2,226 and the real tiger story

Prerna Singh Bindra | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on June 23, 2017
Striped statistics: The 2014 census counted 2,226 tigers, a 30 per cent leap from 2010 census of 1,706 tigers

Striped statistics: The 2014 census counted 2,226 tigers, a 30 per cent leap from 2010 census of 1,706 tigers   -  Shutterstock

The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis; Prerna Singh Bindra; Non-fiction; Penguin Viking; ₹599

The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis; Prerna Singh Bindra; Non-fiction; Penguin Viking; ₹599

Fightback: India has had some success in relocating tigers to reserves they had gone extinct from. Photo: Paul Noronha

Fightback: India has had some success in relocating tigers to reserves they had gone extinct from. Photo: Paul Noronha   -  BusinessLine

The big cat population doesn’t jump overnight. It takes decades of protection. If anything, increasing numbers are just smokescreens that mask the real problems

It was a crisp January morning in 2015 when India’s then environment minister, Prakash Javadekar made a generous offer, buoyed by the 2014 census that counted about 2,226 tigers, a 30 per cent leap from 2010 of 1,706, “India is now in a position to donate some tigers to other countries which are not faring so well and where tigers are on the decline,” he said.

India was obviously doing something right to give the tiger a secure home to live, hunt and breed. There is, deservedly, a tremendous pride in this achievement. More so that a country like India with its 1.3 billion people, grinding poverty, yet galloping economic growth and its consequent pressures, harbours the maximum — over 60 per cent — of the world’s remaining wild tigers.

While tiger-estimation methods were contested by some of the world’s leading tiger scientists (and the arguments continue), it is an undisputed fact that there are definitely more tigers in the wild than were previously estimated, new areas were censured, and conservation initiatives had paid off, particularly in some habitats.

The Wildlife Institute of India attributed voluntary relocation of villages from core areas of tiger reserves and the consequent creation of inviolate habitats to be key factors in restoring tiger populations. Coupled with better on-the-ground protection, some habitats revived. Over the years, tigers have recovered, remarkably, in some reserves such as Nagarahole and Bhadra in Karnataka, Pench and Satpura in Madhya Pradesh, and Ranthambhore in Rajasthan, to name a few.

Nagarahole is a true success story. In the 1960s, you could barely spot deer or cheetal in a forest that was overrun with hunters, loggers and local people who had encroached into reserve lands. Today, Nagarahole is a relatively secure reserve, with robust tiger densities of 10 to 15 cats per 100 sqkm. A few lesser-known parks have flourished as well. Valmiki in Bihar was a write-off. But it has resurged, and with 30-odd tigers, Valmiki has earned a place on the world’s tiger map. A committed State, supported by the NGO Wildlife Trust of India, made all the difference.

No other country has invested so much to recover tiger populations as India. New reserves have been created, growing from Project Tiger’s original nine to 50. The bereft landscapes of Sariska and Panna were repopulated with translocated tigers from other reserves. The process had political backing, and with good leadership, constant monitoring of tigers, strict vigil, populations in both reserves were rebuilt. The Central government earmarked funds for a Special Tiger Protection Force, and while the going has been very slow, a few reserves now have guards specifically trained to take on poachers.

As someone working in conservation, I am frequently asked — or rather, told, “You must be happy, since it’s all good with tigers, isn’t it? After all, we now have more tigers than before.” I will refrain to comment on the happiness quotient or its correlation to tiger numbers, and focus instead on addressing the real issue — how secure is the tiger’s future? And try to present the real tiger story as it plays on the ground, and in the corridors of power, whose priorities shape the tiger’s future.

The problem with ‘increasing’ numbers is that it breeds complacency, taking attention and urgency away from conservation action. They serve as a smokescreen, glossing over the real threats that tigers face, such as spikes in poaching and the shocking decline in tiger habitats. Tiger numbers don’t jump overnight, a stable population is the outcome of years of protection.

Lost in the 2,226 euphoria was what was left unsaid. The mood spoiler that was whisked under the red carpet of dignitaries that flooded the room: that the wild tiger is facing its worst crisis ever. That the tiger’s domain is shrinking, splintering. The national animal is slowly retreating to small islands, isolated by roads, railroad tracks, canals and power lines; the land carved up by dams that flood entire ecosystems, by massive mining projects that reduce forests to a muddy moonscape, by industry and other development that is rapidly obliterating tiger habitats and the corridors that connect them.

Even as Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar made his jubilant announcement that India now had 2,226 tigers, his ministry was orchestrating the destruction of the most pristine, protected tiger habitats.

The success of relocating tigers to reserves from where they had gone extinct was toasted, but not a word was said about the fact that the same relocated tigers were going to be swallowed up, along with their new home in Panna, by a dam that would link the Ken–Betwa rivers, destructing and bisecting about a quarter of the reserve. Nor was there any discussion on how tiger conservation would be integrated — or not — in plans to expand the network of highways, railway lines and mines that are fragmenting one of the finest tiger habitats in the world: the Central Indian landscape.

There was no reference to the fact that the legal framework that protects the tiger is unravelling, endangering the tiger, all of the country’s wildlife—and human health as well, as our forests fall, waters are polluted and overused, and air becomes unbreathable.

In another era, tigers roamed vast forests, unfettered by human habitation. But as human population boomed, forests gave way to fields and factories. Livestock edged out ungulates in jungles. The tiger’s realm dwindled — today they are confined to only seven per cent of their original range.

Development activities are turning once-verdant tiger landscapes into fragile islands, with sanctuaries and reserves ringed by mines, highways, canals, reservoirs, resorts, towns and factories. So much so that during his tenure as environment minister, Jairam Ramesh (not known for his tact!) remarked at a private function in October 2010 that the obsession with a double-digit GDP was a bigger threat to the tiger than the poacher. His comment caused an uproar, especially since a staunch GDP proponent, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, then chief of the erstwhile Planning Commission, was among his audience. Ramesh took pains to drive home his point explaining that this ambitious growth target with the consequent demand for more energy — principally coal, as well as infra and industry, is the single biggest threat to the tiger today. Pointing to a photograph of a tigress with four cubs taken in Maharashtra’s Tadoba Tiger Reserve, Ramesh said that their future was cloudy, with some 40 current and proposed coal mines, and washeries encircling the reserve, threatening to block the tiger’s passage to connecting forests.

Tiger reserves are protected by law, and any non-forest activity — from withdrawal of water to expanding a road to laying transmission lines — has to go through an environment regulatory process, which is being framed as ‘anti development’. For example, if a mine is proposed in a tiger landscape, more often than not, headlines in the media say, ‘Highway Hits Wildlife Hurdle’. Pause here for a moment. Think. Tigers and other wild creatures have been reduced to ‘hurdles’? Had things come to such a pass?

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly and categorically refuted this when he delivered the inaugural address of the 3rd Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in Delhi on April 12, 2016. “Tiger conservation is not a drag on development,” he stated, stressing on “the need to factor in tiger concerns in sectors where conservation is not the goal”. His words had tremendous import, signalling support from the highest political office. For the tiger, they spelled hope.

Unfortunately, it was nothing more than the usual grandiloquence that politicians dole out routinely. What was happening on the ground is very different — tiger concerns are being brushed aside, even where tiger conservation is the goal, within tiger reserves.

A telling example of the dichotomy between feel-good speeches and reality is the aggressive push for and approval of the Ken–Betwa river link, the first of the countrywide river linking scheme. As detailed in an earlier chapter, the project is almost entirely inside the pristine forests of Madhya Pradesh’s Panna Tiger Reserve, prompting Ramesh to call it a disastrous idea, and say that it would never get environment clearance from his ministry. Located in the heart of the reserve, it will drown a chunk — 58 sqkm of the core, and its tigers.

Panna’s plight has at least gained public attention. Palamu in Jharkhand suffers a similar fate in silence, with plans to revive the Kutku dam, a project that has lain in abeyance for over 35 years. This is one of India’s original nine reserves, notified in 1973, and has a rich history. It is here that the first-ever tiger census took place in 1934; I found a mention of the same in Sir John Houlton’s account of Bihar, “the area of forest covered by the census was 115 sq miles and there were 32 tigers”. The author goes on to say that “the two biggest tigers whose footprints are well-known to forest officers were absent on this occasion”! Though numbers have thinned over the years, the habitat is still fairly pristine.

Given a chance, the big cat will recover here. Instead, 120 sqkm of the forests could be submerged. When the then environment minister Javadekar visited in August 2015, his focus was not on tigers or wildlife, but spoke instead of the ‘biggest wonder’ — the Kutku dam — which he said had been stopped by “obstructionist governments by raising non-issues like irrelevant forest laws”.

Soon after his visit, a task force was set up to expedite the project, and push for speedy environmental, forest and wildlife clearances for the Kutku dam. If dams threaten the future of some reserves, others like Ratapani in Madhya Pradesh are being cleaved by a developing network of roads and railways. National Highway 69, which cuts through the proposed Ratapani Tiger Reserve, was slated for expansion. As part of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), I visited the Ratapani Sanctuary in November 2011, accompanied by an officer from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), to assess the wildlife impact of this project. We found the ecological costs to be too high. The staff said all manner of wildlife crossed over the road, waiting late into the night for traffic to thin. Some did not make it. The 907 sqkm of sanctuary has three other highways criss-crossing — and a railway line that runs parallel to NH69 is also being expanded, creating a nearly insurmountable barrier. We advised against the expansion, instead asking for the current artery to be repaired and strengthened.

Ratapani reserve spills into Madhya Pradesh’s capital, Bhopal; and as the sanctuary is further fragmented, it will unsettle its wildlife, including tigers and sloth bears, escalating conflict with local people, which at the present time is minimal.

At the time of our visit, a tigress was bringing up cubs in an area not too far from the road. As cubs grow older they move away from natal areas to claim their own territories. What future did the cubs have with ever-expanding roads — and the assorted dhabas, shops and petrol pumps that inevitably followed — shrinking their forest, limiting their movement?

Prerna Singh Bindra is a conservationist, writer and journalist

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Published on June 23, 2017
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