The advertisement campaign that there are only 1411 tigers left in the India has attracted many eyeballs. The ad campaign has also moved a large number of hearts. People from Kashmir to Kaynakumari and from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh want to know the root of the problem. They are perplexed how come such a catastrophe is taking place right under their nose and no solution could be found to stem the decline of the population of the Tigers in the country.
One of the reasons for the decline of the population of the Tigers is poaching. Poaching is done because there is huge demand for tiger body parts and its skins. Tiger’s body parts are used in a wide variety of traditional medicine and black magicians uses its skin as a seat. In order to meet these demands there are criminal gangs that fund the poaching operations in India. It’s an organized crime conducted in collusion with local people, forest communities and the wild life protection officials.
The poor infrastructure is another reason for the decline of the tiger population. The under-equipped forest guards find it difficult to protect the Tiger reserve. Most of the reserves have very limited frontline staff and each person may have has to cover an area of 65-70 square kilometers. This is ridicules task and most often forest officials inflate the figures of the Tigers to save their jobs.
Tiger reserves exist in an environment where thousands of indigenous communities also live side by side with the Tigers. The relationship with the local communities and the forest is the "weak link” in the conservation effort of the Tigers.
Of late Tiger conservationist want the local communities out of the reserve as it felt that they are a hindrance in protecting the Tigers. The local communities are shifted from the core areas of the reserves without being given any alternative access for grazing or fuel collection. They have no other go but to turn to the reserves for their survival and poach tigers for their livelihood.
The developmental priorities of the government are causing an irreversible ecological transition in the tiger reserves resulting in the decline of their population. Extractive industries like mining and manufacturing and power plants are found in the tiger reserves. The insidious encroachment of the development projects comes in the way of saving the Tigers.
The fate of Tigers is entwined with the area of forest reserves. The depleting forest area poses a challenge to the conservation plan of the Tigers. It is estimated that 726 sq km of forest area had decreased in past one decade in the country.
Tigers are territorial animal. They literally need land to roam freely. With the birth of a male tiger, this search starts. Either the old tiger gives way or the male has to look beyond the protected areas of the forest and move into the guarded area of the forest. The tigers could expand its space when the outside world was forested, but now when the forests are degraded, they have no where to go except outside the reserve zone.
The total core area of a national park is about 17,000 sq km. A Tiger needs a minimum 10 sq km territory to roam, mate and live. If we compare this with the dwindling forest space, then we can rationalize why we have so few Tigers left.
The Tiger census revealed that many more tigers lived outside reserves than those inside. The 2001 census put the number at about 1,500 tigers inside and as many as 2,000 outside. The next census in 2005 found the number of tigers in the reserves between 1,165 and 1,657 but does not account the tigers living outside.
What happened to the Tigers living outside? Where did they disappear? Were they all killed by those who live outside the reserve? This could be true because the people who live outside the reserve are poor and resent these animals. The Tigers kills their cattle, the herbivores and wild boars in the reserve eat their growing crop. These people living around tiger land are at the receiving end. So it was in their best of interest to kill the Tigers and its preys.
So where do we go from here? How do we save the Tigers? Do we plan to expand and increase the forest area or save those people who live outside the reserves or save the Tigers? The best way would be a combination of all three. We have to protect the forest from getting depleted. The conservation of the Tigers should not be at the expense of the indigenous people who live outside the reserve. The best way would be a co existence model between the forest the Tigers and the indigenous people.
Unless we re-imagine the conservation efforts differently there is little hope to save the Tigers. The hard fact is more forest land is needed to safeguard the tigers. For this systematic planning has to be done. The tract of land outside the reserves has to be to be planted with trees that survive cattle and goats.
Then we have to look after the people who live outside the tiger reserve. They should be generously compensated for the crops destroyed or their cattle killed. They should be provided with alternative access to grazing and fuel collection.
It should be ensured that there is substantial and disproportionate development investment in the areas adjoining a Tiger reserve. This should be meant to benefit the people living by the side of the reserves and they must be made partners, owners and earners from the Tiger conservation plan.
This however does not mean that we should not improve the infrastructure and manpower to watch and ward the forest. This is essential to stop the poaching. There should also be efforts made to improve the prey population so that Tigers can feed upon them easily. More camera traps should be set up to monitor the tigers and their prey. The camera traps could also be used for surveillance against the poachers and the timber cutters, who are depleting the forest with impunity.
The entire apparatus of the conservation of the Tigers from bottom up should be streamlined. The in charge of the Tiger reserve should be made accountable and their work should be periodically monitored. Any one who is found neglecting its duties should be taken to task.
The Tiger conservation plan is infested by lobby and pressure groups that call the shots. They are the ones who block the positive move to conserve the Tigers. It’s thus imperative that the wings of such groups should be clipped. .
The media campaign should move from making noises that there only 1411 tigers left. It’s the duty of the media drum up new the agenda for the conservation of the Tigers. The focus should shift to reclaim the forest land and how to add on it. It should also address the issues confronting the indigenous communities.
Finally, the countrymen must wakeup to the reality and identify with the solutions and volunteer to monitor the changes taking place on the ground. Unless something drastically is done to change the discourse of Tiger conservation, nothing is going to come out from making noises that there are only 1411 Tigers left.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org