Should India be sharing its tigers with Cambodia?
Even as India celebrates being home to 70% of the global tiger population, another country has officially declared them as being locally extinct. And that’s why India now wants to share its bounty with the rest of the world.
At the third ministerial conference held in Delhi this week, 15 range countries and 700 tiger experts have gathered to discuss translocation of some Indian tigers to Cambodia.
A World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) report titled ‘Bringing Back Cambodia’s Roar: Reintroducing Tigers To The Eastern Plains’ has stressed the need to reintroduce seven or eight tigers—two male and five or six female tigers—into the forests.
Cambodia has recently announced that it has now lost all its tigers in the wild and has requested India for help.
Tiger translocations have worked well within India, particularly in reserves like Panna in Madhya Pradesh, where the entire population was lost to poaching. Thanks to an active reintroduction programme, the roar of the tiger is back. Translocation of four females, two of whom were re-wilded orphans and three males between 2008 and 2014, has led to a spectacular recovery—there are now 32 tigers in Panna. That’s why India is keen to share its success with other range countries, the ones that also have viable tiger habitats.
But wildlife biologists in India have strong reservations about the plan to send tigers to Cambodia. India’s best known tiger expert, Dr Ullas Karanth, director for science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), strongly opposes the move.
“I have surveyed those habitats in Cambodia two decades ago in Mondulkiri for WCS, when the last wild tigers disappeared. I do not think the required 1,000-2,000 sq. km area of prey-rich, people-free and livestock-free habitat is available in Cambodia at this time to seed and establish a viable tiger population. Every wild tiger requires 500 large prey animals to sustain it. If they are not there, it will kill livestock and people.
“The idea of translocating captive-bred or wild-caught problem tigers from India to Cambodia is bereft of any ecological understanding or even of the Cambodian social context. It will lead to tragic failure, for which the introduced tigers will pay with their lives and local Cambodian communities will also suffer and resent tiger conservation.
“Of all the ‘tiger introductions’ tried out in India, over past several decades, only one experiment, under almost ideal conditions in Panna, has worked so far. All others have failed or stalled, in some cases with dozens of people being killed and tigers being finally shot. Both Global Tiger Forum and WWF, which are promoting this extremely unwise scheme, may eventually regret their decision if they do go ahead with it,” says Karanth.
Wildlife biologist Dr Raghu Chundawat, who was the first to declare the loss of tigers in Panna, too wants a more cautious approach to be followed. “It is a great idea; we want tigers in all range countries. But there are a few considerations. Obvious ones are about Cambodia’s ability and preparedness. My concerns are about cross subspecies range reintroduction and why wild tigers for a founder population. Why are we in such rush? Have we done enough work to identify subspecies? Is there agreement just based on one paper? Do we have enough ground to say we have three subspecies as oppose to five or eight?”
Chundawat also raises practical considerations: which state in India will want to part with its tigers? He instead advocates giving captive tigers to Cambodia. “Otherwise we give a few wild tigers and one failure will kill the vision of having a wild population in range countries.”
WWF, on the hand, is supportive of tiger reintroduction by India in Cambodia. “Tiger reintroduction and translocations have successfully been used to recover tiger populations in India and WWF supports tiger reintroduction into Cambodia’s Eastern Plains Landscape as a technically and ecologically feasible solution.” WWF has also argued that this fits in with its aim to double global tiger numbers by 2022.
Even as the debate rages, oddly enough what most agencies in the government are silent on are the pressures of a developing economy on tiger habitats within the country. Most tiger corridors that are vital for the big cat to move out and colonize other areas are under immense threat, such as Kanha-Pench in Madhya Pradesh or the road that has destroyed the link from Kaziranga to Karbi Anglong in Assam.
All of these corridors are under siege from projects to build highways, canals and thermal power plants. If India’s tiger reserves were kept well-connected through a network of corridors, then lakhs of rupees would not have to be spent on reintroduction programmes. Tigers would naturally recolonize other areas meant for them. But that’s the elephant in the room that everyone wants to ignore.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.