The stories of forests lost to rampant mining, rivers clogging, large dams eating into prime wildlife habitat and average temperatures rising came the unexpected and heartening news that India had recorded its highest ever increase in tiger numbers since the adoption of the new census methodology in 2006.
According to the findings of the fourth cycle of the ‘All India Tiger Estimation, 2018’, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Global Tiger Day on July 29, the tiger population in the country increased from 2,226 in 2014 to 2,967 (estimated range of 2,603- 3,346) in 2018, marking a jump of 33 per cent over the last cycle. “The story that began with ‘Ek Tha Tiger’ has reached ‘Tiger Zinda Hai’, but it should not end there. That will not be acceptable,” said PM Modi.
Nine years ago, at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit 2010, 13 tiger range countries, including India, had pledged to a global tiger recovery programme, agreeing to double tiger numbers in their respective countries by 2022. At the time, India’s tiger count, according to the 2006 census, was at 1,411. The country has clearly made good on that promise and with four years to spare.
With 526 tigers, Madhya Pradesh has reclaimed the ‘tiger state’ tag that it lost to Karnataka in 2010. The southern state is now a close second with 524 tigers. The survey also found 25,709 sq km worth of new area occupied by tigers in 2018.
But, have the threats to the tiger been mitigated and is this growth in numbers sustainable? Wildlife experts suggest that one of the biggest causes for the increase in numbers has been the breeding populations outside tiger reserves. While the census does not provide a break-up of the number of tigers within and outside reserves as yet, there are indications that the populations that spilled out of reserves have, more or less, established themselves in these new habitats. These populations have been supported by stronger protection measures. In Bhopal, the forest department claims the presence of 10 tigers, some occasionally making an appearance within municipal areas. Besides Bhopal, tigers have been reported from territorial forests (outside protected areas) in Rewa, Dewas, Panna, Chhindwara, Balaghat and Shahdol districts in Madhya Pradesh.ADVERTISEMENT
More inviolate habitats have been created for tigers in the last few years. In 2014, the number of protected areas in India stood at 692, this number has increased to 869 in 2019. Even existing tiger reserves that hadn’t shown tiger presence earlier, have seen a change. “In Madhya Pradesh alone we have moved out 50 villages from our reserves in the last few years. The abandoned areas have resulted in new grasslands, brought in herbivores which, in turn, have attracted carnivores. Kanha, Pench and Satpura reserves do not have any villages within their core areas now,” says J.S. Chauhan, additional principal chief conservator of forests, wildlife wing, Madhya Pradesh. Experts believe that the jump in numbers could, to an extent, also be due to better reporting of data in 2018 compared to previous years, when data may have been under-reported from the field.
Poaching too has been controlled to a great extent, say experts. It is not clear whether international pressure on the South East Asian countries where tiger merchandise is in demand has resulted in reduced poaching or whether it is stronger enforcement of laws, but poaching cases are on the decline. In Madhya Pradesh, the cases of poaching, as compared to natural death, have fluctuated-from eight out of 31 in 2016, to nine out of 24 in 2017 to six out of 27 in 2018.
However, Arjun Gopalaswamy of the Indian Statistical Institute and renowned wildlife biologist K. Ullas Karanth have raised crucial questions about the last three census methodologies in an article titled ‘How Sampling Based Overdispersion Undermines India’s Tiger Monitoring Orthodoxy’. “What has been released is a summary. Once the full report is released, it would contain sufficient details on the field and analytical methodologies used and would also allow independent analyses,” says Gopalaswamy.
Conservation biologist Raghu Chundawat, among the first to point out the declining number of tigers at Panna National Park, largely accepts the findings, but is curious about some of its aspects. “In past operations, tigers below the age of 1.5 years weren’t included. This has been brought down to 1 year. Why? How many tigers has this reduction contributed to the count?” he says. “There is something called conservation amnesia. For every generation the baseline numbers change. So, while numbers may have increased from the 2006 census, the first census held in 1973, albeit with a different methodology, had also pegged the number of tigers at around 2,500,” he adds. The area surveyed has also increased compared to the last three census operations. “For me, success of tiger conservation is not grounded in numbers. It’s about keeping the tiger geography intact, which other countries have not been able to do,” he says.ADVERTISEMENT
The next question in the minds of wildlife experts is whether there can be a further increase and whether these numbers are even sustainable considering that tiger habitats are constantly under threat of reduction. The issue gains significance given that tigers are territorial animals and each specimen requires a certain minimum area to thrive.
The fact remains that forests are still being lost to ‘development’ work. Last week, minister of state for environment, forests and climate change, Babul Supriyo, informed the Parliament that, in the last five years, the ministry had given permission for the felling of 10.9 million trees for development work. Another piece of information presented to in the Parliament showed that nearly 55,000 hectares of forest land has been lost to around 3,000 development projects in India. Plus, the ministry recently exempted 13 pending railway projects, spread over 800 hectares, from the process of seeking forest permits. The projects could adversely impact a national park, a tiger reserve, a tiger corridor and wildlife sanctuaries across the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Goa.
Most experts see forest corridors between tiger-bearing habitats as future habitats for tiger populations. Efforts are on to secure these corridors, but it is not an easy task. For one thing, the corridors have a substantial human population, which increases chances of man-animal conflict. Another way ahead is to create more reserves. “The fact that the bulk of tiger population has been reported from tiger reserves, sanctuaries and national parks makes a case for having more such protected areas. Unfortunately, the pace of creation of protected areas has slowed down immensely over the last few decades,” says IAS (retd) officer M.K. Ranjitsinh, also a former member of the National Board for Wildlife.
Some also advocate a focused approach on reserves rather than the areas outside as tiger habitats. “It has been seen, as in Kaziranga, Corbett and Bandhavgarh, that tigers that earlier needed 20-25 sq km of forests have limited themselves to 10 sq km provided the area has adequate prey base and is inviolate. Tigers too adapt to situations,” says H.S. Pabla, former chief wildlife warden, Madhya Pradesh, adding that given the limited resources with most state forest departments, this approach makes more sense. “Presently, tiger populations in most reserves are concentrated in a part of the reserve. More areas within reserves can be made suitable for tigers by management tools, like securing grassland and strengthening protection measures. This would help in enhancing tiger numbers within the reserves itself,” he says. Pabla has been a votary of restricting wildlife, even creating fenced structures to keep animals in. “I think corridors are wildlife sinks. To allow movement of animals from a reserve to a corridor, the reserve has to be kept porous. In corridors, the chances of man-animal conflict are higher. High tiger and high human population cannot coexist,” he says.ADVERTISEMENT
Wildlife scientist and principal investigator of the ‘All India Tiger Estimation, 2018’, Dr Y.V. Jhala’s views are similar to Pabla’s. “We have about 3,00,000 sq km of tiger territory in India, of which 89,000 sq km have reported tiger presence. The remaining areas can support tiger populations if prey base is made available. This can be done in the next few years, which is why I feel the numbers can increase,” he says.
The coming months are likely to see a renewed push for development projects that will take a toll on wildlife habitat. While the debate between conservation and development rages on, PM Modi is optimistic. “Both sides present their views as if they are mutually exclusive. I feel it is possible to strike a healthy balance between development and environment,” he said. Amen to that.