A tiger is a typical predator and what is known as an ‘umbrella species’. When one tiger is saved, it helps save its prey and in turn the food for that prey, hence saving a lot many other species in one area.
According to Ullas Karanth, one of the most prominent conservationists and tiger experts of India, every week a tiger must kill one large prey animal. This can be a deer, antelope, wild pig or wild cattle. Therefore, in order to sustain a population of 100 tigers at least a prey population of 50,000 animals is needed. The 100 tigers will also include 25 territory holding females with cubs.
To give all these animals a comfortable habitat, if 25 animals are living in each square kilometer, they would need a 2,000 sq. Km. area. This is on an average the density of animals living in a strictly protected deciduous forest area in our country.
Karanth also says that if the tiger is living in a habitat like a mangrove forest where prey population is lesser, they need even more habitat and a larger area to live and hunt.
Thus with a 500 prey for one tiger ratio, a very large area of forest cover can be protected. This can eventually help protect a number of species thriving in the jungle – from a giant tree to an endangered frog.
Karanth says that it is this strong scenario that is helping save the tiger. A frog or a small insect species that need equal protection are not umbrella species like the tiger and therefore the appeal to save them is not as great as the urge to save the tiger.
Despite being such an important part of the ecosystem, the tiger’s range has diminished drastically in the last 150 years. Karanth says there has been a 93 percent reduction in tiger range. Today, the source population of the tiger occupies just 6 percent of its former home.
According to Karanth,
“Although the forest cover suitable for tigers occurs over 3,00,000 square kilometers in India, surviving source populations occur in less than 25,000 square kilometers. Although now there are 40 or so “tiger reserves” covering 40,000 square kilometers, several of these simply cannot support viable source populations on their own, and, some are even virtually devoid of tigers.”
He says the number one reason for diminished tiger numbers is, over-hunting of prey animals by locals. The second reason is poaching of tigers and the third being deforestation and fragmentation resulting in loss of forest cover and range for the tiger.
Today the need of the hour is strict restriction to poaching and involuntary relocation of human settlements. But Karanth feels that what is happening today in the name of conservation is a haphazard protection efforts at one place and even more unplanned development at the other.
“Increasingly, massive “conservation investments” targeted at tiger reserves, appear to be taking the form of misguided and destructive “habitat management” practices on one hand, and rural development activities under the label of “eco-development” on the other. Both these interventions suck funds and attention away from more critical tasks. Management practices of tiger reserves now clearly need closer scrutiny and radical reorientation,” says the conservationist.
Tiger population census are held every four years and that is a huge step forward from the earlier census that relied on pugmarks to count the tigers. But Karanth says that rather than making the census a four yearly affair, the source population has to monitored constantly and using latest methods like DNA sampling, or camera traps. Some steps have been taken in this regard at few of the tiger reserves, but the effort has to be comprehensive and immediate.
Karanth rightly remarks,
“Without objective metrics, tiger conservation can, and often does, rest merely on fanciful anecdotes and tiger tales. Conservation action must be rooted in sound science, although conservation actors may necessarily be inspired by the sheer emotional appeal of the big cat. Given protection and reasonable management, India can hold at least five times more tigers than it does now.”
The tiger and hundreds of other species have a future only if we make the necessary effort to tighten the safety mesh around them.
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(K Ullas Karanth is a conservation scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society. His views have been taken from an article appearing in tehelka.com)
Image via wikipedia/commons