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India's tigers burn bright: A conservation success story

India's tigers burn bright: A conservation success story

During a hot summer day in June,  our Maruti Gypsy jolted along a narrow jungle track.  We had signed up for a tiger safari. Shortly afterwards, our  forest guide signalled to his colleague, travelling in another vehicle to rush towards a nearby meadow, where a tigress was resting at a watering hole. Within seconds T-39 came into full view. That is how Noor, the tigress, is officially known in the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. But nobody calls the tigress by the number. She has many names that endear her to foresters and visitors alike. Noor is called Mala (garland) because the wavy bead-like pattern on her bright skin is unique, and it glows. Noor was so close that even my zoom lens was finding to difficult to focus on her.

Noor’s famous and most loved aunt, T-16, better known as Machli, roamed over the largest part of the 392-square kilometre national park. Like Machli, who died in August 2016 at the ripe age of 19, Noor is very adaptive to human presence in the form of photographers and wildlife enthusiasts in her habitat.  That one day, we “encountered” four Bengal tigers T-108 aka Jai, tigress Sultana and most elusive and unfriendly furious tiger T-101.

Two hundred years ago, tens of thousands of tigers (Panthera tigris) roamed India and 29 other nations, from the Indonesian swamps to the Russian taiga. There were once Balinese, Caspian and Javanese subspecies, all now considered extinct. Today, only six subspecies remain. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated in 2014 that there are only about 2,200 to 3,200 individuals in the wild, placing the animal on the organization’s endangered list. About 93% of the tiger’s historic range has emptied owing to habitat loss, poaching and depletion of prey. This spectre of a world without tigers led 13 nations to meet in 2010 in St Petersburg, Russia, where they declared that they would double their wild tiger numbers by 2022.

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But all except India, Nepal and Bhutan are struggling to save their tigers, even in protected reserves.

Against this backdrop, India is the beacon. It has roughly two-thirds of the world’s tigers in less than one-quarter of their global range. In 2019, it has invested 3.5 billion rupees in tiger conservation, including relocating villages outside protected areas. And it has built the world’s largest animal underpasses to funnel tigers safely beneath NH-44, offering a safe passage
for animals who no longer are expected to cross roads at risk to their lives.

These cave-like, concrete underpasses are layered with natural soil so that they resemble the natural habitat of the animals. It passes through the ecologically sensitive Kanha-Pench Corridor famous for its tigers . The underpasses are fitted with CCTV cameras to monitor the movement of

The efforts have paid off, according to the government, It announced in July that the number of Royal Bengal Tigers ( Panthera Tigris Tigris) in the country had doubled from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,967 today — meaning that India has met the St Petersburg’s target. The census estimated 2,967 tigers, which means India has 75 per cent of the global tiger population. That also means India
doubled its count four years before its 2022 target—set at the first-ever global tiger summit in St Petersburg in 2010.  Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that tiger conservation could go hand in hand with building roads, railways and homes, "Once the people of India decide to do something, there is no force that can prevent them from getting the desired results," said Modi, "we reaffirm our commitment towards protecting tigers.”

Indeed, the  Bengal Tigers of India are shining in the dark and creating a Guinness World Records. A shining example of Aatmanirbhar Bharat, as environment minister Prakash Javadekar put it after Guinness acknowledged that the fourth cycle of the All India Tiger Estimation 2018 is the world's largest camera trap wildlife survey. Camera traps were placed at 26,838 locations spread across the country and they took 76,651 photographs of tigers. Stripe-pattern-recognition software helped identify individuals from that pile of photos.

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It has been a long road to walk with the tigers. Numerous studies have been undertaken in India since 1973 on the threats of habitat loss and poaching, which has diminished tiger populations. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a statutory body of the Environment Ministry, was established in 2005 to strengthen tiger conservation. It has the overarching responsibility of coordinating with the Project Tiger initiatives. When Project Tiger was launched in 1973, there were nine tiger reserves. Now there are 50 tiger reserves spread over 18 States.

But parse the country’s tiger data, and the story becomes murky. The animals are increasingly becoming isolated in small reserves that prioritize tourism. If the cats leave the parks, the risks are rising that they will encounter humans and infrastructure, with tragic results for both the animals and people. NTCA, experts  and other agencies  are trying  to get a more accurate count of populations in specific areas and  studying how to get people and the carnivores to coexist.

The live-and-let-live outlook has  been foundational for India’s transformation into the world’s greatest stronghold for tigers. The country holds just 25% of total tiger habitat, but accounts for 75% of remaining wild tigers. Success does not come without cost, however. India’s protected areas have not expanded at the same rate as its tiger population, forcing some big cats to turn to human dominated landscapes for survival. Livestock are killed and sometimes so are people. Rural Indians are unique in the world for their high tolerance for co-existing with potentially deadly wildlife. “You don’t find this in other cultures,” says Ullas Karanth, an expert on tigers. “If this kind of thing happened in Montana or Brazil, they’d wipe out everything the next day.”

Now, great things are happening when man and the tiger meet. The tiger is watched, its ecology and behaviour are studied, and efforts are made to protect it and its space. Specific guidelines have been issued and specific projects are on. There is a huge challenge of balancing competing economic interests without compromising the integrity of our tiger landscapes and corridors. The future of tiger conservation depends on how we deal with these emerging issues.

<em>(All tiger photographs by Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha)</em>.