Save the Tiger

three tigers - photograph © Gobind Sagar BhardwajSaving the tiger, I am delighted to note, has caught the nation’s imagination.. Encouragingly, tiger conservation has even entered political consciousness at the national level, and today no political leader can afford to appear ‘unfriendly’ towards the tiger. Let’s hope that this level of societal support can help turn the tide against wildlife extermination in the country.

But before we start celebrating, let’s pause, and consider where, the battle lines have gone awry, and the focus has blurred. We all want to save the tiger, but in our zeal and enthusiasm, we’ve forgotten what issues really ail the cat. One issue is tiger tourism. I won’t call it eco-tourism – simply because there’s little that’s ‘eco’ about it.

The cacophony on both sides of this debate has been of little help and, even as we speak, new resorts are springing up, tightening the noose around tiger reserves, destroying their connectivity to other forests and choking crucial corridors.

Without a doubt, the issues that surround tiger tourism need to tackled seriously, but it is simply hogging up disproportionate attention, at the cost of other key issues. among them, the alarming rate at which the tiger is losing its habitat due to other reasons.

The figures speak for themselves. In the four years from the first All India Tiger Estimate in 2006 to the last one in 2010, the tiger lost no less than 12,000 sq km of its habitat , according to a report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Wildlife Institute of India.

Expanding urbanisation and agriculture, mines, highways, railway lines, dams, industries and other developmental activities have pillaged, drowned and slashed tiger habitat.

Let’s take a look at a park very close to our heart. Many tiger aficionados can trace the lineage and just about everything else about Machli, Sundari, Zalim et al- the famous tigers from Ranthambhore. But how many of us are aware or have raised a voice about the fact that recently a canal bisected the only link between the Ranthambhore National Park and Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary, blocking the tiger’s path, within the boundaries of the reserve. Even though mandatory permission was not given, the foundation stone was laid by a former union minister (of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, no less).

The Central Indian Tiger landscape is one of the four most viable tiger habitats in the country. It is also unfortunately the ‘coal belt’ of India. It is being ripped apart, not only by a series of small and big mines, but also by a multitude of railway lines and highways, of which the cases of NH 6 and NH 7 have been well-documented.

In its current form, the expansion of NH 7 will lead to the irrevocable breakage of the Kanha-Pench corridor, and isolate the two tiger populations from one another, with grave consequences. These are just two instances of ill-planned projects.

There is no let up, Indeed there is increasing pressure to sacrifice more tiger habitat, which, as it is, barely constitutes one per cent of India’s landscape. It’s simple: if tigers do not have a home — undisturbed core critical habitats to breed, and corridors that keep alive genetic vitality, there is no long-term future for the species. Nor, of course, can the tiger survive without food.

A 2004 study by tiger biologist, Ullas Karanth, and his colleagues determined that prey densities play a key factor in determining tiger densities. A healthy prey population, as for example in Nagarahole, with a prey density of about 40 hoofed animals per square kilometer supports 12-15 tigers per 100 sq km. In contrast, reserves in, say, Chhattisgarh, even with excellent habitat, can barely support a few tigers as local communities have pretty much exterminated the prey base, creating ‘empty forests’.

But how seriously have we taken this threat? The availability of venison in bazaars around Protected Areas is the worst kept secret, but has yet to be seriously tackled,. Further, few of us consider the devastating impacts of local communities on tiger habitat, which bear the brunt of millions who depend on the forest for fuel wood, grazing cattle, and the extraction of minor forest produce such as bamboo, gooseberry, tendu (beedi) leaf, honey, and resins ––not for subsistence, but for commercial supply to national and international markets, degrading habitat, impacting prey populations and leading to human-wildlife conflict.

Instead of developing a strategy to tackle this very complex and sensitive issue, laws that moderated these activities earlier are being weakened–– to serve vote bank politics. Just one example: bamboo (prime elephant food, and good cover for tigers and other wildlife) is now defined as a non-timber forest produce, allowing for easier cutting, collection and transport.

That’s damaging enough, but more worrying is the fact that there is a move to allow its transportation through trucks and lorries(currently it is headloads and cycles) , setting the stage for massive devastation of our forests. There are currently some 750 villages stranded deep inside our core/critical tiger habitats. These are people who desire––and are at present unable to access––facilities we take for granted: roads, hospitals, education, and employment opportunities.

The answer provided by the PM-appointed Tiger Task Force was voluntary relocation by giving them an attractive compensation and rehabilitation package so that they could avail a better life outside our PAs. This ‘relocation agenda’ is on the priority list, but while there is some progress under an enhanced package by the Central government , sufficient money is not being released, even though people have petitioned and are waiting to move out. Funds (like the CAMPA ) are instead poured into ineffective afforestation schemes and spent on building useless infrastructure, even within Protected Areas, which are supposed to be ‘inviolate’. The threat of direct tiger poaching––the immediate cause of the sharp decline of tigers is well documented.

But emotional breast beating over each tiger death however distressing doesn’t serve any constructive purpose. Securing tigers, prey and their habitat does-and that’s what we need to collectively strive for. Wild habitats must be kept sacrosanct to the truest meaning of the word.

Tiger reserves must get their funds on time, and money for relocation must be made available. Enabling and motivating our forest guards, holding the bureaucracy accountable, and posting committed officers to wildlife reserves, are the crucial must-do’s to save tigers.

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