As many as 2967 Royal Bengal Tigers roam freely in the jungles of India, according to the latest figures revealed in the tiger census. The last time the tiger census had been done, the numbers stood 2226 in 2014. The numbers reflect a healthy increase of 33 percent. No wonder, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed pretty pleased with the outcome while releasing the Tiger Estimation Report 2018.
From the brink of extinction when there were just 1411 tigers in India in 2006, to more than doubling the count to around 3000 in a matter of a dozen years is a remarkable feat. It was in 2010, when the ambitious TX2 Goal was set, namely, doubling the number of tigers in the wild by 2022. A total of 13 tiger range countries -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam are signatories to the TX2 Goals. Of all the tiger countries, India alone accounts for almost 60 percent of the tiger numbers. Thus, if the numbers of tigers in India is increasing, it not just great news domestically, but also internationally.
The success of tiger conservation in India can be directly attributed to the Project Tiger programme, which was launched in the 1970s by late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. At that time, the tiger had been listed on the brink of extinction and she had played a sterling role in setting up sanctuaries and formulating laws. Today, there are a total of 50 odd protected tiger reserves in India which fall under the ambit of Project Tiger. These reserves are islands of success where the apex species survives and thrives.
And so when PM Modi states that "India is now one of the safest habitats in the world for tigers", it would not be too much off the mark.
Except that the sheer success of the Project Tiger programme is also becoming its biggest undoing.
To understand how, you need to know about the species. Unlike lions that live in a pride, tigers are territorial animals, with a solitary animal living in a large zone. The size of the territory is determined by the gender and also the eco-system. For instance, it is said that a tigress needs a 20-square km territory. A male tiger requires a larger area, around 60 to 100 square km of forestland.
As soon a tiger grows up, he or she will move out of the area to establish his/her zone. And this is where the problem arises. With the rise in population, tigers are forced to venture out of the reserves and once they do so, they come in direct conflict with another mammalian species, that is us.
Over the past few years, the man-tiger conflict has truly escalated to a different level. Recently, at Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, a tigress was brutally slain by villagers armed with sticks. Apparently, the tigress had attacked a few villagers that had ventured in the jungle, and in return it was beaten to death. Similar man-tiger conflicts are common at the Tadoba-Andhari tiger reserve (TATR) at Chandrapur, which has around 90 tigers; and neighbouring Bramhapuri territorial forest division, which has another 40 tigers. In fact, last year, the forest department of Maharashtra had, in a controversial move, hired a private hunter to kill tigress Avni, who was blamed for 13 human deaths at Yavatmal. This story repeats itself across all the tiger reserves in India.
And it is not just the tigers coming out. Humans are constantly invading the preserve. There are national highways that criss-cross through the sanctuaries, even railway lines. Last year in November two tiger cubs were crushed by a speeding train on Chanda Fort-Gondia line under FDCM Chichpalli forest range in Maharashtra. Sadly, there is no respite for the tigers even on the inside. Inside the sanctuary, they are ‘tourist attractions’, with scores and scores of vehicles following them almost all the time. Given the fact that these wildlife sanctuaries are major tourist attraction, they attract heavy footfall from domestic and international tourists.
There has been much talk of how tribals and forest dwellers must be engaged in the conservation efforts. But equally so, we need the villagers who live on the periphery of the parks to also be engaged, sensitised and brought on-board with conservation efforts. These are the villagers that batter a tigress to death, or poison a carcass.
The brutal fact is that with the human population growing at alarming rates, habitat destruction for residence, grazing or agriculture is no more an exception, but rather a rule. The increased frequency of conflicts is an omen of how things will shape ahead. The barrel is loaded against the tigers in this weigh in.
Unless there's a drastic action that is undertaken, a plan put in place. Tigers in India will become more like their feline cousins; the Asiatic Lions. Existing in ghettoed sanctuaries, living on borrowed time. The statistics should not make us complacent, because they seldom reveal all. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) should make a comprehensive and holistic assessment of how the current forest cover can support the numbers. We need modern technology not only in accounting but also in tracking and conservation. Most importantly, we need a nation-wide campaign starting from grass-roots that sensitizes and educates people on why we should be rooting for the survival of the apex species. The loss of tiger is not merely a loss of a tourist attraction, but the animal is the custodian of the forest. The death of the tiger could spell the death-knell for the forest, as well.
Shashwat DC is Features Editor at CNBC-TV18. He is closet-activist for sustainability and CSR, when not pondering over the future of humanity or contemplating the launch of the new Android phone. Read Shashwat's columns