Break the buffer trap

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Break the buffer trap

Sunday, 09 December 2018 | SANGEETA YADAV

Break the buffer trap

Though Tiger Reserves like Ranthambore are thriving, experts tell SANGEETA YADAV that there is a need for an inclusive conservation model for all reserves dealing with issues of faulty buffer zones, relocation and community support.

You have to be lucky to spot a tiger at a national park and at Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, there are high chances of you not leaving the forest disappointed.

Watching the big cat at close quarters is an awe-inspiring experience. From its graceful walk and beautiful thick yellow coat with dark stripes, to reflecting enormous power, strength and agility as he jumps and roar, the king of the jungle and India’s national animal is a delight to be with. Credit goes to safari guides who track the tiger movement from their pugmarks and trajectory.

From spotted deer, peacock, nilgai, crane to many more species of birds and animals, Ranthambore buzzes with wildlife. WWF India CEO & Secretary General Ravi Singh says that wildlife conservation has been deeply rooted in our religion, heritage and history. So much so that families used to raise deer, nilgai, crane and other wild animals in their homes.

“There is a village in Panna where the wild animals used to come regularly and take refuge. There was a crane bird raised by a family who used to fly as the child would go and come back from the school. There was a dhobi family which had two nilgais at pets. We don’t see any of it now. There is no institutionalisation of protection of rare species. The main repository and protectors are the Forest Ministry, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and other groups. India’s voice is heard at CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) where a larger framework and policies are agreed upon for endangered species. The challenge is we don’t have enough people, corridors and conservation approaches,” Singh tells you.

For tiger conservation, Ranthambore is considered one of the best models of India. With a thriving population of over 65 tigers, the reserve has become a breeding habitat for other neighbouring forests as well and powers the success story for many other national parks.

“Every protected forest has to have a neighbouring population with a good number of breeding tigresses as it prevents them from inbreeding and increases the viability of the population. By relocating the tigers to other forests for breeding, they pass on their special genes to the next generation which prevents a genetic drift. It is important to have a sustainable population. We lost our Sariska tigers because there was no connectivity with other neighbouring population but now the population has been revived,” renowned conservation biologist Dr Raghu Chundawat, says during his talk at International Tiger Week held recently in Ranthambore.

The relocation of the tigers happens in a very well-planned manner. Sometimes it turns out to be a success and sometimes, a failure. “When we relocate the breeding tigers, we look at maintaining the ecology of the habitat of the source and the place they are relocated to and how it affects the population. There are many factors that go into consideration. It is difficult for the tigers to adjust to a new place. In a recent case, two tigers were being translocated inter-state for the first time in India from Sarika Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, to Satkosia Tiger Reserve, Odisha. Unfortunately, one of them  — Mahavir died of poaching as speculated and the other one Sundari still not settle down yet,” Ritika Maheshwari, veterinarian, Wildlife Protection Society of India, explains.

As the number of tigers increases, it raises the challenge for occupancy in the forest. One of the threats to the tiger is range restriction within the given protected habitat. “Range restriction is the first sign of an extinction of any species due to poaching, harsh climate, development activities, transferring of tigers to other regions, and many others. As per the report, tigers are only limited to seven per cent of the original range of habitat. The solution of this is to bring seven per cent to 20 per cent presence. The challenge is we can’t do it within the protected area. Thus, we have to go outside the protected area. In India, the big problem is we have only one exclusive conservation model which is Protected Area Network (PAN),” Chundawat explains.

The size of the protected areas is very crucial and there is a lot of scale mismatch as the area required to have a viable population and the area that is provided is not enough. “Ranthambore is a success story right not but it is not a viable model. We have to deal with scale mismatch which can be dealt with the number of breeding females required to sustain the viability of the population. To avoid the scale mismatch, we need 14-15 breeding females which can be divided into three to four core places. This will help to sustain a population of 170 plus individuals. But do not have that much of territories to protect,” Chundawat points out.

Because of this, the tigers go out of their territory and are spotted in the towns and villages. This leads to tigers preying on cattle and sometimes humans as well. The conflict between the tigers and humans have always been a topic of debate on who is at the priority — the tiger or people, when in co-existence. But experts opine that removal of the tiger from the unprotected area is not a solution. The challenge lies in support from the community.

“Our conservation model is such that it goes outside the protected area and is entirely dependent on volunteering participation of the local communities. More than a volunteer activity, we need to make it an incentive activity for the villagers and community people to value tigers and not kill them. They should be compensated for their cattle loss due to tiger prey and for crop damage as well. When the villagers see that the tigers are bringing them money, they will not kill the animal, instead become more tolerant. By working with the community and minimise the killings will help the tigers survive in the landscape. We have to look at conflict as a journey to make much more comfortable for the tiger and villagers to survive and co-exist,” Chundawat explains.

To have this good practice going, the tigers have to be present. And taking away the tigers from the region will make the people from the community anti-tiger and non-sensitive. “If you disconnect the tigers from the environment, it can do more harm as people will become more violent in killing them. If you want to work with the conflict, you need to have tiger in the region. We need to find a solution from the old traditions and look for contemporary ways to for the peaceful co-existence,” he adds.

At the same time, the safety of villagers need to be the topmost priority which can be made viable with the help of technology. “We must have radars installed to keep a track of the whereabouts of the tigers and create an alarm in the region to make the villagers alert. That is how we can turn around the situation,” he says.

When the conflict happens, a team of biologist, veterinarian, scientists and many others come to rescue the tigers from the conflicted zone. “In one of our ongoing tiger conservation projects in Sundarbans, which has a lot of tigers in islands, the fishery community ended up being attacked by the tigers. The most difficult thing to do during conflict is crowd control. At times, local representative help to resolve the situation locally and police help in controlling crowds. We look for long-term support from the community and make people interested in conservation. We need of the hour is to make the community people realise the importance of protecting tigers from getting killed and organisation to focus on people and what they want and not just the tigers,” Maheshwari says.

Where some feel that it is best to give euthanasia once a tiger becomes a man-eater, some believe that they are best kept in captivity. But former wildlife warden of Ranthambore Balendu Singh says that the best solution to this is to create a large enclosure to keep the man-eater tiger instead of killing them or keeping them in captivity.

“About three years ago in Ranthambore, with a heavy heart, we had to send one of our tigers Ustad into captivity in Udaipur because he had killed four people. He was one of the more visible tigers on the main road and we were blamed for not looking after the tiger and why are we encroaching in his territory. There are many people who believe that tiger should not be assisted when they live in the wild but we don’t have the luxury of not assisting our animals in living lovely and we don’t have enough of them left. And if they do become a problem, rather than put them in captivity it is better to end their life. There are some instances where we had no choice. You have to end their life. One can create a large enclosure of one or two hectares per animal, and let them live there and even feed them,” Balendu says.

Another major issue is of Buffer zone which Chundawat believes is a flawed concept. According to Wildlife Protection Act 1972, that was amended in 2006, it made it mandatory to create an attractive buffer (unprotected forest area with human intervention) around core (protected area) of the tiger reserve. Scientifically, by doing this, it created, what we scientifically call, an ecological trap (inherent dangers) for the tigers which led to increase in mortality rate.

“I am completely against buffer when it comes to tiger conservation. It is a disaster and doesn’t solve any problem. By creating this, we have developed a small core which is the protected area with a high survival rate of tigers, and huge buffer outside it which is absolutely non-protected and it is just expanding and encroaching inside the core. This is leading to a high mortality rate of tigers, the risk of getting disease and rise in conflict with the humans and poaching cases,” Chundawat says.

He opines that the reason for a high mortality rate of the tigress in Panna National Park has been poaching. “Over the past nine years, we have lost seven tigresses in Panna which is a serious problem. The solution lies in creating hard boundaries and if the animals come out in high mortality zone, they spend less time and move back to the protected zone,” he tells you.

From 2015 to 2017, 415 tigers have died due to poaching and over 117 leopard and 32 tigers were found dead this year. “Poaching being the biggest threat to the tigers which is operated in a well organised way, there are other factors that contribute to high mortality like seizure, natural deaths, injuries, habitat fragmentation, deforestation, electrocution and others. Due to conflict with the humans, tigers were shot by the forest department and villagers or died during rescue operations and treatment,” Maheshwari says.

Every wildlife conservation areas have different attributes and having Protected Area Network model might not be enough to conserve the wildlife animals. “Through PAN, we created an environment which had no signs of threats and we relocated the tigers to other forests and achieve success. Some protected areas have done well and some protected areas have not done well. The need of the hour is to have several inclusive conservation models which include community people and can also generate goodwill to all,” Chundawat tells you.

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