezing India’s few remaining old-growth forests, hundreds of tigers may soon have to live on canned food – like a few already do in reserves such as Ranthambhore – and breed happily in “open zoos”. Unlike fortified zoos, these sanctuaries will not stop the big cats from stepping out every now and then and face the bullet (or dart or trap). Until we eventually stop pretending that these are wild, free-ranging tigers and fence the reserves in.