Increased tiger population brings new challenges; dealing with habitat loss, man-animal conflict is key

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) will soon release the data on the number of tigers in the country and the probability of an upsurge in figures has made experts anxious. This is because many tiger reserves in the country are either reaching the saturation point or have attained one. So, does that mean we don’t have space for the new tigers?

Former NTCA member secretary Rajesh Gopal expressed the same concern during the Third Stocktaking Conference on Tiger Conservation that happened recently in New Delhi. The conference was attended by delegates of 13 tiger range countries. Gopal said, “India’s tiger carrying capacity is packed” and noted that our focus should now be on proper landscape management and developing wildlife corridors.

During the St Petersburg declaration in 2010, the tiger range countries pledged to double tiger numbers by 2022. From 1,411 in 2006 to 1,706 in 2010 and to 2,226 after the third cycle of All India Tiger Estimation 2014, India has nearly achieved its goal of doubling the number. But there is a new set of challenges.

Increased tiger population brings new challenges; dealing with habitat loss, man-animal conflict is key

Many tiger reserves in the country are either reaching saturation point or have already reached it. Image: Asif Khan

To understand this, let’s take a look at two recent incidents reported in the Ranthambore National Park of Rajasthan. One incident was reported on 30 January, in which Tiger T-85’s aka Pacman’s body was found at Khadar Range of the park. According to forest officials, Pacman was in search of a permanent territory after he had been dragged out from his father Star Male’s territory. And in a territorial fight with another tiger, he lost his life.

The second incident was reported on 2 February, in which a 50-year old woman, Munni Devi was mauled to death by a tiger. Munni was on her way back home after relieving herself in the fields when the tiger attacked her. This is the second human death due to a tiger in the last 40 days.

Arindam Tomar, Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan, said, “There is a rise in the number of conflicts because the reserve is overpopulated. We had very good breeding in the past few years. The cubs are now growing up and have started to migrate in search of new territory. This is the reason for both man-animal and animal-animal conflict.”

Ranthambore, at present, has a population of 66-67 tigers, which is beyond its carrying capacity. “We are working on expanding the habitats. With that, we may soon start the relocation process. Sariska and Mukundra, the two other tiger reserves in the state, still have space for new tigers, and shifting is the only viable solution to avoid further conflicts, added Tomar.

Explaining the concept of a “packed carrying capacity”, Gopal said, “Physical space gets reduced when you take into consideration the landscapes in which you have these reserves. The tiger is a territorial animal. If you pack too many into a small space then:

-There will be increased competition for food, for mating partners and for all other things that are important for tigers to live. So, there is a tiger carrying capacity, which is defined and decided by the space as well as the availability of prey.

-Spaces outside the reserves are equally important for tigers, as male tigers move from place to place to disperse genes. The routes that tigers use to move from place to place are called corridors. If the land use of these regions changes, there will be cases of man-animal conflict. The tiger will earn a ‘pest value,’ and that is something we absolutely don’t want.”

Tiger. Image: Asif Khan

Conservation plans must now focus more on tiger habitat and corridors. Image: Asif Khan

India topped the list among 13 other countries in terms of the population of tigers in the wild. However, in order to maintain this position, our conservation plans must now focus more on tiger habitat and corridors.

Dr Rahul Kaul, Chief of Conservation at Wildlife Trust of India, said, “Tiger numbers largely depend on the quality of habitat and the abundance of prey. So, where there is higher prey density, higher tiger densities should be expected. Wildlife reserves like Kaziranga, Corbett, Ranthmabore and Tadoba, to name a few, are high tiger density areas. Also, with good investments, these places can have better protection systems and so, chances for survival and reproduction are higher. So, what we need now is to develop the ‘lesser’ tiger habitats. There are several areas where the landscapes are vast but tigers are fewer in number. However, prey needs to be established first in such areas before translocations may be considered.”

The National Tiger Action Plan released by Dr. Harsh Vardhan during the stocktaking conference recorded a 12.6 percent decline in tiger occupancy in connecting tiger habitats outside tiger reserves between 2006 and 2010, the latest period for which this data is available. The reasons listed for decline in areas outside tiger reserves are degradation of forest due to human and livestock pressure, fragmentation leading to loss of gene flow, loss of forest quality in terms of prey biomass, tiger deaths due to man-animal conflict and poaching, loss of reproduction owing to disturbance such as highways, railway lines and lack of adequate protection in outside areas.

The plan emphasises a “source-sink dynamics” approach by restoring habitat connectivity. It includes providing subsidised LPG connections for reducing the dependency on the forest, encouraging stall feeding of cattle, timely compensation for human deaths due to animals and providing viable livelihood options to local stakeholders.

Gopal said, “The main challenge is to reduce the man-animal conflict. And for that, stewardship of locals is important. There is an immediate need to rope in the local communities, pay them, and reward them. They have to own a tiger, so they don’t harm it when they spot a tiger outside its boundaries. Protection and monitoring is the only magic needed to save tigers, but this monitoring should involve the locals, and that is the ‘co-occurrence’ agenda.”

India can have a maximum of 3,000 tigers with respect to the available area of tiger reserves, as per the NTCA.

Only the forest department cannot be accountable for ensuring that the tiger continues to roar in the country. It needs the efforts of a lot of other stakeholders. Gopal remarked, “Conserving tigers calls for engaging beyond the boundaries of a tiger reserve. Primary stakeholders are those living on the edges of a wildlife reserve, those who bear the brunt when a tiger either eats their livestock or attacks them. The secondary stakeholders are generally the miners and the corporates operating close to forest. Tiger protection has to be put on their agenda as well, and should be a part of their corporate social responsibility. We cannot stop the economic development of the country in the name of tiger protection, but our development plans must prioritise tiger corridors. It is better to avoid areas which obstruct tiger corridors, but if there is no other way, put in some more money, use world-class technologies so as not to disturb the tiger path. This is called landscape strategy.”

The plan also talks of setting up new tiger reserves in the country. At present, there are 46 tiger reserves in the country. Ratapani in Madhya Pradesh and Sunabeda in Odisha have already got the nod from NTCA for tiger reserves. Further, Suhelwa in Uttar Pradesh, Guru Ghasidas National Park in Chhatisgarh, Mhadei Sanctuary in Goa, Megamalai in Tamil Nadu and Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh are also being considered for tiger reserves.

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Updated Date: Feb 14, 2019 20:59:10 IST

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