Big Cats of India

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Big Cats of India

Tuesday, 11 June 2019 | HS singh

Big Cats of India

Besides Project Tiger, our achievements were also possible because wildlife conservation is deep rooted in the Indian culture and tradition

India, a mega-biodiversity country with diverse climate and natural habitats in the world, is the last hope for the survival of several mega-mammals, including big cats on planet Earth. Of the seven big cats — lion, tiger, jaguar, puma (mountain lion), common leopard, snow leopard and cheetah (hunting leopard), five were found in India. But one of them — hunting leopard — exterminated from the Indian sub-continent in the early 1950s. Clouded leopard, a cat occurring in the north-east of India, is also considered a big cat by some naturalists but it falls slightly short of the minimum size of the big cat as its average weight is just below 20 kg.

India’s wildlife richness is incomparable in the world. It were the invaders, who brought a culture of reckless hunting, impacting the abundance of mega-mammals. According to official records, over 80,000 tigers, more than 150,000 leopards and 200,000 wolves were slaughtered between 1875 and 1925. About 300 lions were hunted around Delhi during 1957-58 a few years after independence. All four big cats have disappeared from their previous habitats in Asia or are surviving in restricted habitats in small numbers. But their story in India is different. Their survival depends on their conservation here in India where they still have viable populations despite high human population.

The Asiatic lion, which had extensive distribution in West Asia to India, has a restricted population in the Gir forests in Gujarat. They disappeared from the northern and western parts of the country. At present, over two-thirds of the global population of the tiger is found in 17 States in India. The number of other sub-species of the tiger in other countries in Asia is very small and none of them has over 500 individuals. Similarly, out of about 20,000 Asiatic leopards in about two and half dozen countries in Asia at present, 15,000- 16,000 individual leopards are estimated in India alone. Status of snow leopard is not known but there is no sign of any significant decline of its number in high altitudes of the Himalayas.

Occasionally, scientists and conservationists played the numbergame by providing population figures which suited to their academic greatness. Some of the figures quoted by naturalists and referred in the scientific documents and papers are far from the truth. Hence, the history of these big cats needs to be renewed. For example, the Nawab of Junagadh and some naturalists quoted about dozen remnant numbers of the Asiatic lion in the beginning of the 20th century. It has also been quoted in all scientific literature. If Asiatic lion’s number was one dozen in the first or second decade of the 20th century, then how could it reach to 287 individuals in the first Asiatic lion census in 1936? Annual hunting records also denied the low figure. In fact, logically, the Asiatic lion population never dropped below 50 during its entire history. Scientists and naturalists presented distorted and wrong history of this species. The present number of over 600 lions, perhaps over 700 as locals believe, is a healthy population spreading in four districts, although the threat from epidemic disease is high due to increased predation on domestic livestock, dogs and domestic animal carcasses. Loss of habitats outside the Protected Areas is also a matter of concern. The lion conservation landscape in Junagadh, Amreli, Gir-Somanath and Bhavnagar support about 1,300 big cats (over 600 lions and over 650 leopards). The numbers suggest human-wildlife conflict is a matter of concern.

Future of the tiger also lies in India. Although its habitat and distribution shrunk in the country, it is still found in about 90,000 sq km area in 17 States. In the past, some naturalists quoted a figure of 40,000 individual tigers in India at the beginning of the 20th century. This figure, too, has no scientific basis. After the declaration of Project Tiger, the population of this big cat was estimated over 1,800 individuals, which increased consistently and doubled in three decades. A reverse trend started due to massive poaching, after the success of its conservation. The camera image trap method for tiger counting in 2006 quoted a population of 1,411 individual tigers in India. Naturalists played the numbergame again. They publicised a decline by half. There was over-reporting of the number of tigers by some States using the pugmark method of counting, but the decline was not as drastic as highlighted by non-field conservationists.

Undoubtedly, the disappearance of tiger from four reserves, including Panna and Sariska, was a conservation blunder. The hullaballoo that followed resulted in the birth of National Tiger Conservation Authority. In 2006, tigers were never counted in Jharkhand, Sundarbans and North-East of India, Naxalite affected areas and also other forests area where few nomadic tigers occurred. Also, only sub-adult and adult-tigers were counted and cubs below one and half years, which constitute about 30 to 35 per cent of the population, were not accounted.

The numbers were again wrongly put. If all these are accounted logically, tiger population, including cubs, was not below 2,000 individuals in 2006. In 2014, the number of sub-adult and adult tiger was about 2,230 individuals, which was about 65 per cent of the global tiger population. With cubs, the number was perhaps about 2,800-2,900 individuals. Initial survey in 2018 revealed that the number has gone up due to strict protection measures India’s tiger habitats can support about 3,000 individuals of sub-adult and adult tigers. With growing human and industrial pressure in the previous habitats and around the tiger reserves, protection of dispersing tiger is difficult.

Leopard, a versatile cat, has very high adaptive capacity. Its population was never estimated accurately due to the concealing behaviour of the smart cat. The surveys of this cat in different States reveal that about 15 per cent to 20 per cent leopards are found outside the national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and forests. The tea gardens, sugarcane fields, ravines and agricultural fields have become habitats for the leopards. Expanding irrigation network turned beneficial to this cat. In 1964, EP Gee, a known wildlifer, quoted a figure of 6,000 to 7,000 leopards in India. He also mentioned that the number was 10 times in the beginning of the 20th century. This figure is quoted in all scientific documents. However, even with advanced technology, wildlife managers failed to estimate its accurate population. So, how could a naturalist guess a population of 6,000-7,000 leopards in 1960s? Recently, a conservation organisation in collaboration with Karnataka Forest Department projected an unbelievable population of 2,500 leopards in Karnataka. As per the recent reports, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka each has an estimated leopard population of over 2,000 individuals. Gujarat and Chhattisgarh each has over 1,000 leopards. Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Odisha have over 500 or nearly 1,000 leopards. Leopard occurs in 29 States and one Union Territory and its present population is estimated about 15,000-16,000 in the country. Although leopard presence is in over two and half dozen countries in Asia, none has above 1,000 of the species. Only Iran has nearly 1,000. It is, thus, a matter of great pride that about three-fourth of the total Asiatic leopard survives in India.

Conservation achievements of these big cats were possible because wildlife conservation is deep rooted in the Indian culture and tradition. Indian mythology, ancient art, literature, folk lore, religion, rock edicts and scriptures, all provide ample proof that wildlife enjoyed a privileged position in India’s ancient past. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a book written in the third century BCE, reveals the attention focussed on wildlife in the Mauryan period: Certain forests were declared protected and called Abhayaranya like the present day ‘sanctuary’. Heavy penalties, including capital punishment, were prescribed for offenders who entrapped or killed elephants, deer, bison, birds, or fish, among other animals. Lord Mahavir Jain, Gautam Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi always advocated Ahimsa towards living creatures.

The ashrams of rishis, which were sites of learning in the forests, were frequently visited by the animals. The Vedas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Arthashastra and the Panchtantra are among the many texts of ancient India that deal with the influence of forests and wildlife on human society. Ashoka, the most powerful monarchs, who put lions at the top of rock pillar, was a staunch wildlife conservationist.

Another key factor for survival of carnivores in India is never considered in analysis. About 524 million livestock in India provide major food to carnivores such as big cats, canines, hyena, small carnivores and raptors. Nearly half of the food for lions comes from hunting of domestic animals or their carcasses. Leopard is largely dependent on dogs, sheep, goats, poultry, other domestic animals and their carcasses. The tigers also extract substantial food from livestock abundantly available around the Tiger Reserves.

(The writer is Member, National Board for Wildlife)

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