Hunting has brought the big cat population down to 2,500. Any further depletion of numbers and the NTCA will have no tigers to conserve
The extraordinarily difficult time currently being experienced by the world on account of COVID-19 has caused humanity untold misery. The last few months have put to test the endurance of mankind as suffering has increased exponentially and casualties have spiked sharply in a small period of time. Even as humans struggle to stay alive and stay out of the clutches of the disease, this kind of torment, fear and pursuit is not new for wildlife in India.
Many threatened and endangered species of animals have been suffering miseries inflicted by humans on them for decades. Some of the unfortunate incidents pertaining to animals that have come to light this year have clearly underscored this fact. The recent blinding of a puppy by a watchman, the dragging of a dog behind a scooter by two miscreants, the death of a bull after being attacked by three drunks, the painful incident of a cow being fed dough filled with explosives causing serious injuries and the most painful starvation deaths of two female elephants, who suffered broken jaws after being fed pineapples filled with explosives, are just some of the cases that have surfaced in the last one month.
COVID-19 may have brought grief hitherto unknown to mankind, yet human compassion has not been awakened as is evident by the lack of the same towards the environment and animals. This lack of empathy is made worse by the fact the human memory of incidents of cruelty to animals is very short. The news stays in public domain for a week at the most and then gets relegated to the archives.
Incidents involving fatal injuries to animals are an unfortunate but common occurrence as villagers and farmers exceedingly take the law into their own hands and snare these animals in crude traps killing them slowly. They later profit from the kill by selling the claws, skin, teeth and tusks to poachers. This rampant killing of animals is especially telling on the tiger population, which has fallen sharply due to human intervention in the last eight years.
According to the recent data made available by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the last eight years have been harrowing for the national animal as a whopping 750 tigers have died due to poaching and other causes. According to official data, with a toll of 173, Madhya Pradesh reported the highest number of tiger deaths as compared to other parts of India. The Government and State authorities could not really stem the number of deaths occurring due to poaching and traps laid by the local population living on the periphery of the forests. India lost 119 tigers in 2019 alone and a third of the loss was due to rampant poaching. Leopards have not been faring well either as 2019 saw 491 deaths.
Man-animal conflict has had a serious and irreversible impact on biodiversity in India and things do not seem to be getting better. The remaining population of tigers in the country is getting crowded into roughly 50 sanctuaries where these majestic animals are chased and displayed before tourists in bustling safari vehicles. This kind of intrusion and commercialisation of a tiger habitat has resulted in the tigers moving to newer and more-importantly calmer and quieter environs which are sometimes closer to human habitats. This results in disastrous consequences for both, animals and humans.
The very concept of sanctuaries also seems illogical for tiger conservation as the average size of a sanctuary in India is a paltry 1,500 sq km. India’s protected areas have not expanded at the same rate as the tiger population, forcing some big cats to turn to human-dominated landscapes for survival. Livestock are killed and sometimes so are people.To put things in perspective, a male Bengal tiger needs a home range of 60-150 sq km whereas a tigress uses 60 sq km. Tigers are extremely territorial and they do not share easily. Which means when the reserve becomes full of males, females and cubs besides ageing tigers, it becomes too overbearing for them to co-exist. This causes them to seek newer territories outside the sanctuary, leading to man-animal conflict and in some circumstances the development of man-eating traits. However, attacks are relatively rare, with around 40 to 50 people killed annually by tigers.
Deaths caused by tigers tap into a primordial fear that, if left unresolved, can drive communities to extremes. Local people often eventually enact their own solution, poaching not just the tiger in question, but targetting all the tigers in their area. They begin to view India’s forest department as the enemy — and conservation as something opposed to their best interests. Over 200 years ago India had 58,000 tigers in forests across the country. Indiscriminate hunting and poaching have brought India’s tiger population down to just over 2,500. Any further depletion of the population and the NTCA will soon have no tigers to conserve. That will be a sad and ignominious end to the national animal.
(Writer: Kota Sriraj; Courtesy: The Pioneer)