Emperor in peril

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Emperor in peril

Saturday, 16 February 2019 | Hiranmay Karlekar

Emperor in peril

The Royal Bengal Tiger is not only at the top of the food chain in the wild but constitutes a vital link in maintaining nature’s rich diversity and ecosystems. Will it become extinct?

A recent PTI report cites researchers as saying that rising sea levels, caused by climate change, could destroy the world’s biggest mangrove forest — Sunderbans — spanning more than 10,000 square kilometres in India and Bangladesh, in the next 50 years. It quotes Sharif Mukul, an assistant professor at the Independent University, Bangladesh, as saying that analyses by researchers indicate that the Sunderban’s tiger habitats would vanish by 2070. The area being perhaps the most important habitat of the majestic animal, the development has serious implications for the Royal Bengal Tiger’s survival. The report further quotes Bill Lawrence, a professor at Australia’s James Cook University, as stating that the animal, now “mainly confined to small areas of India and Bangladesh”, is “facing a double whammy”— the increasing unavailability of the Sunderbans area for themselves and their prey as well as encroachment by industry, construction of roads and poaching.

All of this warrants concern on two counts — the future of the Royal Bengal Tiger as a species, the consequences of the extinction of tigers and the developments leading to both. As to the first, around 97 per cent of the world’s tiger population perished in the last 100 years and, according to the latest statistics, only 3,890 tigers are left in the world. The developments leading to the extinction of tigers include the destruction of their forest habitats for human settlements, industry and infrastructure, the consequent increase in human-tiger conflict  and the extensive use of tiger parts in Chinese medicines.

Encroachments on tiger habitats are liable to grow given the continuing increase in human population, the rising demands for housing settlements and industrial and agricultural products arising therefrom. The incidence of conflict between people and tigers is also set to rise as the decline in the availability of prey, who share tigers’ shrinking habitats, compels the latter to target domesticated animals like cattle. Finally, there is no sign of any fall in the demand for tiger parts in Chinese medicines despite it being medically established that they have no medicinal value at all.

China has postponed the implementation of its decision to lift the ban on the use of tiger bones and rhino horns — from both animals bred in captivity — by hospitals, and domestic trade in antique tiger and rhino products, which would have given a cover of legitimacy to the sale of parts from poached animals. The decision, though most welcome, needs to be made permanent and Beijing has to further step up its efforts to stanch illegal trade in animal parts.

The fate of the Royal Bengal Tiger will be determined by the interplay of these factors and the measures taken to conserve and increase their number. Significant measures have been taken towards the latter. The international ban on the trade in tigers, instituted in 1993, has vastly reduced the mass slaughter of the species by poaching and trade. Nevertheless, poaching and illegal trade continue not only to provide the manufacturers of traditional Chinese medicines but fuel a demand for tiger heads and skins as status symbols and decorative items.

At the national level, China has done much to increase its tiger population in the country’s North-eastern region by recently establishing the Tiger and Leopard National Park — 1.6 times larger than Yellowstone National Park in the United States. India, home to 70 per cent of tigers in the world, launched Project Tiger in April 1973 when Indira Gandhi was  Prime Minister. It aims at ensuring viable population of Royal Bengal Tigers in their natural habitats, protecting them from extinction and setting up reserves for the purpose. There are now 50 of the latter. In September, 2006, it set up the National Tiger Conservation Authority to extend statutory authority to Project Tiger to provide legal sanction to its directives, foster accountability on the part of the Centre and the States in the management of tiger reserves by providing a basis for MoUs among them, providing parliamentary oversight and address the interest of local people in areas around tiger reserves.

In June, 2007, it constituted a multi-disciplinary Tiger and Other Endangered Species Crime Control Bureau (Wildlife Crime Control Bureau), to combat organised illegal trading in wildlife and their derivatives. In May, 2012, the Centre advised the States to each create, arm and deploy a Special Tiger Protection Force around the habitats of the big cats. A number of States, including Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Maharashtra, have already done so.

The results have been gratifying. The number of tigers has risen from 1,411 in 2006 to 1,706 in 2010 and 2,226 in 2014. The current census, which began in 2018, is expected to produce a higher figure. Yet complacence would be disastrous. Poaching, particularly in the form of poisoning, which causes prolonged and painful death, continues. Encroachments into tiger habitats continue. It would be illustrative to cite a few examples from Maharashtra which has a very poor record in this respect. Last year, it sanctioned the diversion of 467.5 hectares of forest land in Yavatmal district for a cement plant. Also, its recommendation has led to the clearance, in principle, of 87.98 hectares of land in Kondhali and Kalmeshwar ranges — barely 160 km from Yavatmal — to an explosives company in Chakdoh for manufacturing defence products. Worse, the land earmarked being reportedly in the tiger corridor between Bor and Melghat tiger reserves, the factory would prevent the movement of tigers between the two. Also, the proposal to widen, from meter to broad gauge, the 176-km Akola-Khandawa railway, a 39 kilometre stretch of which passes through the Melghat reserve,  threatens to cause more accidents, wildlife mortality and fragmentation of habitat.

Much of what has been achieved in protecting the tiger would be lost if the trend continues. The results would be disastrous. The Royal Bengal Tiger is not only at the top of the food chain in the wild but constitutes a vital link in maintaining nature’s rich diversity and ecosystems that sustain both nature and people. And it is not just the tiger. Over 3,000 species are becoming extinct every year. Indeed, the world is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals in the last half-a-billion years, and the worst since the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. At this rate, as many as 30 to 50 per cent of all species would be moving toward extinction by the middle of this century.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)

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