Issues like conditions of forests, prey base, livelihood of fringe forest dwellers, tribals and so on need to be taken up on a priority basis so that the big cats don’t come in conflict with people
On the occasion of the International Tiger Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the 2018 Tiger Estimation report with great fanfare and broke the news of a significant increase in the tiger population of India. He termed the success of tiger conservation efforts in India as “baaghon mein bahar hai,” a take on the popular Hindi film song from yesteryears. According to the estimation report, the tiger population has increased from 1,400 in 2014 to 2,967 in 2019, a solid growth of 34 per cent. It is a remarkable achievement for the country that in spite of several hiccups in conservation, it has three-fourth of the world’s tiger population and has emerged as the safest habitat for the big cat. Highlighting India’s conservation efforts, Modi said that the target to double the tiger population by 2022, which was set in 2010 in St Petersburg by the international community, was achieved by India four years in advance.
The tiger census, one of the world’s largest, was carried out over an area of 3,91,400 sq km in 3,17,958 sample habitat plots. As many as 26,838 camera traps located at 141 sites covered over 1,21,337 sq km of forests and snapped more than 76,000 pictures of the big cats.
This estimation seems quite reliable given the meticulous planning, use of cutting-edge technology and analytical tools. This time human errors were minimised and figures were based on recording of actual field data digitally through the mobile phone application M-STrIPES (Monitoring System for Tiger-Intensive Protection and Ecological Status). The sighting of tigers and other animals was recorded and geo-tagged. One of the keys to success was the adoption of a landscape approach across five tiger habitats, i.e. the Shivaliks and Indo-Gangetic Plains, Central India and Eastern Ghats, Western Ghats, the North-East and the Sunderbans. National Geographic prepared a documentary on this census, highlighting the hard work done by the field staff and other officers.
The increase in tiger numbers in the country has basically been due to the hard work put in by the foresters and positive attitude of villagers apart from policy thrust and priority attached to conservation by the Centre and State Governments.
The impact of improvement in overall forest management and technological back-up was also felt. However, we must also remember that the tiger is a prolific breeder and once its numbers started growing, a good prey base and habitat ensured that the population would register good growth. But the nation must give equal credit to villagers situated near tiger habitats as without their cooperation, protecting the feline species would have been a pipe dream, as is the case in many other countries. However, the increased tiger population has brought with it more responsibility and challenges for forest departments as tigers can only prosper in healthy environs that would support their prey base.
Incidentally, the highest number of tigers, 526, was located in Madhya Pradesh (MP), followed by 524 in Karnataka and 442 in Uttarakhand.
Sadly, Chhattisgarh witnessed a big decline from 46 tigers in 2014 to 19 in 2019 and is a cause for concern. Similarly the results in Bihar, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Mizoram and Arunanchal Pradesh are not very encouraging and the situation may become critical in other areas also. Shockingly, no tigers were reported in Buxa, Palamu and Dampa tiger reserves.
However, a word of caution for MP, Uttarakhand and Karnataka which have shown a boost in big cat numbers. They must control the increasing man-animal conflicts as a larger tiger population means increasing competition for food, water and space. Issues like conditions of forests, prey base, livelihood of fringe forest dwellers, tribals and so on, need to be taken up on a priority basis so that the big cats don’t come in conflict with people. Further, water sources will have to be improved on a war footing to combat climatic vagaries.
The Ministry of Environment’s Compensatory Afforestation Planning and Management Authority (CAMPA) recently released Rs 47,000 crore to States. Even if the annual interest earned on this amount is used in a well-planned manner, it can solve the monetary and resource crunch faced by the forest department.
There is also dire need to synchronise the working of forests, rural, tribal affairs and Jal Shakti Ministries. The time is ripe to make some innovative and forward-looking changes in the governance of these subjects.
(The writer is a retired civil servant)