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Tiger and some home truths (Dec)

Frontline,National, 10th January, 2014 


As the four-yearly tiger estimation begins, a look at some of the measures that need to be taken to conserve tigers in the face of developmental pressures. By RAKESH SHUKLA

THE four-yearly All India Tiger Estimation due this winter prompts us to think about the protection and welfare of wildlife, especially tigers. The country is gearing up for a week-long marathon field exercise to estimate the numbers of tigers, co-predators and ungulates, or herbivore animals, and to evaluate the condition of forested habitats in 18 tiger-bearing States. Preceded by rigorous training to the front-line staff of the Forest Department at special workshops throughout the country, this colossal survey, one of its kind in the world, is expected to involve around half a million data collection man-days of the State Forest Departments and thousands of trained field biologists, volunteers and observers.

With Project Tiger, now rechristened the National Tiger Conservation Authority, at the helm of this ambitious endeavour, the results, to be declared by December 2014, will throw light on the population range of tigers, their spatial occupancy, habitat conditions, biotic pressure, connectivity and a host of other information crucial for planning the conservation of wildlife in general and tigers in particular.

Super predator vs man

The world has probably not seen an animal as awesome and majestic as the tiger. Magnificence and ferocity, nonchalance and stealth—this super cat displays a mix of all these attributes almost simultaneously. Evolved into a physically powerful carnivore over thousands of years, the tiger once commanded extensive distribution in the world. Highly adaptable, the animal has survived a wide temperature range, varied climates and topographies and diverse forest and habitat types. An amazing predator, an adult tiger has a very protective skeletal system and a strongly built, muscular body. The two strong forelimbs, reinforced additionally by the body weight and with retractile sharp and curved claws, help the hunter grab and hold its prey tightly. Gifted with strong jaws and a dentition of around 30 teeth of four types, the beast is extraordinarily agile and swift for its huge weight. The tiger, with its physical attributes and hunting skills, has always stayed at the top of the biological pyramid.

It is, however, only man—canny man—a social animal, who, with his appallingly unsporting behaviour in sport hunting and flawed ambitions for the so-called progress and development who has killed hundreds of thousands of tigers, destroyed their habitats over the past 100 years, and restricted their distribution now to only a few patchy isolates in 13 tiger range-countries, India being one of them. The most venerated predator on the planet is now the most vulnerable, with its hold on life getting extremely tenuous. Despite so much global concern and international support, satisfactory recovery of tiger populations still eludes us in all the tiger range-countries.

Currently, the total world population of tigers is estimated to be around 3,500, with India having a population of 1,520-1,909 tigers, 1706 being the mid value as per the 2010 estimation. This figure accounts for around half of the total world population. Although it means an increase of 20 per cent over the 2006 estimation result, the tiger population in India has declined to around what it was in 1972, which was the sole reason for the launch of Project Tiger in 1973. And, despite the Central and State governments’ commendable efforts and the strikingly vast difference between 1973 and 2013, with improved ground situations—such as better professionalism, larger protected area network, denser forest cover, sterner laws, and strengthened infrastructural support to conservation practitioners—we still remain triumphant underachievers. Against this dismal backdrop, a few States such as Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh have emerged as inspiring exceptions and make tiger conservation seem natural and effortless. In Madhya Pradesh, Kanha, Pench, Bandhavgarh, Satpura and Panna, with its former glory restored, are now world-class tiger reserves with adaptive management strategies.

Have we resigned ourselves to accepting that the current tiger population has touched the proverbial glass ceiling in a tremendously populous and rapidly advancing country? Is there any outside-the-box solution we need to try to reverse the situation? Unfortunately, in this conservation business, we cannot get complacent or afford to lower our guard for even two or three years.

Demographical indications for India are frightening. Our population is over 1.2 billion, as against 350 million in 1947. The corresponding figures for population density are around 382 and 117 persons per square kilometre. The projected doubling of this figure by 2050 is equally horrifying. Consequently, the per capita forest area has also decreased to 0.064 hectare as against the world average of 0.64 ha. This scenario is probably the root cause of the entire range of problems facing the country. While no government or organisation is consciously against tiger conservation, the reality of population pressure puts them under tremendous compulsion to sometimes sideline conservation in favour of more pressing developmental and livelihood schemes. Tiger conservation is not rocket science, and we have no other option but to persistently follow a basic strategy with renewed vigour and determination under periodic management-effectiveness evaluation. However, there is a need for some lateral thinking, if not downright radical measures, in tiger conservation. After all, India is also a signatory to the Tiger Range-Countries’ resolve to double their respective tiger populations by 2022 under the Global Tiger Recovery Programme.

Conservation tactics

It is high time more corporate houses contributed to tiger conservation. Their role in conservation so far has left a lot to be desired. The electronic media should devote more prime time to discussions/debates and reports relating to the environmental and conservation issues facing the country. Although very important, these are rather cerebral issues and may not score high Television Rating Points! The intelligentsia also needs to be more concerned about the major issues of nature conservation. It should speak its mind frankly and ally itself with organisations and individuals involved in conservation.

If some respected researches attribute the sharp decline in the tiger population to the loss of genetic diversity and inbreeding, why cannot we begin rewilding tiger cubs of Indian subspecies from different genetic stocks of other countries and introducing them into the wild following the guidelines of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)? After all, we have gained enough experience over the years in the management of in-situ animals. Besides, veterinary interventions and translocation programmes have also become common nowadays, and we can rope in experts from other countries as well. While we are tackling problems of demographic loss of tigers and saving available gene combinations head-on, let this lateral intervention also be allowed to make its positive effect on tiger populations.

The constraints of a rapidly developing country, increasing biotic pressure and the resultant consequences have almost islanded India’s tiger reserves. In this hostile environment, wildlife managers are left with no recourse but to regularly monitor their predator and prey populations, analyse data and draw results/inferences that can be interpreted comprehensibly to help devise and improve upon management strategies. Despite the not-so-welcoming environment of conservation science and research in the country, there is now a growing acceptance that ignorance of science, like ignorance of the law, is an unacceptable excuse for inaction or even indecision in wildlife resource management.

In this scenario, the proactive involvement of professional wildlife scientists in tiger conservation has become all the more important. Ignoring conservation science in tiger reserves will only add to managerial confusion and result in serious ecological issues. The techno-savvy world now offers wildlife managers, scientists and naturalists an amazing range of gadgets and computer programmes designed specially for them, and we can ignore science only at our own peril.

A viable population of tigers needs a good prey base, whose survival itself depends crucially on healthy grasslands in a terrestrial habitat. Rampant biotic pressure and human activity in the past, coupled with natural intricacies, tend to alter these grasslands for the worse, resulting in degradation and weed infestation. This impacts the health of ungulates, reducing their immunity and making them prone to diseases, especially tuberculosis. Grasslands continually need special attention for improvement, depending upon their type and history. In this way, long-term multipronged monitoring of grasslands is vitally important to understand, protect and improve them for wildlife. Besides assessing the effectiveness of restorative initiatives, regular monitoring also provides an early warning of abnormal field conditions and prepares the management to take preventive/mitigation measures.

Critical tiger habitats

The importance of relocating villages from protected areas needs no elaboration. Critical tiger habitats within tiger reserves need to be maintained as perfect tranquillity zones. The Kanha and Satpura national parks are fine examples of how villages can gently be persuaded to relocate outside parks and how large chunks of wilderness areas can be secured for the dispersal of ungulates. As we are not living in utopian times, human presence with all its needs and greed runs counter to the principles of tiger conservation in a protected area. This initiative is equally good for the movement of tigers, which are highly peripatetic animals.


There is no doubt that special training and courses add tremendously to one’s professionalism. Career wildlife managers find it easier to anticipate, understand and manage problems of tiger conservation, and serious professionalism needs to be inculcated at all levels through frequent training. If personnel are not trained at different levels and the State quotas remain unoccupied for a few years, there will be a serious dilemma when serving officers get promoted or transferred outside the wildlife wing. Only enthusiastic and willing personnel should be identified for posting in tiger reserves and protected areas.

Protection and intelligence gathering must be accorded the topmost priority among all tiger conservation practices. Complacency and disregard for laid-down procedures can play havoc with a protected area. The regular staff of tiger reserves involved in multifarious duties of management cannot be expected to patrol protected areas effectively. If nothing wrong is detected or exposed, it does not mean that everything is satisfactory inside a protected area. Every tiger reserve should have several well-equipped, permanent anti-poaching squads with vehicles for intensive day-and-night patrolling. Besides, the front-line staff of tiger reserves should be adequately empowered to use firearms against poachers and to protect themselves against assaults. Protection also needs to be reviewed frequently.

Buffer zones

No conservation project can be successful without people’s support. Identified buffer zones need to be brought under the administrative control of the field directors of the tiger reserves to ensure well-coordinated implementation that converges perfectly to achieve conservation goals and objectives. It is also vitally important to maintain tiger occupancy outside protected areas.

As far as tiger conservation in managed forests is concerned, given the burden of multiple responsibilities, the staff do not have the time or the aptitude for such technical conservation practices. This is quite understandable but has, unfortunately, resulted in a very low degree of wildlife protection and consequent low occupancy of tigers in these areas. These forest divisions, especially those contiguous with tiger reserves, need additional staff and capacity-building for the job. These divisions are in urgent need of game watchers and anti-poaching squads in adequate strength under the unified control of the chief conservators of forest circles.


The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act should be relaxed, if not revoked completely, for the staff of every tiger reserve in the country. The forest employees dread this Act, and this considerably affects their morale. There is also a feeling that no time is lost in taking action against these front-line employees, and eventually, an upholder of the rules becomes an accused or, worse, a laughing stock in the eyes of his colleagues and acquaintances. Under these circumstances, the staff tend to question or doubt their own instincts and start looking the other way when their area might be vulnerable to offences. Wildlife managers should be empowered suitably so that while arresting the accused, seizing illegal material from them, or taking any action in good faith, they are not implicated under this Act.

Special court

The most difficult task is to develop strong coordination between the Forest Department, the police and the judiciary by helping them understand each other’s points of view for a collective and effective course of action for tiger conservation. As the socio-politico-legal scenario exists today, it will be unfair to expect the impossible from the Forest Department alone. At least all tiger reserve-bearing districts must have a special court or several fixed days in a week in existing courts for the trial of wildlife cases relating to animals that fall under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act. Speedy trials and judgments will serve as an effective deterrent.

Rakesh Shukla is Research Officer, Kanha Tiger Reserve.