Tigers burn bright in India under the shadow of human-animal conflict


By  Saurav Katkurwar  

Five decades ago, findings of the first tiger census set alarm bells ringing in the government. The count of tigers had plummeted to 1,827, which was a sharp decline from the estimated 20,000-40,000 at the turn of the 20th century. This led to the birth of Project Tiger in 1973, which still remains the backbone of tiger conservation in India.

Now, at fifty years of Project Tiger, the number of wild tigers has touched an estimated 3,167, reveals the latest census.

However, experts caution that the tiger population has reached a saturation point in India and tiger conservation must be seen through the prism of sustainable development.

Latest census findings

The census report, Status of Tigers 2022, released on April 9, is a phase-wise survey of tigers, across almost 400,000 sq km of India’s forested habitat, using ground survey by forest department staff, camera trapping and generating landscape level data using remote sensing and secondary data sources. The latest is the largest survey of tigers done, compared to previous years.

In the estimated 3,167 tigers, the survey identified 3,080 individual tigers photographed using camera traps installed at 32,588 locations across the country.

Detailed information about the distribution of tigers in the country will be released in the coming days

For the survey, tiger habitats were categorised into five major landscapes, given the vast geographical expanse in India.

In the Shivalik and Gangetic floodplain landscape, the numbers of tigers recorded on cameras increased to 804 in 2022 from 646 in 2018. In the Central Indian Highlands and Eastern Ghats landscape, 1,161 tigers were recorded, as against 1,033 in 2018. In the Sundarbans landscape, the tiger population recorded reached 100 in 2022, from 88 in 2018, when the last survey was done.

There is a decline in tiger numbers in two landscapes. In the Western Ghats Landscape, the tigers recorded decreased to 824 in 2022 from 981 in 2018. There is also a reduced number of tigers recorded in the North Eastern Hills and Brahmaputra Plains Landscape, with the population standing at 194 compared to 219 in 2018.

Journey of Project Tiger and tiger estimation

Experts divide the conservation of tigers under Project Tiger into two broad phases. The first phase began in the 1970s when laws were enacted for the protection of wildlife and their habitats. This led to the creation of tiger reserves and the adoption of different methods to protect tigers. Tigers were counted using pugmarks.

“There was a lack of scientific approach, and frontline forest staff was not capable. It used to be an island approach as conservation activities were restricted to the particular tiger reserve. In some places tourism was uncontrolled, unregulated,” Faiyaz Khudsar, a conservation biologist, told Mongabay-India.

After the probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in 2005, which revealed that the tiger population was wiped out from the Sariska tiger reserve due to poaching, the government adopted a landscape-level approach.

The Sariska situation led to the formation of the tiger task force, and subsequently, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) was constituted. It was the beginning of the second phase. “Now, the landscape approach was adopted. It led to the regular phenomenon of the All India Tiger Population Estimation. We also started camera traps to ascertain the number of tigers. Even radiotelemetry was brought to use. These are some of the advanced methods adopted as we shifted from island to landscape approach,” Khudsar said.

Situation at present

In 2006, the first tiger population estimation using a scientific methodology, revealed that the tiger population in India had slumped to an alarming level with just 1,411 tigers left in the wild. Effective strategies, capacity building of frontline forest staff, and the use of technical and digital applications helped bump up the number of tigers over the years.

However, experts say the tiger population in India now has reached close to saturation point – which means certain habitats or protected areas have reached their peak carrying capacity.

Rajesh Gopal, secretary general of Global Tiger Forum, told Mongabay-India that India now could house additional 1,000-1,200 tigers, and not 10,000 like it used to be a century ago. “Sustainability is more important than (population) numbers reaching a higher level. We can accommodate additional tigers in areas that are vacant now,” he said, batting for a sustainable approach to reduce human-tiger conflict.

Gopal said trouble-free wildlife corridors are important to maintain source-sink dynamics. ‘Source’ is a high-quality habitat that facilitates the tiger population to increase while ‘sink’ is a low-quality habitat that is not able to support a population.

“Linkages between source and sink are important. There are local people, different government departments, industrial and business groups, as well as agencies involved in hydel, mining, highway projects. We need to engage all of them in tiger action,” he said.

The 2022 tiger census acknowledges encroachment, mining, and infrastructure building are among the major factors that pose threats to wildlife habitats. It advocates the expansion of tiger habitats, preserving population connectivity as a part of a multi-faceted approach to ensure the long-term survival of tigers in India.

Infrastructure development and tiger population connectivity

There has been an increase in human-tiger conflicts due to increasing tiger populations outside protected areas. Many tiger areas and wildlife corridors are facing the problem of habitat loss and fragmentation, which is increasing the intensity and frequency of human-tiger encounters. Encroachment, urbanisation, construction of infrastructure projects, mining activities are among the major reasons.

Conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra called the rising number of tigers “commendable” even as she expressed concern over the destruction of critical habitat. “The biggest challenge is protecting habitats. India’s commitment and achievements in tiger conservation are remarkable. But, we cannot be destroying and fragmenting habitats — even the most sacrosanct of tiger areas. An example is the Panna tiger reserve, around 90 square kilometres of which will be submerged, including in the core critical habitat,” she said.

“There are plans of building a highway through Corbett tiger reserve and expansion of highways and railways in prime tiger habitats of Goa and Uttar Kannada. Such fragmentation of tiger habitats and corridors will (create) islands and isolate tiger populations, compromising their future as there is likely to be a case of gene flow” she added.

Bindra said the proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act and having a toothless National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) do not bode well for tiger conservation as they weaken and dilute safeguards to wildlife habitats.

Is poaching still a problem?

The intensity and magnitude of tiger poaching have gone down significantly in the past decade, but some tiger areas in India are still vulnerable.

The latest tiger census highlights threats of poaching to tigers in the northeast, Western Ghats, and Sundarbans. Nitin Desai, Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, said the poaching activities by organised networks and international gangs have come down significantly.

“The strong action taken by enforcement agencies led to a drastic decline in poaching activities since 2013. The central India-based network of poachers is out of business while the poaching activities by north India- based network has reduced to 20 percent of what it used to be a decade ago,” he said.

Desai said tigers however are killed in traps that are set for small animals. “Hunting of small animals for bushmeat is still rampant in many places. At times, tigers get stuck and killed in such traps. Local poaching is a serious issue,” he said.

Involve local communities

While human-tiger encounters may increase in the coming future, experts suggest the active involvement of local, indigenous communities in the conservation programme.

Khudsar said there is a need to convince people why tigers are crucial for biodiversity. “Wherever there is a viable tiger population, wonderful grasslands are found. This means better water percolation, which leads to better crop productivity. We need to make people aware that a tiger means prosperity,” he said.

The involvement of local communities in conservation and tourism activities is becoming evident. It is estimated that tiger reserves in the country generate employment of over 50 lakh days of work, annually, for the local communities.

However, there are concerns about the role of local communities being restricted to doing menial jobs.

“Local communities who co-exist with tigers bear the conservation (responsibility), and must be the first beneficiaries of tourism and other non-extractive activities in and around tiger reserves. Alienating them is counterproductive, and they must be made partners in conservation,” Bindra said.

Khudsar too echoed this view, “We must see what partnership we can evolve with local communities. The agriculture landscape in highly vulnerable buffer areas can be managed with locals. It will generate trust as well as responsibility,” he said.

Strong measures for sustainable future

While hunting tigers can be illegal in India, there are options for translocation and contraception to reduce human-animal conflict, experts note.

Y. V. Jhala, noted biologist and former dean of Wildlife Institute of India (WII), said there is an option of translocating tigers to areas with low or no tiger populations such as forests in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Assam, Orissa, and in northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Assam.

“However, there is no prey base currently. It is due to the consumption of bushmeat. In some areas such as Chhattisgarh’s Indravati, Achanakmar, and Jharkhand’s Palamu, the tiger population is low due to militancy and poaching,” he said. “Surplus tigers can be translocated to these areas but the areas will have to be restored first. We are in the know of these problems for 10 years but progress did not happen the way it should have.”

Khudsar said the issue of tiger management should not be treated emotionally but scientifically. “If a tiger is going close to human settlement and harming people, then whatever the scientific procedure suggested by experts must be adopted. There should be no emotions. Because people are suffering due to the tiger. It is in the best interest of conservation.”

Jhala said immunocontraception appears to be a viable and safe contraception method to control births in tigers. “You do not have to capture the animal. You have to dart remotely. It is a mechanism by which the body’s own immune system attacks ova and makes it impenetrable to sperm. There is no harm to the animal. It has been used in the U.S. and Africa. WII has a project on it. But there is no funding,” he said.

Mongabay India/TWF