Editorial -TigerLink, 2013

tiger_anurag sharma

It’s slipped by… almost unnoticed, the 40th anniversary of Project Tiger , born on April 1, 1973, the biggest conservation initiative of its time, backed by strong political will and implemented by committed men on the ground.

The obvious question that arises is: did the project serve its purpose? There are detractors, and I have been a severe critic as well, given the fortunes and otherwise of the tiger in the turbulent four decades since its inception. We saw the carnage–tigers stripped off their skin and bones–wrought by illegal wildlife trade in the ‘90s, the mockery of inflated number and misplaced complacency, the shame of tigers going extinct in Sariska and Panna… Tragically, the killing continues, and 2012 was a particularly bad year. Worse, the “Save Tiger” campaign has taken a severe blow as human-wildlife conflict takes lives and livelihood, eroding tolerance levels. Read about this in detail in our Focus section.

Yet, there is little doubt that the project has served its purpose. Even if, as it is pointed out, we have about the same ‘number’ of tigers we started with in 1973–if we can make that comparison at all given different estimation methods. It will do well to remember that the pressures on the tiger and its habitat have only increased exponentially in these four decades. That tiger habitats remain, that tiger populations have stabilised (although still vulnerable) and that some reserves–one example being Nagarahole saw a resurgence of tigers, reinforces this fact. This, despite a booming human population and the consequent pressure on resources, expanding agriculture, the intensive and extensive demands for infrastructural and industrial growth, sagging political will and a frayed sincerity of purpose.

One sore point (while not a grave concern) is this grudge against tiger conservation which seems to be gaining ground of late. It’s not new, this idea that the space taken up by the tiger–not physically, but in the heart and conscience; in law and in policy–is somehow denying other, equally endangered, but perhaps less charismatic species their due. Unfortunately, such notions, while definitely not ill-intended, can have dangerous implications: they can weaken efforts and compromise the tiger, financially or in any other way. What needs to be done is to strengthen conservation of other endangered species, to give them equal, even greater focus and sufficient funds. Not undermine the tiger.

And then there is the larger picture that comes with tiger conservation. Saving the tiger has helped recover a diversity of habitats from the rich grasslands, and forests, of the terai, to the sal forests of Central India to the Sundarbans delta and the rainforests of the Western Ghats. The first nine tiger reserves, though primarily (and obviously!) chosen because they were tiger strongholds, were as the great naturalist M Krishnan put it, “widely separated and quite dissimilar in their terrain and flora, and even in their faunal features”. Project Tiger was never meant to protect all endangered species. What it aimed for, given that the tiger is the apex predator, was to provide a protective cover for the flora and fauna in the reserves. Its umbrella has nurtured other species like the critically endangered hard ground barasingha in Kanha, and within its ambit Corbett shelters elephants, gharials and no less than 600 bird species. Paradoxically, the tiger too flourished in Kaziranga (it got tiger reserve status only recently in 2006) because another endangered species, the one horned rhinoceros, was the focus and the pride of Assam.

There are problems: even as we increase the area under Project Tiger (and I am glad for that for it protects–stringently–natural habitats), some of the existing ones are failing, like Udanti-Sitanadi in Chhattisgarh and Satkosia in Orissa… far from the capital. Far, too. from our conscience? But that is not the point–Delhi, and the funding and other support that the project brings cannot save tiger or habitats, unless the states are on board and prioritse conservation, unless public opinion, especially at the local level “rallies in favour of the tiger”, there is only so much that laws and the Centre can do.

As we go to press, I receive in my inbox the picture of the mutilated body of a young cub run over by a train that sped through Tadoba’s buffer. Rhinos killed by trains in Valmiki, elephants massacred on the railway line that runs through Buxa tiger reserve. Mining on the Pench-Satpura corridor, highways through Rajaji… tiger habitat has too many competing, conflicting needs in our growing economy. And here is where I reiterate my biggest concern for the tiger: Habitats degrading, fragmenting, vanishing under the onslaught of the resource pressure of our growing population and India’s myopic growth agenda which has tossed aside ecological concerns–and our future.

Forty years back we pledged to save the tiger. And we did, I do not quantify this just in numbers, but in the fact that it continues to breed, and in some cases even flourish. That tiger issues make headlines, that no politician can afford to be perceived–at least publicly–as tiger unfriendly, that national campaigns exist, that a village in Karnataka protected a tiger that got entangled in barbed wire… In this lies my, our hope for the tiger.

Forty years on… let’s take the pledge again… to conserve, with no compromises, the land of the tiger..,

 

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This is my editorial for the current issues (April 2013 for TigerLink). the entire issue–made with the help of the TL team: Aditya Panda, Cara Tejpal-and the new member-designed by Rajesh Madan, who pitched in at the last minute:

It is led by PK Sen, who is Executive Director of Ranthambhore Foundation,  which publishes TigerLink

Photo credit (for the editorial, and for TIgerLink cover0 goes to Anurag Sharma

The issue of TL will be uploaded shortly

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