Tigers Defying Odds and Thriving in Challenging Times
On International Tiger Day, MP may Remain 'Tiger State', with Around 700 tigers!!
Every year International Tiger Day is commemorated on 29 July with great fervor across the thirteen Asia-Pacific tiger range-countries. On this commemoration eve, while reflecting on tiger conservation in the country, I realized that this year holds special significance as the nation eagerly awaits the release of the much-awaited detailed results of the fifth four-yearly all India tiger estimation conducted in 2022.
Describing the tiger’s magnificence and its importance is actually slipping into cliché. Tiger conservation in India serves as an integral part of its rich natural heritage. The tiger, considered the spirit of the Indian jungle, also holds a special place in the country's cultural and ecological landscape. With only six sub-species, or geographical variations, remaining in the world on account of the loss of three sub-species, the situation has become critical. In some range-countries, tiger numbers are precarious, hovering around the presumed ecological threshold as far as their viability are concerned. While Cambodia does not have any tiger, the tiger populations in other tiger range-countries vary significantly, with numbers ranging from around 2 (Laos), 50 (China), 189 (Thailand), 355 (Nepal), to 480-540 (Russia).
International Tiger Day originated from the Global Tiger Summit held in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2010. This day serves as an opportunity to raise funds for tiger conservation and to create awareness about the issues negatively affecting tigers’ survival. This summit also set a resolution to double the global tiger population by 2022, an ambitious goal given the formidable challenges faced. Nevertheless, it is inspiring to see some countries, particularly India, which hosts approximately 75% of the world's total tiger population, working relentlessly against all economic and developmental odds to protect tigers and their habitats.
India's demographic indicators, however, are alarming, with a population of around 1.40 billion compared to .33 billion in 1947. This has resulted in a population density of approximately 464 persons per sq.km. compared to 117 persons per sq.km. in 1947. What is also concerning is that now India is projected to be the most heavily populated country in the world by 2030 with a population of 1.51 billion, and by 2050 with 1.66 billion. Consequently, the per capita forest area has dwindled to 0.064 ha., significantly lower than the world average of 0.64 ha. This demographic pressure often compels the government and organizations to prioritize developmental issues over conservation, leading to deforestation, degradation, fragmentation, encroachment, poaching, and the shrinking of forestland. Despite these daunting challenges, India's State and Central governments display strong commitment to tiger conservation.
The tiger estimation methodology, known as "Monitoring Tigers, Co-predators, Prey, and their Habitats," had replaced an earlier “cooperation census” technique in 2006.The present technique, consisting of three phases, employed Geographical Information System, artificial intelligence, remote sensing, transect-walks, and camera traps etc. in the field to gather data during a one-week exercise. Thousands of camera-traps were deployed to capture high-quality images of tigers for analysis. The estimation exercise was an extensive and well-coordinated effort, involving thousands of trained field biologists, volunteers, and observers, covering approximately 400,000 sq.km. of forest area in 19 tiger states of the country. This colossal survey also involved over 6 million man-days and produced well over 40 million photographs, including over 97,000 tiger pictures.
As against the 2967 tigers based on the 2018 estimation, the 2022 preliminary estimation analysis came up with a minimum population estimate of 3167 tigers, which had already been declared at the commemoration of 50 years of Project Tiger on 9 April this year in Mysuru, Karnataka. Let us remain optimistic this time also, anticipating a 15-20% increase in the tiger population, mirroring Indian growth rate patterns observed during the past several all-India tiger estimations, and ultimately reaching approximately 3500 tigers in the wild. The estimated population will include adult males, females, and cubs over one year of age. This time, the estimation technique camera-trapped 3080 individual tigers in the wild, which may account for 88 percent of this total tiger population projected by me, a remarkable feat!
Madhya Pradesh is renowned for its fascinating wilderness heritage and tiger landscapes. The state's impressive protected area network includes 11 national parks and 24 wildlife sanctuaries, including six tiger reserves. These protected areas host diverse habitats, such as vegetation, grassy glades, and water bodies, providing home to numerous wild animal species, including some endangered that are awe-inspiring and iconic.
The tiger population in a state is often reflective of the professionalism of its foresters and wildlife managers. Naturally enough, consistently effective protection and management may also lead to a coveted status as "tiger state" for any state in the country. This time Madhya Pradesh is expected to retain this enviable status, and at a higher national rate of increase may register over 700 tigers in the wild. Besides long and efficiently practiced tiger conservation Madhya Pradesh, this remarkable increase in tiger numbers can also be attributed to the performance of some extremely well-managed protected areas like Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Pench, and Satpura. Presently a tiger reserve in principle, with excellent wildlife habitats, Ratapani wildlife sancturary may also contribute some more tigers to the total tally. Besides, tiger occupancy area is also expected to expand in the state. Some territorial forest areas close to protected areas, especially those in the north Balaghat and north Shahdol, may also display the ‘spillover effect’ by recording more tigers than in 2018. States like Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Kerala may also contribute significantly to this country-wide tiger tally.
Despite so much awareness and conservation effort, and for so long, India also lost around 450 tigers between 2019 and 2022 to natural deaths and poaching, including poisoning, snaring, and electrocution. And the road to tiger conservation in India is paved with challenges due to overpopulation and poverty-driven demands for rapid economic development. Therefore, achieving a substantial increase in the tiger population in the coming years requires determined efforts, leaving no room for complacency. While it is too early to visualize the proposed Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, there is no harm if conservation practitioners stay skeptic about its future implications on tiger conservation. For the time being, let us forget about the 21% land area having forest in India, which is rather debatable. The country has only around 12% of natural intact forest, which can be regarded as sufficiently dense. Some clauses of the proposed bill are said to threaten vast stretches of forest in the country through the ease of bypassing of uncomfortable norms/ waiving for the diversion of forest lands, adversely affecting forest protection and biodiversity conservation.
While acknowledging the significant accomplishments of Project Tiger, it is essential to recognize that triumphs of this scale often entail certain trade-offs, may reach a plateau, or display indications of stagnation. This holds particularly true for wildlife conservation initiatives implemented within a densely populated and dynamically developing nation like ours, where the involvement of villages, with all their typical community and rural assets, plays a crucial role. In light of this complex and multifaceted reality, it becomes imperative for the government to confront this enigmatic "problem of plenty" rationally and impartially, allaying concerns that tiger conservation is now turning an exclusive endeavor.
Regardless of a project's success, it has to be ensured that it does not outlast its original purpose and that effective monitoring is in place to mitigate any potential adverse consequences. By adopting a technical and conciliatory approach, we can strike a balance between conservation goals and socio-economic realities, fostering a sustainable and harmonious coexistence between humans and the majestic tigers of our land.
In this backdrop, International Tiger Day serves as a reminder of the critical role tigers play in India's natural heritage. Despite the immense challenges posed by demographic pressures and developmental demands, the country's commitment to tiger conservation remains unwavering. By prioritizing conservation efforts and implementing innovative techniques, India continues to be a beacon of hope for the majestic tiger and its endangered species counterparts across the world. The path ahead may be arduous, but with determination and collective efforts, India's tigers can thrive, enriching the nation's natural legacy for generations to come.