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Over half of the world’s tigers in the wild are to be found in India. And while the population elsewhere declines, that in India has shown an increase even though the magnificent species is still endangered here. The current estimate for tigers in the wild in India is around 1,700. The most important reason for our success has been Project Tiger launched over four decades ago thanks to the political leadership of Indira Gandhi and Karan Singh influenced hugely by naturalists like Kailash Sankhala, Billy Arjan Singh and M. Krishnan. No country has such a systematic and extensive effort at conservation. Today, there are 47 tiger reserves across 18 states of the country, with eight having been added in the last five years alone.

The year 2004 was undoubtedly a watershed year. That was when the tiger population in Sariska spread over the world’s oldest mountain range of Aravallis in Rajasthan became completely extinct because of well-organized poaching. Over 25 tigers were killed. Sariska is just three hours from the nation’s capital. When the news of the total decimation of tigers there because of poaching which went on for some years unchecked became public, there was a huge uproar. The prime minister himself was forced to intervene and thereafter a series of initiatives followed. The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, was amended in 2006 to enable the creation of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. New systems for estimating tiger populations in different habitats based on the more reliable camera-trap method were put in place. Patrolling protocols were strengthened. The concepts of core and buffer areas were put into operation and liberal financial packages announced to encourage relocation of people out of the core areas of the reserves. The penalties for offences in tiger reserves were increased and special tiger protection forces constituted.

But the Sariska experience also led to something far-reaching. For the first time in the world, wild tigers were successfully translocated from Ranthambhore, also in Rajasthan. There were many sceptics and critics from within the tiger conservation fraternity itself. But the translocation took place nevertheless. Subsequently, another tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh, which had also witnessed extinction, namely Panna, has followed the Sariska experiment successfully and the saw the re-wilding of orphaned tiger cubs from Kanha. The translocation reintroduction protocol was firmed up by NTCA, Wildlife Institute of India and the states to ensure establishment of self-sustaining populations with high reproductive fitness and genetic diversity. A research finding from the Wildlife Institute of India using mitochondrial DNA has delineated genetic uniqueness of each tiger within various landscapes. The choice of Ranthambhore for restocking Sariska was based on this finding. Initially, two tigers were brought to Sariska, which were housed in in-situ enclosures for a few days before release with radio collars. The protocol provided for translocating five tigers in batches periodically, during the initial phase. Adult tigers over two-and-a-half years of age were considered good for re-introduction owing to their health status and ability to take on the stress of relocation. Great care was taken to ensure the least disturbance to the social dynamics of the tiger population at Ranthambhore itself. After an initial period of barrenness that appeared to prove the critics right, the translocated tigers at Sariska started breeding well. So far six cubs have been littered. This includes two females, which have reached adulthood since then. The tiger population at Sariska now stands at 13, while that at Panna stands at an even more impressive 23.

But Sariska’s success should not lead to complacency. Tiger reserves everywhere are under constant threat from poachers. The stake of local communities in tiger conservation is not strong everywhere and has to be vastly enhanced. Apart from this, a number of them could face an uncertain future because of our voracious appetite for coal. The relatively lesser known but rich tiger landscape of Tadoba near Chandrapur in Maharashtra is one such example where there has been great pressure to open up coal mining in its buffer area. The Panna tiger reserve faces a threat from the proposed project to link the Ken and Betwa rivers as part of the national programme to interconnect rivers. Tiger corridors in Madhya Pradesh especially linking Kanha and Pench could get fragmented because of national highway and rail projects for which alternatives do exist.

Several genetic findings have highlighted tiger movement between reserves in the Central Indian landscape which is crucial for ensuring its survival. Isolated populations will become extinct. In some places like Corbett in Uttarakhand, unregulated construction of tourist lodges, often by politically well-connected individuals, and heavy tourist traffic is putting intolerable strain on the ecosystem.

Around 760 villages (over 50,000 families) have to be relocated from the core areas but as against this, only about 156 villages (about 10,000 families) have been relocated. There are success stories of relocation such as at Kanha in Madhya Pradesh, Tadoba and at Bhadra in Karnataka that need to be replicated while keeping in the mind the democratic reality that the relocation has to be voluntary and in keeping with the letter and spirit of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

The significance of these reserves lies not only in the fact that they are home to our national animal. The protection of the tiger really means the preservation of some of India’s finest and biodiversity-rich forest areas.

Being at the terminal end of the food chain, the tiger symbolises the health of the forest ecosystem.

Collectively, the reserves represent about 10% of the national area under forests. Quantitatively, this may appear small but qualitatively it is very significant (since over 40% of India’s forest area consists of degraded forests) and greatly augments our capacity to sequester growing emissions of carbon dioxide.

The author is a former Union minister and Rajya Sabha MP.

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