The report of 83 tigers dying within a period of eight months this year, up from 77 last year—published on the website of the National Tiger Conservation Authority—is both shocking and alarming, more so at a time when the latest census stated that the population of tigers had improved dramatically—from a struggling 1,700 plus in 2010 to a healthy 2,226, a jump of 30 per cent in just four years. While the rise was projected as an indicator of the conservation efforts by the government agencies and wildlife departments, some experts and scientists felt that it was due to improved survey techniques and more areas being included and that the celebrations were a bit early in the day.
The overall scenario, however, remains grim. A satellite survey reports that Indian forests have been under severe pressure and, over the years, we have lost more than 40 per cent of the tiger habitat, which continues to shrink. There is a shortage of prey species and tigers have been moving out of the parks in search of food and water. The question that needs to be answered is how then will parks sustain the extra 30 per cent? Parks have a carrying capacity and tigers are highly territorial. As the juveniles mature and begin to establish their own territories, which they guard ferociously, the older and weaker ones are pushed out of protected forests. Given the spill-out, most of which is directly into human habitations, we should be hearing more often about increased man-animal conflict, but thankfully all is quiet.
Some experts do not refute the number of 2,226 tigers, but believe that it was for the first time round that several techniques were used for the survey and figures cross-checked by various agencies, which were involved in the census. This led to a more accurate counting of tigers. The latest census used DNA mapping, photographs and camera traps than the conventional method of pugmark identification.
The number could be even closer to 3,000 or more, some believe, but then there are a few grey areas that need to be addressed. The census was conducted in parks and controlled areas, while there are many free-ranging tigers in our jungles outside the parks. It’s time to include them as well.
There is no doubt that India has the largest numbers of tigers in the world, but can the shrinking habitats sustain them? Poachers are still active, killing for bones and body parts. Man-animal conflicts have led to poisoning of the big cats, many of which are not reported. Budgets granted to the environment ministry have shrunk. At a recent tiger summit, the Prime Minister announced an increase in the budget for tiger conservation. While this is welcome news, how will it translate into ground-level action is still a concern.
Moreover, there are lessons to be learnt. For successful conservation, more is needed than just global summits, good intentions and legislations that are not enforced strictly.
There is a need for effective management, inclusion of local communities and stake holders which till now remains a distant hope. The future of the world’s most powerful predator rests in the hands of a few. This is the time to take steps towards saving the big cat.