Reconciling the tigers with growth and equity

Tigers, the largest of all the Asian cats are facing threats from habitat loss and poaching these days. They are forced to compete for space with dense and often growing human populations. They were present in 30 countries historically. The figure is down to just 13 countries now with tiger habitat left in just 1.1 million square kilometers, which is just four per cent of the overall land area. While the tiger population world over in captivity is over 20,000 the wild tiger population is anything between 3000-7000.

The Indian culture in particular has been deeply influenced by the tiger and it continues to be a powerful cultural mascot and a symbol of myth and imagination. The Tiger Protection Society, New Delhi points that “as top predators, tigers shape the community structure of ecosystems. Tigers prevent over-grazing of the ecosystem by limiting herbivore numbers, and maintain ecological integrity. The presence of tigers in the forest is an indicator of the well being of the ecosystem. Thus if the tigers go extinct, the entire system would collapse.”

Conservation efforts have been on to recover the animal. Closed reserves in the form of sanctuaries and national parks have been set up. Despite gritty efforts by conservationists, tigers seem to be doomed and their numbers are plummeting. The fifty three tiger reserves in the country administered under the ‘Project Tiger’ initiative have been unable to ensure viable populations of the species.

Dr. K. Ullas Karanth, a well known tiger biologist and scientist reiterated the importance of restoring extensive natural landscapes with full complement of wild species at a lecture at Delhi some time back. “This is now well-recognized as an integral part of any development process,” he says stressing that this was necessary to maintain human existence in the long run.

Recent estimates suggest the tiger’s historical range in Asia has shrunk by about 93 per cent. However, being an optimist, Dr. Karanth who has contributed immensely to the world of tiger conservation refuses to accept a tenaciously deterministic projection of the tiger’s future. “We live in a world of change and unpredictability, and much can be learnt from past failures and successes to change our future behaviour. Furthermore, if our model of the fate of the tiger were to include potential economic and technological changes, our predictions will be even less certain,” he felt.

There are many species such as fox that can thrive under human impact. Tiger, he notes is one species that is ecologically fragile in the face of human impacts. Not only that, this is one species that comes into serious conflict with human interests, and gets rapidly wiped out. Such species get most adversely affected by the ‘rural poor’ as well as the ‘urban industrial’ sectors. Thus they pose serious challenges to conservation efforts. There is a need to stop downplaying the threats from both these sectors, he stressed.

Saving the big cat became possible mainly through use of scientific knowledge. The work of Dr. Karanth in Nagarhole tiger reserve in Karnataka indicated a substantial recovery of tiger populations. Though this looks like an almost impossible conservation challenge, according to him in India, habitats were able to save far greater numbers of tigers than in taiga forests in the Russian Far East. This could be because Indian forests support better prey densities. All this, despite the complexities on the ground with regard to conservation practice.

There is a need for reconciling conservation with development. There is a need for weaning away people from occupations that harm tigers. Bold ‘conservation investments’ need to be made and adaptive management done. The robust economies of developing countries such as India make that a possibility, Karanth believes. Tiger habitats would need to be consolidated and the Forest Department’s capacity built. Tiger conservation would also entail a proper understanding of and monitoring of the dynamics of tiger and prey population.

More specifically, there is the need for a conservation practice that blends sound ecological science with pragmatic social and conservation interventions leading to reasonable outcomes for both humans and tigers.

By: Amita Bhaduri

Image courtesy: Wikimedia commons (CC A-S 4.0)

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