Tiger Conservation: An Odyssey of Trials, Triumphs, and Self-Discovery
The India of the 1900s, unpartitioned under the British rule, was home to a relatively low total population of only 240 million. Gifted with heterogeneous landforms and governed by several agro-climatic and soil zones, India’s geography supported vast stretches of wilderness areas of varying degrees occupied by a wide range of forest types, with their typical associations of tree species; rich undergrowth, clearings, large grassy expanses, and crisscrossing rivers and streams across different physiographies. The small and sparse settlements in the country, set against this geographical backdrop, were ample evidence of a bygone era of overall tranquility and nature-friendly ways of living.
These unstudied and unregimented ecosystems naturally commanded a wide range of wildlife species of the animal kingdom as per their evolutionary histories and zoogeographical/ biogeographical patterns. India was renowned throughout the world for its natural heritage – dense forests and magnificent wildlife. The large population of tigers was specially famous and became synonymous with India. A combination of favourable factors – low human and cattle density and resultant low biotic pressure, slow and small developmental projects, and general eco-friendly ways – ensured that tigers enjoyed ideal habitats and good prey base for their survival throughout the country. Though debatable, old literature – shikar diaries, memoirs, hunting records, and government/ private documents - points to the existence of a very large tiger population. These congenial times, however, did not last forever and deteriorated gradually for wildlife in general and tigers in particular.
The super cat
The natural history of the world has probably not witnessed any species more awesome and majestic than the tiger. Magnificence and ferocity, nonchalance and stealth, the tiger displays a mix of all these attributes and emotions almost simultaneously. Regarded as the “spirit of the Indian jungle”, the tiger, with its bodily attributes and hunting skills, has always stayed at the top of the biological pyramid as an apex predator, with no predators of its own. A fascinating super cat, with a perfect precision of predation biomechanics, it has been evolved into a physically powerful and strong carnivore over thousands of years. Adult tigers carry a protective skeletal system and a strongly built muscular body. The tiger’s strong forelimbs are additionally strengthened by its body weight, and retractile sharp and curved claws help the killing machine seize and clutch its prey securely. Gifted with powerful jaws and around thirty teeth of four types, the beast is astonishingly agile and swift for its enormous weight.
The tiger is an obligate carnivore, an exclusively animal-meat eater, and its habitats encompass, for all practical purposes, those of its prey base itself in forests. Nature has lent the beast certain niches that gives it a role, position and occupation in the environment, and helps it respond adequately to all natural resources available for survival. Very secretive and mysterious, adult tigers are inherently peripatetic and wanderers. The super cat also needs tranquility, or technically speaking, large inviolate areas for resting, loafing, breeding, and rearing and training its cubs. Such tracts also tend to harbor quality habitats, which in turn add to prey base for tigers. Being predators of large and small-sized prey, tigers need a large amount of prey. While tigers’ primary diets consist of different ungulate species, they also prey upon terrestrial mammals and other opportune prey species. They also prey upon cattle inside or outside forests. Tigers are highly adaptable and have survived a broad temperature range, diverse climates and topographies and a variety of forest and habitat types. Naturally, they occur across a wide range of bio-geographical regions and diverse ecosystems in the country, and the composition of their prey base is bound to vary across these regions.The occurrence of different wildlife species as the prey base depends exclusively upon the habitat suitability. The prey base requires good rangelands and forest habitats for healthy propagation. In the parlance of wildlife management, rangelands include large and small grasslands, savannahs, openings and blanks, scrub and stunted vegetation, and are regarded as an important habitat type supporting a large number of animals belonging to different ungulate species across the country.
Tiger in trouble
The decimation of hundreds of thousands of tigers and the destruction of their extensive habitats over the past around hundred years, have restricted their distribution now to only a few patchy isolates in the country. India had been losing tigers at an alarming rate, thanks to royalties, senior British bureaucrats and army officers, Indian elites and, of course, huntsmen. While in the 1930s of the last century hunting was a hobby and pastime, in the late 1960s it had became commercial, with deadly accurate firearms and high accessibility of the remotest parts of forests. By the time India became independent, the fate of the tiger was almost sealed. In this bleak scenario, however, there were also some influential and concerned Indian and British conservationists who had formed a pressure group to raise their voice in favor of tigers. The pressure group frequently expressed its sheer disagreement with the existing policies, and urged and cajoled the powers that be to ban tiger hunting in the country. Mr. EP Gee, the celebrated naturalist, said there were around 40,000 tigers at the beginning of the century, and only 4000 survived by the 1960s. Jim Corbett, the legendary hunter-turned-conservationist, had more or less the same depressing estimate of around 2000 tigers left in the early 1950s. As the future would prove, they were not too far off the mark as far as the sheer hopelessness of ground situation was concerned. The international community interested in nature conservation in the tropics also mounted pressure to change ground situation in India. The most venerated predator on the planet was now the most vulnerable, with its hold on life getting extremely tenuous. And as old literature on Indian wildlife is replete with accounts of ecological onslaught, hunting, poaching, and deforestation; tiger numbers progressively declined. The situation became so dismal that in 1969 the 10th general assembly meeting of the IUCN held in New Delhi raised concern about tigers and urged upon the government of India to declare a complete moratorium on tiger hunting. The existing forest and wildlife conservation Laws and Rules, governing wildlife conservation, were far from effective, and there was no change in ground situation. The foresightedness to promulgate the ban on tiger hunting, however, could only come as late as in 1970!
It was now clear that to understand the problem and before launching any ambitious scheme to save tigers, the “where” and “how many” questions needed to be answered soon. And for this, a task force, constituted by the Indian Board for Wildlife in April, 1972, recommended the first country-wide census of tigers by counting pugmarks in the light of old records and interviews pertaining to tiger hunts and presence/ absence information in different regions of the country. Thousands of forest personnel were trained, and pugmarks were traced throughout the country and later analyzed to arrive at an approximate total number of tigers. The method had its own limitations, and it also drew a lot of flak from many quarters. A world renowned ornithologist and conservationist, not Indian, of course, was among many who were surprised at the idea of counting tigers by counting pugmarks! Their doubts were justified to some extent, but at that time there was no alternative, and in the past, this method had also been employed by the Russians and British forest officers for counting the Amur and Indian tigers respectively. At last, it turned out that there were only 1827 tigers left in the wild! And it did not seem very far from the truth.
The plight of Indian tiger no longer remained a secret, and had captured the imagination of the world community interested in its conservation. Mr. Guy Mountfort, one of the founders and international trustees of World Wildlife Fund, was a renowned explorer, naturalist, and conservationist, and had already been credited with conceiving “Operation Tiger”. In April, 1972, amid this utter despondency he met with the prime minister of India. He succeeded in convincing the prime minister that his proposal was probably the last hope for saving the Indian race of tigers, and added that while it was not possible to save tigers in each and every part of the country, they could be saved in several special reserves having potential tiger populations. He also assured the government of extending initial financial and technical support. And the very next day, to his delight and astonishment, a powerful tiger task force was constituted to prepare a detailed action plan. The task force was to report directly to the prime minister. In August the same year a detailed report “Project Tiger”, containing India specific tiger conservation strategy and the results of the country-wide tiger census, was submitted to the prime minister.
Project Tiger was thus officially launched fifty years ago from Corbett national park on 1 April, 1973. The basic philosophy of Project Tiger consisted in the total protection of tigers and their habitats in these special areas whose umbrella effect would take care of the conservation of the rest of wildlife species. Between 1970 and 1973, three crucial decisions of the Indian government changed the fate of the tiger in India almost forever – the ban on tiger hunting, passage of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972; and the launch of Project Tiger. The prime minister ensured that Project Tiger remained a permanent agenda item at all meetings with the chief ministers of states. This was also made amply clear that central-state disagreements were kept to a minimum in matters of tiger conservation. How prophetic was Jon Tinker, environment and development editor of New Scientist in the UK, who, after visiting India, wrote an article entitled “Can India Save the Tiger?” for this magazine in 1974, and observed that “While India’s plans to save the tiger are not scientifically perfect, they are politically shrewd and realistic”! By 1974 nine original tiger reserves were established in the country. Care was taken to include as many representative areas of tiger distribution across the country as possible. There were, however, many Doubting Thomases from the forest fraternity too. They called it “quixotic project”, and rejected it summarily. They did not have the slightest idea how wrong they would be proved later! It turned out to be one of the most successful conservation projects in the world, and was applauded for the foresightedness, dedication and professionalism of all those involved in this colossal undertaking. Besides forest departments, these tigerwallahs also included naturalists, journalists, NGOs, and NGIs. Even those who sometimes disagreed with government stands/ policies also contributed in their own way.
As time went by, the number of tiger reserves also increased in the country, and had tremendous restorative effect on habitats, wildlife populations and general hydrology of these areas and their surroundings. These underdiscussed repositories for biodiversity conservation are also much-needed instrument of mitigation and adaptation to climate change.Tiger population grew, rather slowly and intermittently. Project Tiger also faced several controversies about tiger poaching, decrease in total population, and disappearance of almost entire tiger populations from two prestigious tiger reserves during these decades. The government’s chronic myopic vision also parallelly failed to address the issue of human population growth impacting tiger conservation in the country. But any way, tiger conservation was a minor issue as compared to other problems the country was facing due to increasing human population. Some international tiger experts observed that there would be no tigers in India by the year 2000! They were, however, proved wrong and the ground situation gradually improved in tiger reserves.
The tiger reserve network also expanded across the states and regions. Later, Project Tiger was rechristened National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and made a statutory body through enabling provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act in 2006. Decade by decade the government of India kept empowering Project Tiger/ NTCA, which in turn strengthened tiger reserves of the country through a wide range of effective conservation policies, guiding documents, initiatives, and administrative orders. Special emphasis was laid on stringent site specific protection, decadal planning instruments, core-buffer strategy for conservation, application of conservation science, refinement of estimation methodologies, and expansion of critical tiger habitats through village relocation. Currently, as per the 2018 all India tiger estimation, there are 2967 tigers, forming around 70 percent of the world tiger population in 13 tiger range-countries. There are now 53 tiger reserves in India, constituting 2.27 percent of the country’s geographical area and 7.80 per cent of the country’s total forest cover.
Success at a cost
While Project Tiger has been a huge success, most successes come with a cost, encounter a plateau, or show signs of stagnation. It is especially so with wildlife conservation projects launched in such a populous and developing country as India, involving people, cattle, land, and agriculture. The government needs to address this enigmatic “problem of plenty” dispassionately, and dispel the notion that tiger conservation is now turning an “elitist project”. However successful a project is, it should not be allowed to outlive its original purpose, and should be monitored to mitigate its negative effects. The government needs to prevent scope creep, and ensure that the project does not go beyond its intended scope.
The issue of human-animal conflict has become increasingly prevalent in recent times. We also now hear voices from responsible quarters that people should themselves eliminate such tigers! This problem predominantly affects a large population residing in close proximity to protected areas. These people, often burdened with challenges stemming from poverty, must also contend with the threat of tiger attacks on both themselves and their livestock. In addition, they face crop damage caused by a variety of ungulates - the resultant umbrella effect - which results in not only the loss of nourishing grains, but also the depletion of the valuable cash resource that support them through periods of financial hardship. The livelihoods of these individuals rely solely on their cattle and crops.
As per reports, tiger deaths have increased alarmingly, with death of at least one tiger almost daily in February this year. Tiger deaths in 2021 and 2022 stood at 127 and 116 respectively. While not all deaths were due to poaching, we need to be concerned about these deaths that almost automatically offset the increase recorded in tiger numbers each year. The government's primary focus should be implementing stringent measures to protect tigers from poaching/ natural deaths, rather than spending significant financial and material resources towards increasing the tiger population which remains vulnerable to anthropogenic threats.
The government also needs to appreciate a general concern that what actually constitutes a "good enough" tiger population for the country as a whole and for different regions. There are well-meaning wildlife enthusiasts with an idea of increasing tiger population to several thousand, if at all possible, regardless of its consequences! This could be an elusive figure, but experts can find an approximate logical population figure for policy making to steer the project in a more people friendly way. Besides, the country has already successfully displayed its resolve to the world for protecting and propagating tigers in the wild. And we are under no pressure to unnecessarily perform better and better into establishing an unsustainable/ problematic tiger number vis-à-vis the teeming millions facing all conceivable problems in their lives. If the main goals of the project are already achieved, there is no need to raise the success threshold in utter disregard for our fellow Indians. The deprived should not be made to bear the brunt of our conservation achievements. Besides, as usual, this success also automatically encourages adopting new ideas such as identifying and preserving long ecological linkages/ corridors already harbouring thousands of villages throughout the country. While this is a great conservation idea for the “developed” western world, with low human and cattle densities, this will cause alienation in India, if not adopted taking the target population’s day to day and general developmental concerns into consideration. And people know that the government will not stop merely at identifying these corridors!