For How Long Will We Pretend All is Well With Our Tigers and Their Habitats?

The government’s focus on exact population numbers where none exist, dismissal of habitat development and deceptive allocation of funds is letting India pretend it’s helping its tigers.

A mural depicting two tigers, in J.P. Nagar, Bengaluru. Credit: nagarjun/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A mural depicting two tigers, in J.P. Nagar, Bengaluru. Credit: nagarjun/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

On the eve of the 3rd Asian Ministerial Meeting on tiger conservation that is being held in New Delhi, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) put out a press release congratulating itself on bringing up India’s tiger numbers “from 1706 in 2005 to 2226 in 2014”, a 30% increase. It stated that the uptick had come about due to the longstanding efforts of the Indian government in looking after the species, extending the number of tiger reserves in the country (to the current 49) and various other technical improvements, such as deployment of e-surveillance, conservation drones and smart patrolling.

The numbers game has been an important part of the government’s tiger conservation rhetoric since Project Tiger was launched in 1972. Such rhetoric in the pre-tiger crisis day (i.e., before February 2005, when the tiger went missing in some key tiger reserves) had conveniently masked a dip in the numbers of the species since the 1990s, primarily due to poaching.

Problems in the methodology

Stating exact tiger numbers is technically erroneous. Currently, the methodology of estimating tigers currently used in the country, based on stratified random sampling, does not allow exact figures to be determined, rather only as a population estimate with an error margin. The result of using exact figures is that even a small increase, say from 3,400 to 3,480, will be treated as a population increase while it could simply just be part of the inherent error in the estimate. A perusal of the estimation reports suggest some of the population ‘increase’ can be ascribed to  expanded area of sampling since 2006.

Some reserves, such as the Sunderbans, and states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh were left out in the first round of sampling in 2006-07 due to logistical constraints. Further, it seems that the intensity of camera-trapping has also increased over the years, leading to improved chances of detecting tigers in the wild. Much of the detected increase in the tiger population, estimated as 30% over 10 years, is also biologically unrealistic given the current knowledge about the species.  

Apart from the methodological dilemmas, the tiger numbers game has unfortunately translated itself into popular public discourse as well. Due to the overwhelming emphasis on numbers, every tiger that is killed by territorial in-fighting, or trapped out for its repeated human-killing behaviour, is grieved publicly by conservationists and animal welfare experts. Such lobbyists do not realise that in order to attain the larger conservation goals, a few individuals have to be sacrificed along the way if we are to prevent alienation of local communities. At the same time, we need alert and committed forest personnel who are capable of preventing unauthorised poaching of the species. The poor welfare, sorry working conditions and paltry compensation packages of our front-line personnel, working under physically stressful conditions in the field, unfortunately never attracts the same hue and cry that we observe over missing tiger individuals – nor will such issues make it to the international fora.

From small-scale numbers to large-scale habitats

The emphasis on tiger numbers alone also takes the focus away from larger issues of biodiversity conservation: the need to preserve the entire range of habitats and species present in a tiger reserve and across the country. The only habitat management undertaken in tiger reserves is focussed on the needs of tigers and their ungulate prey, such as maintenance of grasslands or creation of waterholes, and ignoring other species that may depend on different types of microhabitats. For instance, Sariska Tiger Reserve, located in a naturally arid zone, is now littered with cemented water-holes and so has unusually abundant cheetal deer that prefer these moist habitats. In some extreme cases, tiger reserves now emulate tame safaris, rather than the wilderness, where a few habituated tigers provide shows to tourists. There are as many as 680 other Protected Areas (PAs) across the country that are languishing due to a lack of management attention, but support the conservation function of tiger reserves by providing connectivity.

While we are busy heralding the success of our tiger conservation story, we are ignoring the large scale fragmentation and degradation of habitats by uncritically giving the go-ahead to massive destructive projects across the country such as widening of highways through tiger habitats, damming of our remaining rivers, river-linking which will create deep canals and reservoirs, high speed trains and unplanned suburban sprawls.

A recent study (by Chundawat et al. 2016) based on field data and modelling shows that even relatively large tiger reserves such as Panna, located in the Vindhyas of Madhya Pradesh, have now become little more than game safaris in which small, unviable populations of tigers exist in an increasingly restricted area. The study shows Panna Tiger Reserve covering 543 km sq., with only a 40% chance of holding on to its tiger population of 10-15 adults. Further, any chances of this small population surviving are likely to be drastically reduced due to the proposed Ken-Betwa river link, which will submerge about 41 km sq. of habitat, ruin riparian ecology and cut off connectivity to surrounding reserved forests and agricultural corridors.

This is not to say that such developmental activities should be stopped completely. Rather a rational approach has to be taken. To protect ecosystems and landscapes from the onslaught of rapid development, large ‘roadless’, and ‘damless’ areas have to be consolidated through proper landscape-level planning. Ideally a mosaic of core tiger habitat, lightly used forests, agricultural corridors and low-intensity built-up zones has to be maintained in every region and sub-region, that would allow  movement and  dispersal of wildlife populations without causing harm to human economy. The practice of indiscriminate clearance of infrastructure projects has therefore to be reviewed.  After all, only 6% of the country is covered by the PA network. Can we not safeguard this paltry area, especially given its proven importance for long-term ecological security and economy?

More funds, even more reserves

Despite its celebration of increasing tiger numbers, there is inadequate financial commitment by the Indian government to tiger reserves and the rest of the PAs network. While the MoEFCC states in its latest advertisement that tiger reserves conserve forest stock to the tune of Rs.2,200-65,600 crore, and that carbon sequestered in forests is worth Rs.99.7 crore, there is little evidence of even remotely similar allocations to conserving natural habitats in the country. On the contrary, the overall financial outlay for wildlife in the country has been reduced by as much as 85% in the Twelfth Five Year Plan compared to its predecessor. This leaves little to efficiently run tiger reserves, let alone the 680 other PAs in the country, with the required appropriate investments in local community development, compensatory activities, scientific research and monitoring or even training of forest staff.

Even the most basic functions such as patrolling and reforestation are now at risk, according to some PA managers. In the run-up to the 3rd Asian Ministerial Meeting, an ‘enhanced budget’ of Rs.300 crore for tiger conservation in the fiscal year 2016-17 was announced by the minister, yet this amount will now be spread over nearly 25% more reserves than in 2010 – and the expected funding will now be subject to 50% matching of funds by state governments. And even this enhanced level of funding adds up to Rs.6.12 crore per reserve, which is a paltry sum given their large areas and need for larger landscape management. So how long can we play this numbers game and pretend that all is going well with tigers and their habitats?  

During this ministerial meeting, let our heads of state take a pledge that wildlife and ecosystems will get the unhindered space as well as the finances to exist as viable entities. The TX2 goal, to double the number of tigers by 2022, to be discussed at the meeting needs more than just rhetoric.

Ghazala Shahabuddin is a Senior Fellow with Centre for Ecology, Development and Research, and works on avian ecology, forest management and wildlife conservation policy.