International Tiger Day: India's rising tiger numbers commendable, but many challenges lie ahead

  • Tiger numbers in India today are steadily growing and many consider this growth a success story with much to be proud of.

  • The modern Indian tiger, living in the midst of a rapidly developing country, faces other threats – the biggest being the human-animal conflict, at the heart of which is the issue of land.

  • Most important, moving forward, is striking a respectful balance between nature and development, focusing on sustainable development.

Indian tigers have had a busy history, often serving as the poster animal for saving Indian forests and wildlife. From being heavily hunted during the colonial era, to being brought back from the brink of extinction in 1973 through Indira Gandhi’s Project Tiger, and from facing severe threat through poaching in the nineties, to establishing the National Tiger Conservation Authority following the Sariska Tiger Reserve debacle in 2005, tiger numbers today are steadily growing; and many consider this growth a success story with much to be proud of.

 International Tiger Day: Indias rising tiger numbers commendable, but many challenges lie ahead

Still from Sony BBC Earth's Dynasties: Tiger Episode. Photo credit: Sony BBC Earth.

Abundant awareness has been spread to make the tiger count a national issue, through initiatives like establishing the International Tiger Day in 2010, celebrated on this day each year. Also in 2010 was established the Global Tiger Recovery Programme with the aim of doubling the global tiger population by 2022 (although some experts consider this goal unrealistic). With more than 50 percent of the world tiger population nestling in India, streamlining and considering the direction of this growing tiger population is an important step today.

While the current forest cover suggests that India is facing a saturation point in terms of tigers it can hold, more land exists, waiting to be invested in and recovered. “We have around 50 tiger reserves, of which only 10 to 12 have optimum numbers right now,” says Dr Bilal Habib, head of the Animal Ecology and Conservation Biology department at the Wildlife Institute of India. While these areas have other problems, like a lack of prey base or grazing pressure, with proper management, these can be nurtured. Tigers need sufficient green, safe breeding ground, prey base, and a healthy ecology, which, if correctly developed, would mean that India has the capacity to house between 10,000 to 15,000 tigers.

Still from Sony BBC Earth's Dynasties: Tiger Episode. Photo credit: Sony BBC Earth.

Still from Sony BBC Earth's Dynasties: Tiger Episode. Photo credit: Sony BBC Earth.

While issues like poaching are being strongly dealt with, the modern Indian tiger, living in the midst of a rapidly developing country, faces other threats – the biggest being the human-animal conflict, at the heart of which is the issue of land. With an increasing tiger and human population, both species are vying for available land, something which was recently highlighted through the incident of a tiger relaxing on a bed to escape the floods, driving home the desperation that this lack of space leads to. “It’s one of the most complex problems, there are a lot of stakeholders involved, it’s a complex amalgamation of a number of factors,” says Habib about the conflict, adding that it has no simple answer and requires an ‘out-of-the-box’ solution.

To this end, experts agree that one must work with the local populations and tribal people, integrating them in conservation efforts, instead of displacing them. “It is their dharti… We are fortunate that we have people like that that are fighting for the [forest] land [they live around],” says Amit Sankhala, tiger conservationist and grandson of the ‘Tiger Man of India’, Kailash Sankhala, who features in the Discovery Communications documentary Tigerland. Others highlight the sometimes brutal human cost of preserving wildlife, where space is made available for wildlife not just by uprooting, but sometimes killing, the local population, reiterating the importance of coexistence.

Two tigers enjoying the water. Photo credit: Discovery Communications.

Two tigers enjoying the water. Photo credit: Discovery Communications.

Tigers, and wildlife more generally, wouldn’t have survived this long if people, especially the ones living closest to them, didn’t want to preserve and conserve wildlife. “India, even though it has a huge population problem, people are still sympathetic towards animals,” says Dhruv Singh, a tiger conservationist and Production Consultant for the Sony BBC Earth series Dynasties’ ‘Tiger’ episode. He adds, “We [India] love wildlife, we’ve loved it for hundreds of years. That’s why tigers survive.”

With coexistence being the way forward, one immediate solution to the conflict is compensating locals who have been moved or faced loss of life. Another short-term measure is providing jobs and security to people living in the surrounding areas, by integrating them in the fully-fledged industry that is tiger tourism. “Tourism has to benefit them, money has to flow into their houses, they have to feel that living next to a tiger is beneficial,” says Singh. While people live in close proximity to wildlife, in a state of constant fear, economic benefits work to soften the blow. But there’s a limit to the number of people that can be compensated and jobs that can be provided, and through coexistence, human life is certainly disturbed in a permanent way.

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The life of tigers is also adversely affected. Tigers often move from one area to another, which helps in exchange of DNA, a process called dispersal. For this reason, corridors connecting different tiger reserves together must be secure. These ecologically rich corridors, however, are under threat stemming from the country’s development. “Are we always going to be in a battle with the mining world, or the highways, or development generally?” questions Sankhala, adding: “It’s a constant battle of development versus nature.”

As India races forward toward modernisation and development, which are important for the country, one must also be reminded of those benefits of forest and wildlife cover which cannot be measured monetarily, like fresh water and pure oxygen. Less consumption of forest material, less interference in forest areas, and healthy preservation of our wildlife ecology seem the main pillars to preserving our forests and the wildlife it contains.

Most important, moving forward, is striking a respectful balance between nature and development, focusing on sustainable development.

Tigerland will premiere in India on Discovery Channel and Discovery World HD on 29 July 2019 at 8 pm IST. | Celebrate International Tiger Day with three special line ups – Return of the Tiger, Tiger: Spy in the Jungle and Dynasties: Tiger Episode from 1 to 6 pm only on Sony BBC Earth.

Updated Date: Jul 30, 2019 00:07:45 IST