Wildlife & Biodiversity

Move beyond tiger numbers

Project Tiger must now take a holistic approach to benefit the wild cats and communities 

By Ishan Dhar
Published: Monday 08 April 2024

Wildlife conservation, as we understand it today in the Indian context, is informed by Project Tiger that was launched by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1973. After a pan-India tiger census carried out by the dynamic forest officer Kailash Sankhala in the 1970s, it soon dawned on the Union government that tiger numbers were hitting such lows that the species might go extinct in India if action is not taken.

Tigers are inextricably linked with India’s economy. For example, at least 600 rivers that serve as crucial water sources and are used for irrigation in agriculture emerge from tiger habitats. This is one of many ecosystem services critical to our survival that tiger habitats provide, a concept often requiring reiteration in the face of the endless myopic debates on the benefits and drawbacks of tiger tourism. For example, the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve is easily recognisable as the crown jewel on India’s tiger tourism map; however, it also generates the water which irrigates 300 villages in an arid region via 20 dams, all the while being the world’s driest tiger habitat. Forest managers and others working with local communities remain mostly unaware of such crucial ecosystem services, and the inaccurate notion that Ranthambore only exists for the pleasure of foreign tourists sadly continues to plague discourse. Therefore, to conserve tigers is to ensure India’s human potential.

After 50 years of Project Tiger, India has 54 tiger reserves and is home to approximately 70 per cent of the world’s tiger population. The country today stands as a steely bulwark against what has long been described as the species’ march towards extinction. India’s tiger conservation story is thus undoubtedly an impressive feat.

This story does, however, have its share of roadblocks. After the immediate success of Project Tiger, which taught the world in the 1980s just how quickly a species with high turnover rates can recover if negative anthropogenic pressure on its habitat is reduced, the country was rocked by not one but two tiger poaching crises in the early 1990s and mid-2000s. The latter crisis reshaped India’s tiger conservation trajectory, with the emergence of proactive measures against poaching, efforts to relocate villages falling within tiger habitats and forging of partnerships with local communities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in some states.

Holistic conservation—lessons from Ranthambore

One lesson that must be carried forward is the creation and expansion of tiger habitats in India. Rajasthan has been at the vanguard in this, by more than doubling its tiger reserve area in the last 10 years. The state is facilitating further expansion with the declarations of new tiger reserves in Dholpur and Bundi, due to the natural dispersion of tigers from Ranthambore into these districts. We are seeing the beginnings of a tiger metapopulation in this landscape. The declaration of new reserves in these areas (expansion of tiger habitat if viewed from Ranthambore as the source population, and the reclamation of the tiger’s occurrence area if viewed historically) reflects specific dynamics of governmental decision-making that should be encouraged and serve as a model for many states that are now sitting on similar opportunities.

This brings us to the urgent requirement to protect and develop ecological corridors to ensure not only the long-term viability of tiger source populations but also the overall dispersal of several species between habitat patches. There is, therefore, yet another lesson to heed from the past, which is to listen to the science.

The highly flawed tiger pugmark census method to estimate population numbers, initiated in 1966, far outlived its time with catastrophic results. Despite the existence of more accurate census methods, it was only thrown into the proverbial bin (with the transition to camera trap-based estimations, pugmarks are now used as “tiger signs” to determine the presence of tigers in habitats, rather than used as a stand-alone method to ascertain total counts of animal numbers) in the wake of the second tiger poaching crisis, which saw the local extinction of tigers in the Sariska Tiger Reserve in 2004. While the overall recovery and growth of the tiger population in India is indeed tangible since then, even recent tiger censuses have their share of critics within the Indian scientific community.

Ranthambore serves as another pertinent example of where listening to science can avert future crises. Progressive conservation measures such as pre-emptive anti-poaching, strategic village relocation and partnerships with local communities and NGOs have so far led to the beginnings of a tiger metapopulation inclusive of areas beyond the tiger reserve. But, while the declaration of new tiger reserves mapped along the lines of natural tiger dispersion will ensure the demographic viability of this metapopulation, it will not do the same for its genetic viability.

A 2021 genetic study published in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS has shown that the Ranthambore tiger population is at risk of inbreeding depression and will require “genetic rescue” in the future. Therefore, tiger translocation between states must quickly become a norm rather than an exception to nip this crisis in the bud. We would be wise to not repeat history and pay close attention to early warnings by scientists.

Similarly, there is a rigid orthodoxy that has ossified when it comes to specific management practices in protected areas in India that must be relaxed to allow for the evolution and improvement of practices. For example, while translocating tigers and other wildlife between habitats has become standard practice, and there are forest nurseries to help improve newly protected habitats, there are no ex-situ means (facilities dedicated towards augmenting prey bases in captivity or semi-captivity) so far to augment prey bases in such habitats. This issue was sadly brought to light during the highly controversial cheetah reintroduction project in Kuno National Park, which saw translocations of spotted deer from other protected areas in Madhya Pradesh to sustain a declining prey base.

In terms of ecosystem services, the raison d’etre of our tiger reserves still requires effective communication, especially with local communities bordering tiger reserves. Only an understanding of this relationship will forever put to bed unfortunate notions of tiger reserves solely existing for the pleasure of tourists. This will also play a role in mitigating human-wildlife conflict when it does occur. Human-wildlife conflict cannot be wiped out in its entirety; there is no period in our history as a species where it did not exist. However, tolerating a degree of conflict can become a norm with an advancement in the recognition of the ecological significance of the tiger to humans in India.

Voluntary relocation of villages from tiger habitats has unfortunately become a controversial topic, with many anthropologists and social activists jumping into the fray. While implementing such programmes has left much to be desired in the past, the fundamental wisdom behind these programmes has been more than evident since the launch of Project Tiger. It continues to be necessary for the future of tiger populations in India.

Village relocation can be strategic as opposed to arbitrary and be more informed by tiger habitat usage, as was seen with the relocation of four villages from Ranthambore in 2012-14. These relocations created 100 sq km of additional inviolate area for tigers in Ranthambore and increased the carrying capacity of the park by 10-12 tigers. The tigers were already using those areas before relocation, albeit in a limited capacity due to anthropogenic pressure. This was thus a well-thought-out development upon naturally occurring phenomena. Nevertheless, village relocations must also be carried out in an equitable manner, with compensation due to relocated communities being delivered responsibly in a time-bound framework. Only then can this continue to be an effective tool for tiger conservation in the long run.

Ultimately, despite all the odds, India’s tiger conservation story since the days of Project Tiger is about turning the tide, but how do we ensure that we do not come back to square one? The key lies in seeking enduring partnerships with those with the highest stakes in the tiger’s survival. Consultative localised approaches to conservation, taking on board the perspectives of local communities, independent researchers and the like, when experimented with strategically, have so far yielded favourable results. Such partnerships cannot be start-stop nor held hostage to the vicissitudes of local and state politics. Only when such a balance is struck will the tiger continue to endure in India and our natural heritage will be secured for future generations.

Ishan Dhar is a researcher with Tiger Watch, an organisation that works on wildlife conservation at Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan

This was first published in the State of India’s Environment 2024 published by Centre for Science and Environment and Down To Earth Magazine

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