The Kerala government’s proposal to cull tigers in the state to contain the threat to human lives due to a perceived rise in the big cat population has sparked a debate about wildlife conservation. While culling is just one of the many proposals being considered, the fact remains that the government is approaching the whole issue with a tunnel vision, reducing it to a mere man vs wild animal conflict. It is only the human side of the story that is told. Not discounting the human tragedy in this context, it has to be said that the narrative conveniently forgets that tigers are also the rightful owners of their part of the world. The government argues that the tiger population has increased beyond the carrying capacity of forests. Environmental groups have questioned Forest Minister A K Saseendran’s claim about the tiger population increase and asked him to validate it with proof from a scientific study. Citing the latest figures released by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, they contend that less than 50 tigers are in the three forest divisions of Wayanad. While talking about wildlife numbers, the minister, strangely, is silent on the proliferation of resorts and quarrying in forest areas.
Despite the rebound in numbers, tigers are still classified as endangered and the big cat has completely vanished from many of its former habitats. Killing tigers is prohibited in India unless the animal is declared a man-eater. There was a time when more than a lakh tigers roamed freely in India. At the turn of the 20th century, there were about 40,000 tigers in the country’s forests, dwindling to less than 1,400 in 2006 due to poaching, man-animal conflicts, habitat loss, and industrialisation. The number rose to 2,967 by 2018, thanks to the world’s most ambitious conservation endeavour called Project Tiger. In 1973, India banned tiger hunting and set up 50 reserves under the programme.
It took decades of painstaking conservation efforts to save a species on the verge of extinction. It is appalling, then, that the governments are even thinking of drastic measures like culling to deal with what should essentially be considered a healthy tiger population. They should, instead, reduce human activities in core forest areas so that tigers don’t venture into human habitats. If the numbers are beyond a forest’s carrying capacity, translocation can be considered but should be exercised only as a last resort.