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THE CALL OF THE WILD

Can the uptick in India’s tiger population continue while their habitats shrink?

REUTERS/RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI
Out of extinction?
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The All India Tiger Estimation–2018 report, released on July 29, pegged the population of the country’s national animal at 2,967. While releasing the report, prime minister Narendra Modi remarked that it is possible to strike a healthy balance between development and environment.

However, an analysis of another report, Management Effectiveness Evaluation (MEE) of Tiger Reserves 2018, also released on the same day by Modi, shows that at least half of India’s 50 tiger reserves are facing threats from linear infrastructure like roads, highways and railway lines.

At least 20% of India’s total tiger reserves are also threatened by invasive plant species such as Lantana camara, and about 20% of the reserves have unsustainable pressure from pilgrims visiting temples inside the tiger reserves, notes the report.

Some of the other threats outlined in the report evaluating tiger reserves were poaching, pressure on tiger habitat from villagers living inside tiger reserves, human-wildlife conflict, lack of forest staff, hunting of animals, hydropower projects, mining, improper garbage disposal, pollution, and climate change.

Releasing the tiger estimation report on the occasion of the International Tiger Day (July 29), Modi said that India is one of the biggest and most secure tiger habitats in the world, and emphasised that tiger conservation efforts should be expanded.

“There is a very old debate—development or environment … And, both sides present views as if each is mutually exclusive,” said Modi while stating that it is possible to strike a healthy balance between the two, and expressed confidence that India will prosper both economically and environmentally.

“In our policies, in our economics, we have to change the conversation about conservation. India will build more roads and India will have cleaner rivers. India will have better train connectivity and also greater tree coverage. India will build more homes for our citizens and at the same time create quality habitats for animals. India will have a vibrant marine economy and healthier marine ecology. This balance is what will contribute to a strong and inclusive India,” said Modi.

Steady increase

The tiger estimation report, released every four years, pegs the population of wild tigers in the country at 2,967 for 2018, marking an increase of about 30% compared to the 2014 tiger estimation report when their population was estimated at 2,226. In 2010, the tiger population was pegged at 1,706 while in 2006 it was 1,411.

Among the states, the report revealed an increase in tiger occupancy in Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, and a loss in occupancy in the northeast states due to poor sampling.

The highest tiger population was recorded in Madhya Pradesh (526), closely followed by Karnataka (524) and Uttarakhand (442).

For the 2018 report, the fourth cycle of national tiger status assessment since 2006, 26,838 camera traps were deployed and a total of “2,461 individual tigers (more than one year of age)” were photo-captured. The study used a spatially explicit capture-mark-recapture (SECR) framework to arrive at the tiger population which estimates tigers directly within camera trapped areas and extrapolates it to areas with tigers, but not camera trapped, based on joint distribution of covariates such as tiger sign intensity, prey abundance, human disturbance and habitat characteristics.

The 2018 study saw an increase in camera traps density (26,838 at 141 sites) for recording the tigers, compared to 2014 (9,735 camera traps in 51 sites) and field data was gathered using a mobile application. The latest study also covered 381,400 square km of forests, an increase from the 378,118 sq km of forests covered in 2014. The report notes that this cycle is the “most accurate survey conducted.”

India has a long history of tiger conservation and is considered to be home to over 60% of the global wild tiger population. In 1973, it had launched Project Tiger, with nine tiger reserves, to control the dwindling population and since then the efforts have only strengthened. At present, India has 50 tiger reserves in 18 states accounting for nearly 2.21% of the country’s total geographical area.

India is home to over 60% of the global wild tiger population.

India’s neighbouring countries have also improved their tiger conservation work. For instance, Nepal has nearly doubled its tiger population from 121 in 2009 to 235 in 2018, while Bangladesh and Bhutan have recorded 114 and 103 tigers respectively.

Rajesh Gopal, secretary-general of the Global Tiger Forum (GTF), explained that broadly put, the status of the tiger in south Asia range improved from sub-optimal to optimal. But it is much better in comparison to wild tiger status in southeast Asian tiger range countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

“In south Asia, we have reached a good level while in southeast Asia there is a scope for the revival of the tiger population. In India, I feel we have now almost reached a level where we can consolidate. It is at a stable level. Now we have to look beyond. The focus needs to be now on the strategy to effectively manage the present population,” said Gopal, a retired Indian forest service officer, who also served as the member secretary of India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) for several years.

As far as India’s neighbours are concerned, the report stated that ensuring the functionality of habitat corridor connectivity between source populations in India as well as with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar tiger populations is essential for the long-term viability of tiger populations within India and the region.

“These habitat corridors are often threatened by the development of linear infrastructure. Careful spatial planning to avoid traversing critical habitats and their linkages, along with appropriate mitigation through wildlife passageways will ensure that tigers and biodiversity conservation is not compromised by modern development,” the report added.

To manage the challenges of infrastructure projects fragmenting tiger habitat, Gopal stated that the first option is to create no-go zones and avoid constructing such infrastructure in tiger areas. “But, if it has to be done then all mitigation measures like underpasses or overpasses need to be adopted,” Gopal added.

Focus on eastern ghats

Though the report recorded an increased number of tigers across India, it also showed that there are several tiger reserves which could benefit from immediate conservation attention in improving their numbers even as some of the tiger reserves have achieved their optimal level.

For instance, Maharashtra’s Sahyadri tiger reserve, which forms the vital link between the northern and southern part of the western ghats, has no recorded tigers at present, while some years ago five to eight tigers were recorded here.

Similarly, even though a decade has passed since the first batch of the founder population that was introduced in the Sariska tiger reserve, it is once again at the risk of losing its tigers due to slow growth of tiger population. The fact that it is an isolated tiger reserve with no connectivity with other tiger reserves has only compounded the problems of the present tiger population.

The MEE report revealed that in Sariska, mining leases have been given close to the core tiger habitat and at some places, the distance is less than 500 metres. It said that there are a total of 61 mines within 500 metres of the tiger reserve’s boundary.

Meanwhile, the estimation report also stressed that the “poor and continuing decline in tiger status in the states of Chhattisgarh and Odisha is a matter of concern.”

In Chhattisgarh, the number of tigers recorded has plummeted from 46 in 2014 to 19 in 2018.

In Chhattisgarh, the number of tigers recorded has plummeted from 46 in 2014 to 19 in 2018. Buxa, Dampa and Palamau tiger reserves recorded no tigers but the report clarified that these reserves had poor tiger status in earlier assessments as well.

YV Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India, explained that there are several places where the tiger population has saturated but there are options to increase their population in areas like Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand.

“There is a scope for increasing tigers in the eastern ghats landscape including Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Even in the states like Madhya Pradesh, there are areas where there is a potential for tiger population—like the Nauradehi wildlife sanctuary. There are many such areas,” said Jhala. WII is closely involved in tiger estimation work.

“States like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, parts of southern Bengal and the adjoining parts of the northern Andhra Pradesh have some of India’s highest quality tiger habitats. But still, all these states have failed to manage these landscapes including the protected areas that are there in them. If this landscape is properly managed, the tiger population in this region can increase significantly,” Odisha-based wildlife conservationist Aditya Panda said.

Panda explained that in this landscape most of the tiger reserves are not doing well and the wildlife sanctuaries are in a bad condition too.

“The reason for low tiger density in these areas is that these parts of the country is especially prone to rampant poaching of prey species like deer and wild pigs. In these areas, there are vast tracts of forests that do not have enough prey base and when that happens the carnivorous animals can’t survive,” said Panda, who also criticised Odisha for remaining in denial mode over the poor number of tigers.

Next steps

“Currently, the tiger corridors are not legally protected entities. A policy decision to protect these at the highest level is required,” said Jhala. He also called for recognising efforts of tiger reserve staff who are doing a good job.

Echoing similar views, Ajay Dubey, a wildlife activist who works with a non-governmental organisation ‘Prayatna’, said, “the authorities need to focus on the security aspect now as poachers also know that which states have a good tiger population.”

“Madhya Pradesh needs to be more careful and responsible with tiger conservation so that history (of the poor population of tigers) is not repeated,” Dubey said.

States such as Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and the northeast region haven’t seen much improvement or have shown declines.

For places where the tigers have not been recorded or the population has declined, the report called for restoration by improving protection, augmentation of prey, and reintroduction of tigers from an appropriate source.

“The decrease in numbers in states with large habitat patches is a cause of concern. States such as Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and northeast region haven’t seen much improvement or have shown declines. They have large habitat and a marginal increase in densities would show great results of which there is no evidence,” Milind Pariwakam, a wildlife biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Trust and a member of the IUCN Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group, said.

This story was originally published on Mongabay-India. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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