From the walls of the Bhimbetka cave shelters to the illustrated pages of Mughal manuscripts like Baburnama to the paintings of the colonial era, the tiger has occupied pride of place in our cultural and artistic consciousness. Unfortunately, that also made it a coveted prize through the centuries for Indian nobility and colonial masters alike. Little wonder India’s tiger population, estimated at around 10,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, had plunged to approximately 1,800 when Project Tiger kicked off in 1972 under Indira Gandhi. The Indian state’s conservation and preservation efforts since then have paid off. The recently released figures show a modest—but impressive—rise to 2,226 in India’s tiger population.

This is all the more remarkable given that the global figure—a disputed one—is only 3,890, as per the World Wildlife Fund Report released a fortnight ago. Controversies on the modus operandi of counting tigers, scientific error, non-uniformity of measurement techniques across different geographical zones and credibility of data are currently undermining the claim.

But even if we take these figures at face value, there is no room for complacency. The higher numbers need not indicate a rise in number of adult tigers, particularly female—that is, the ones capable of breeding. According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature, the tiger habitat, which ranged across 13 countries, has now shrunk to eight countries. In the last century, the tiger had nine subspecies out of which three are extinct, two are critically endangered and four are endangered today. Fortunately, the Indian breeds are among the sub-species which have done well, possibly due to the concerted efforts of its governments over the past four decades or so.

But a caveat is in order here: an increase in tiger population should not be looked at in isolation. Tiger reserves in their existing form are created along the lines of the core-buffer model. The core area, which is equivalent to a national park or biosphere reserve, is free of all human activities whereas the buffer area permits conservation-oriented land use. The problem is that buffer zones are no longer the margins they are intended as. They host thriving human settlements, leading to higher chances of man versus beast conflict.

The ones that stand to be affected most in such conflicts are poor tribal groups living at the peripheries. “We believe in partnership with local communities and they are the real protectors", environment minister Prakash Javadekar said at the Asian Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation earlier this month. But the issue will not be resolved until land use pattern shift in favour of forests and these communities are given alternative resources to survive with. The Forest Rights Act, 2006 and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 have been overlapping in recent years and this needs to be addressed.

This is also the beginning of the conflict emerging between development and conservation efforts. As per the present law, linear projects like roads and highways are allowed through forests with the view of promoting development activities. But the definition of linear has proved to be rather broad. For example, the National Green Tribunal and the Nagpur high court quarreled fiercely last year over the decision to expand NH7, running through Pench Tiger Reserve, into a four-lane road. The road formed the boundary of the core, reduced the remaining area to non-buffer and involved the felling of around 2,000 trees. Tiger corridors, which link different tiger reserves, are vital to the genetic flow of tigers; they act as an “umbilical cord to biodiversity" in the words of Rajesh Gopal, the retired head of Project Tiger. Disrupting them could have a visible effect on the vulnerably placed balance of our ecosystem.

Meanwhile, poaching is at an all-time high in India. It has been reported that India recorded the highest number of poaching cases in 15 years in the first quarter of 2016. The black market demand for tiger products including bone, claw, tooth and skin remain huge, and India has not been able to curb the illegitimate supply. It is here that India has to coordinate with the other countries hosting tiger populations—mostly in Southeast Asia—and reach effective agreement. Stringent, enforceable anti-poaching laws are a must coupled with cooperation amongst nations.

India is also considering sending its tigers abroad for breeding as part of its involvement in the Global Tiger Recovery Programme. The programme hopes to double the number of tigers in the world by 2022. While ambitious targets might be a way to build momentum, it would also be prudent to examine the means of doing so. Whether a sensitive and endangered species can survive in an alien environment is a question that requires much thought. Tiger diplomacy is welcome, but it must be exercised with due caution based on scientific research.

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