When we were kids, one of the favorite things to do was listening to my grandfather’s stories. He had a bagful of them, picked from his many tours and travels across India, seldom fictional and always ending with a funny twist. One such story that he told us often, was a jeep ride on the roads of Rajasthan one night when suddenly a tiger appeared from the depths of the jungle that ran along the road.
The animal wanted to cross the path and he did that by leaping over the jeep and quickly vanishing into the forest patch on the opposite side. My grandfather said, the appearance of the tiger was so sudden and so dramatic that it took him a while to get his heart beat back to its normal rhythm. What he found out later was that his travel companion had had an even worse shock. He needed a change of pants on the next stop!
For most of us, being brave in presence of the most regal predator of the Indian jungles, doesn’t come easy, even if the tiger is quietly walking inside a stealthy iron cage. And yet, we Indians are living with tigers. This country with a human population of 1.25 billion is right now also home to 70 percent of the wild tigers left in the world as per a recent report by the World Wildlife Fund and the Global Tiger Forum. The report says that the global tiger numbers have increased from 3200 in 2010 to 3890 in 2016. India alone is now home to approximately 2500 tigers from the 2226 tigers counted in 2014.
Not too long ago, India was left with only 1411 tigers. From that alarming figure to steadily see a rise in tiger population, surely means that something good in terms of conservation policies is at work here.
However, do numbers tell the complete story?
There is a popular Hindi saying that says ‘Ek jungle mein sirf ek hi sher reh sakta hai’ (There can only be one tiger in one jungle.) Indeed, if the tiger was a social animal like the deer, the gain in numbers would have meant another one added to the group or herd, living in the same habitat as a community. But unlike the deer, the tiger is a solitary creature. Each individual tiger needs its regal empire, a territory of its own to live, hunt and rule. Rising numbers are great but the greater challenge lies of providing a healthy habitat to each of the 2500 tigers, which is indeed a necessity without which any tiger conservation policy fails.
Healthy Tiger Habitat
Tigers being the top predators of an ecosystem need a home range size between 14 sq. km to 80 sq. km which largely depends on the availability of prey in this home range.
A future where tigers and humans can peacefully co-exist would mean giving to the tiger,
- An inviolate core habitat maintained for breeding population with no human interference in this habitat.
- Tiger corridors that are habitats well connected for the tigers to move around and allow genetic exchange to take place.
- A healthy prey base available to the predator.
- Rigorous anti-poaching actions with modern training and facilities provided to all protection forces in all habitats of the country.
This year, Rs. 380 crores has been allocated to Project Tiger by the Environment Ministry to focus on improving conditions of tiger breeding in major tiger states of the country. Problem is, enthusiastic budget allocations cannot erase the industrial pressure on the forests and the lack of strong political will to stop industries from gnawing away the forests that are primarily a tiger’s land.
Take the case of the proposed widening of the NH7 in central India. This widening might impact the tiger habitats in Kanha-Pench and Kanha Nagzira protected reserves. Not only will crucial habitat be lost to a highway construction, but tigers might lose the corridor too that connects one part of the forest to another.
The mixed up and hugely conflicting goals of industrial development and environment preservation on the same land do not paint a pretty picture for the future of the tigers. In fact, it makes matters worse because the promise of doubling tiger numbers by 2022 cannot be met unless the plans are to keep tigers inside cages in each industrial plant laid over their wild habitat.
Additionally, since Project Tiger began in 1973, it has been funded by the Centre. From 2016, the Centre will put in 60% and the states the remaining 40%. The onus will now fall on individual states and their smart decision making in allocating man power as well as resources to save tigers, their habitats and tackle the permanent threat of poaching.
In March this year a wild tiger that had killed an estate worker in Gudalur taluk of Tamil Nadu was lured and killed by personnel of the Special Task Force. In Corbett National Park, a wild tiger is right now being hunted for killing 3 forest guards and villagers. Such incidences, though not common, warn of a future where the tug of war between man and the beast for the same piece of land could become more ruthless if the predator is not left alone with his piece of forest to live in peace. Anil Dutt, former principal chief conservator of forests (Wildlife) warns that over-exposure of human would instinctively induce stress and irritation in tigers.
As a nation we are committed to save our tigers but we are also poised to emerge as a technology giant in the near future. We are also the second most populous country in the world. We are also building more highways, more dams, more mines across the length and breadth of the country on the very land where we want the tigers to walk.
Where once my grandfather could take a jeep ride with lush green forests caving around the roads, we are ushering an era where forest patches mercifully exist to contain the beasts while industries, roads and giant power plants shape a green-less future.
India is the only country in the world, other than Russia where tiger numbers have consistently increased in recent years. Perhaps, now is the right time when this conservation battle is pushed to the next level. Forests are restored. Industries forced to provide ecologically sustainable solutions to build an economy. Precious wilderness is not wrapped in bureaucratic tapes and gifted to be vandalized.
Tigers rising is a sign for us as a nation to stand our grounds and clearly define the line urban development cannot cross. Let tigers be the undisputed kings of their forest land.
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Images via The Hindu, Dabrownstien