In the popular imagination and in strands of scientific literature, tigers are imagined to be dwellers of dense forest interiors. So pervasive is this view that it has guided the exaltation of select forests in India to the status of national parks, complete with inviolate core zones where tigers may breed and multiply with little human contact. Even as this viewpoint and strategy have contributed to India’s success in bringing tigers back from the brink of extinction, a continued focus on conservation centred on certain designated wilderness landscapes as sanctuaries, national parks and tiger reserves masks another aspect of the species’ ecology: tigers are adept at exploiting habitats other than ensconced forest interiors, including the margins of human settlements. In fact, this facet of tiger behaviour underscores the most significant challenges and opportunities confronting conservationists today.
There is now enough evidence to establish that tigers occupy many locales, including reserve forests, unprotected shrub lands, and even agricultural tracts interspersed with human settlements, especially those fields that shelter wild boar, deer and other animals that tigers customarily prey upon. In fact, unless there are hard boundaries between forests and human-use areas (such as tightly-knit urban areas and busy highways) the extent of tiger habitats and the contours of their boundaries are the outcomes of a delicately negotiated process between people and tigers. Tigers seek to secure access to prey, expand territories and gain mates while minimizing deleterious contact with humans. People who co-occur in these areas may tolerate fewer or more tigers, thereby establishing boundaries for landscapes of coexistence.
Shared habitats and negotiated boundaries have profound implications for human wellbeing and wildlife persistence. Tigers inhabiting areas with extensive human-use can threaten human lives, induce fear, and impose economic costs by predating on livestock. Conversely, their presence can enrich communities. For example, through income generation from locally-managed tourism, or ‘guarding’ crops when they prey on deer and wild boar in farmlands. When such landscapes serve to extend habitats for tigers and also support wild prey—they provide for the tigers’ needs: foraging, dispersal, recruitment and even avoiding intra-specific competition. But the challenges of sustaining tigers in working landscapes and agricultural mosaics are not trivial—exemplified by ‘tractor-tiger’ recently photographed in farmlands near Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh. This animal had reportedly injured three people before its capture and death from previously sustained injuries. This episode caused great consternation about the animal’s threatening presence outside the forest, and revived murmurs about erecting high fences all around the reserve. There was, however, no recognition in the media that this disturbing sequence of events unfolded in a tract of agricultural land that both served as wildlife habitat and lay within an important corridor.
Acknowledging that tiger habitat boundaries may well lie beyond the forest’s edge and within agro eco-systems leads me to contemplate the adequacy of the boundaries of buffer zones within some tiger reserves, national parks and sanctuaries in India. Buffer zones include portions of protected areas (PA) other than their inviolate core zones, with the recognition that communities living around tiger habitats have legitimate needs and rights to access fuelwood, fodder and other non-timber forest produce. Just as people depend on forests, so does wildlife on accessing habitats and resources beyond forest-edges. Thus, sustaining wildlife in working and production landscapes requires delineating buffer zones that not only extend into forests for people, but also outwards into human-use areas that are shared by people and wildlife. But what can be done to enable more harmonious space-sharing in such areas, while being attentive both to human well-being and animal protection against persecution and poaching?
In my view, designing landscapes of coexistence requires dynamic and responsive strategies backed by policy. The provision to create eco-sensitive zones (ESZ) around protected areas in India presents a critical and legally-supported intervention to sustainably manage land beyond reserve edges. While these zones can extend to a distance of 10km from reserve boundaries, designated zones across India have generally been considerably smaller because of opposition stemming from apprehensions that inclusion within an ESZ will circumscribe development. Allaying such fears is important to create sufficiently large ESZs and accommodate wildlife use in corridors and other habitats around PAs. This will be enabled if compatible land use and economic activities are incentivized with ESZs. Incentives can include subsidized insurance programs for people, livestock and crops, assistance to construct toilets and install lights in conflict-hotspots, releasing government funds to build schools, hospitals, vocational training centres as well as other public facilities within designated zones, and earmarking spaces for commercial enterprise with suitable transportation and power supply facilities. Such measures need to be pioneered especially around the Pilibhit and Tadoba tiger reserves, where habitat boundaries have diffused, and human-tiger interactions have become frequent. Conceived and implemented thoughtfully, such ESZs can be extended to include reserve forests and habitats of large mammals that occur in human-dominated landscapes.
Creating effective ESZs may remain a pipe-dream unless this exercise is complimented by comprehensive conservation zonation and land-use planning across the tiger’s range in India—recognizing that wildlife habitats and corridors do not end at forest boundaries. Development planning must align with such zonation to preserve the sanctity of wildlife habitats or corridors. Beyond this, engendering co-existence in shared habitats, whether cultivated or natural, will mean that tigers are not foisted on people by the design and will of external agencies, and are instead willingly tolerated. This will be enabled by setting up ‘safety-nets’ for people and tigers through effective zonation, responsive management, support for ‘wildlife-friendly’ agriculture, and expedient conflict mitigation. Only then will tiger presence be both ecologically and socially tenable in the vast eco-cultural landscapes to which they belong, and where they have rapidly lost ground.
The author is the national lead for tiger conservation at WWF India