Wildlife & Biodiversity

50 years of Project Tiger: Half a century on, conservation has to move on beyond band-aid mode, says Mahesh Rangarajan

Down To Earth speaks to Mahesh Rangarajan, professor of history and environmental studies at Ashoka University in Haryana, for an appraisal of the programme aimed at conserving the Bengal tiger

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 31 March 2023

Kailash Sankhala, the first director of Project Tiger. Photo: @rameshpandeyifs / Twitter
Kailash Sankhala, the first director of Project Tiger. Photo: @rameshpandeyifs / Twitter

India will mark 50 years of Project Tiger on April 1, 2023. It was on April 1, 1973, that this conservation programme to save the then-vanishing population of the Bengal tiger in India was launched.

Half a century later, what is the progress report on Project Tiger? Has it met its objectives and aims? And what of the people who helmed it? Down To Earth spoke to Mahesh Rangarajan, one of the country’s foremost environmental historians and professor of history and environmental studies at Ashoka University in Haryana, for an appraisal of the Project to a new generation of readers. Edited excerpts:

Rajat Ghai: For the benefit of our readers, please describe the conditions prevailing in India vis-a-vis wildlife just before Project Tiger was launched?


Mahesh Rangarajan: There was genuine concern by late 1969 as two separate surveys, one by Kailash Sankhala another by the Bombay Natural History Society, had pegged numbers of tigers in India so low it was declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In 1972, the nationwide count indicated an even lower figure — just over 1,800. A Task Force suggested a federally funded project. Wider concerns of forest loss and disruptions in rainfall pattern combined with concern on natural heritage.

RG: How would you appraise the roles played by each of the following individuals in bringing the Project to fruition — Mrs Indira Gandhi, Dr Karan Singh, Mr Kailash Sankhala and Ms Padmaja Naidu?

MR: Each had distinct roles. Ms Naidu knew the Delhi Zoo and probably brought its director (Mr Sankhala) in touch with Mrs Gandhi. The latter was not only a nature enthusiast but widely read with a first edition of Rachel Carsons’ Silent Spring in tow.

Dr Karan Singh was invited to lead the Steering Committee, being both a scholar and one of youngest Cabinet ministers. There is little doubt Mr Sankhala drove and helmed the team together till 1977.

RG: Would it be right to say that while the Project saved the tiger, it perhaps, in its own way, enhanced the Fortress Conservation Model?

MR: No doubt. This was especially so in the core areas but not until 2005 in buffers. It is notable that commercial forestry and sport hunters were still strong lobbies as late as 1969-70 and they too took a hit. But this term coined by Dan Brockington does apply to the Tiger Reserve model.

RG: How can India go to a more participatory form of forest governance today, at a time when economic and population growth threaten the environment and wildlife even more?

MR: Population growth has tapered off except in parts of north India. Economic growth may not be entirely negative if it reduces direct dependence on forests and if wages go up.

But the full potential of the 2005 Task Force ideas on revenue sharing as also of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 on community forests is yet to be tapped. These can help most when mines and linear projects may fragment habitats. 

RG: What is the biggest takeaway from Project Tiger that today’s millenials must know about? 

MR: A stitch on time matters. But half a century on, conservation has to move on beyond band-aid mode. Justice for fauna and flora has to blend with dignity and justice for those who live in proximity. 

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.