World Environment Day: tiger numbers on the rise, but so are threats
- The \'Save the Tiger\' campaign has borne some fruit in the past few years
- In January 2015, the govt announced that there are 2,226 tigers in India, compared to 1,706 in 2010
- There are still multiple threats that plague tiger reserves
- From poachers to \'islandisation\' of reserves, there are many challenges yet to be overcome
- Why govt must decide between being the custodian of tigers and mindless development
- The impact of tourism and lack of village relocation on tigers
Last year, the estimation exercise conducted by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) revealed an increase in tiger numbers - a jump of 30% in the big cat population in 49 tiger reserves across India.
In January 2015, an ecstatic Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Prakash Javadekar, declared that there are approximately 2,226 tigers in India as compared to 1,706 in 2010.
These numbers certainly are something to cheer about, but don't necessarily reflect all is well within tiger reserves across the country.
There are still multiple threats that plague these reserves. The 'islandisation' of reserves, an aging forest department, increasing developmental activities, weak wildlife laws and defunct village relocation programme, among host of other issues, pose direct challenges to those willing to save the tiger.
In fact, on the day when Javadekar announced these new figures, he released another important report which went unnoticed.
A study by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), titled 'Connecting Tiger Populations for Long-Term Conservation', identified vanishing corridors that connect one tiger reserve to another.
Crucial for the healthy population of wild tigers, corridors are key to the survival of not only tigers, but other wild animals. They help in maintaining a healthy gene pool of the species, that otherwise faces threats of inbreeding, which is known to wipe out populations of wild animals across the world.
Moreover, these connecting patches of forests help sub-adult tigers to disperse, and help them establish their own territories. With these forest patches gone, dispersing tigers come in conflict with humans, which often lead to disastrous consequences.
Reports of tigers being poisoned and poached outside reserves are a common occurrence. In fact, 45 tigers have died between January and May 2016, as compared to 69 in 2015. These are just the cases that have been reported. Many others would have succumbed without the authorities even knowing about it.
Ever-present threat of poaching
Increasing instances of poaching have time and again raised questions about the preparedness of forest departments, and the news on that front is not encouraging.
Many reserves have not done any hiring for years, which had led to an aging forest force. Obviously it has taken its toll on the morale of these veterans, who no longer seem interested in protecting the forests or its inhabitants.
Ill-equipped to deal with the organised network of wildlife traders, forest guards still patrol the forests with lathis, and are not allowed to use firearms.
The Wildlife Trust of India's Dr Mayukh Chatterjee has been working towards bringing down human-animal conflict in Dudhwa National Park, and shares great insights on how poachers have always had an upper hand over the forest department.
"Their tracking skills are legendary, and while it might take the forest department days to locate a tiger, they do it overnight. Though multiple NGOs are now training and equipping forest guards, but we still have a long way to go before we can checkmate these poachers," he said.
Development and tourism
Increasing developmental activities are the most potent threats to the survival of this great species. The expansion of National Highway 7, which cuts through Kanha-Pench tiger reserves onwards to Nagzira Navegaon and Tadoba tiger reserves, is a prime example. Despite opposition from WII and conservation NGOs, the government has decided to go ahead with the expansion.
Similarly, the Ken-Betwa river linking project has been given a green signal, which would eventually lead to submergence of the core area of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.
Even the Godavari-Mahanadi linking project will submerge the Satkosia Tiger Reserve.
Multiple dams being built across Arunachal Pradesh too pose threats to wildlife population in Assam's Kaziranga Tiger Reserve.
Mindless tourism activities and the mushrooming of resorts near critical tiger habitats have become a major cause of concern for conservationists. Relocation of villages from tiger reserves still remains distant dream.
With government cutting down the budget for Project Tiger, the relocation scheme is unlikely to get any attention. Weak wildlife laws and a dilution of environmental policies have further aggravated the crisis that these reserves find themselves in.
The list of what plagues tiger reserves across the country is endless, and it is unlikely that a solution can be found unless the government makes the tiger its priority.
It can no longer continue to push the developmental agenda, and yet claim to be the custodian of the tiger.
Tigers would only thrive and survive if the forests they roam remain protected, and are not looked upon as the hotbed of lucrative resources to push the government's growth agenda.
Edited by Shreyas Sharma
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