Yes, the numbers of the big cat have doubled but so has the intensity of man-animal conflict. Let’s address that too
In 2008, alarm bells had rung when the tiger census in the country threw up a dismally low number of 1411, despite years of initiatives under Project Tiger. Home to 70 per cent of the world’s wild tiger population, India had no option but to turn the needle through aggressive pursuit of various conservation efforts. So it is indeed heartening that in little over a decade, we now have almost doubled that number, clocking 2,967 tigers and registering an increase of almost 33 per cent in the fourth cycle of the latest census. Little wonder then that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who released the new figures, seized another moment of national pride that India has achieved by claiming that the target of doubling the tiger population has been met four years before the deadline. What makes the numbers remarkably reassuring is that they have come at a time when biodiversity is severely challenged. Yet the government and the community have persistently been in sync with their conservation efforts. Also the four-year counting exercise, the world’s largest wildlife survey effort in terms of coverage and intensity, is a celebration of technology. Over 15,000 camera traps were installed for capturing tiger images and recording their unique stripe pattern with the help of a dedicated software, there were satellite mapping and GIS-based apps for in-depth tracking of the big cats and the data collection process. Madhya Pradesh saw the highest number of tigers at 526, followed by Karnataka at 524 and Uttarakhand with 442 tigers. So it is the healthy patches which have pushed up the total numbers rather than the dotty ones.
This brings us to the most important aspect of tiger management in their habitats than just recording figures. While tiger numbers have increased, tiger habitats have been dwindling due to human encroachments, infrastructure projects and truncated wildlife transit corridors. The man-animal conflict has never been worse, therefore. Be it the killing of Avni or villagers beating up straying tigers, or the confused tiger hitting back with a counter-charge, the headlines point to a dangerous trend of overpopulation not being commensurate with increase in prey base-rich forest zones. The Wildlife Trust of India’s conflict database for Uttar Pradesh records 63 cases of attacks on humans by tigers from 2014 to February 2019, an average of 10.8 cases per year. This marks a dramatic increase from an average of 5.6 attacks on humans per year between 2000 and 2013. The tiger will stray into human settlements when its food chain is frayed and villagers cannot be expected to prioritise conservation when the lives of their own and the livestock are at stake. It is now imperative to understand what’s causing the conflict on the ground on a case by case basis and address it immediately before avenging kills start showing up in the numbers. Awareness of tigers should now also include equal awareness about its ecology and behaviour and the need to provide alternative ranges. Recent examples have shown how some railway underpasses to facilitate wildlife transit are working as animals, like the elephant and tiger, are adapting to changed migration routes. There are still viable tracts of pristine forests that can be turned into reserves by relocating animals from overpopulated stretches. But forests are a state subject and an inter-state agreement on shared corridors needs to be ironed out and coordinated if translocation is to succeed. Meanwhile relocation needs are mounting. The entire process cannot be fast-tracked but needs to be graded and spaced out to ensure tigers’ acceptance of a new territory as their own household. Apart from peripheral villagers, a new tiger also has to deal with resident cats or in the total absence of its kind, reconcile to being a lone ranger and sync up with other relocated companions. And if forest dwellers have co-habited with tigers before, there is no reason why we cannot make them stakeholders in conservation efforts, keeping them invested as park patrollers and monitors, generating a subsidiary tiger economy that ensures them revenue, incentivising forest produce and enhancing the tiger gene pool that can promote “sighting tourism.” Till this is done, our pride will continue to be their enemy. The tiger sits on top of the food chain in the forest and by saving it and giving it a home, we are protecting all sub-species and curating a biosphere that even includes grasslands and rivers.
Writer & Courtesy: The Pioneer