Tigers are key to the health of an ecosystem with the top predator helping to keep prey populations in check, thus ensuring sustainability of a habitat. Forests and wildlife are often viewed by political establishments as impediment to progress, resulting in exacerbating pressures on our last remaining wild spaces. Adhoc developmental activities are often needlessly fragmenting large natural landscapes, hastening their decline. It is not a question of saving the tigers alone; what needs to be understood is the crisis that will set in due to falling tiger numbers.
World tiger population: According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for nature, though there are no accurate estimates of the world tiger population, numbers may have fallen by over 95 per cent since the turn of the 20th century – down from perhaps 100,000 to the current estimate of as few as 3,200. The Bali, Javan and Caspian tiger have been extinct since the 1980s.
The goal of the Global Tiger Recovery Programme of Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), endorsed by 13 tiger range countries including India in 2010, is to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022. The global tiger population is represented in fig 1. GTI, launched in 2008 by founding partners the World Bank, Global Environment Facility, Smithsonian Institution, Save the Tiger Fund, and International Tiger Coalition (representing more than 40 non-government organisations).
The tiger in India: At the turn of the 20th century, there were estimatedly 40,000 tigers in India (E P Gee, 1964, Wildlife of India, Harper Collins). Though a national ban on tiger poaching was imposed in 1970, the first tiger census of India in 1972 revealed that 1827 tigers remained in the wild. It was in the same year that the Wildlife Protection Act was passed. Project Tiger was launched in 1973, which began with nine reserves—now extending to 41 (Jan, 2013) spanning 17 states. Under the Project, the government set up a Tiger Protection Force to fund the relocation of more than 200,000 villagers living in and around forest areas to minimise human-tiger conflicts. The Project’s first countrywide assessment of tigers was carried out in 2006 enumerating a dwindled tiger population of 1114. The results of this assessment helped shape the policies and management strategies for the tiger and the 2008 figure stood at a marginally better 1,411 (projecttiger.nic.in).
The second countrywide assessment was carried out in 2009-10 across all forested habitats of 17 tiger States of India on the direction of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, by the Wildlife Institute of India in collaboration with the National Tiger Conservation Authority, State Forest Departments and NGOs. This second assessment discovered a 20 per cent increase in tiger population throughout the country, but a decrease of 12.6 per cent in tiger occupancy from connecting habitats. Overall, the results show that the country had tiger habitat of 81,881 sq km with an estimated population of 1,706 (1520 to 1909) tigers in 2010. Tamil Nadu (from 76 to 163), Assam (from 70 to 143), and Maharashtra (from 103 to 168) mapped a healthy increase in tiger population, while Andhra Pradesh marked a decrease from 95 to 72 tigers. Nine states, showed no significant change and the results for the remaining states could not be analysed due to lack of base level data.
Conservation methods: The approach and methodology for evaluating the status of tigers in India was developed by Dr Rajesh Gopal, then Director, Project Tiger with the assistance of Dr Y V Jhala and Qamar Qureshi, which was used in a pilot study in 2002 conducted by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in the Satpura-Maikal landscape of around 50,000 sq km . That study was aimed at addressing the void for a science based approach for assessing status of tigers at landscape scales. The Tiger Task Force appointed by the Prime Minister to address the tiger crisis in India, evaluated several scientific approaches for estimating tiger status and recommended the current approach for a country wide monitoring programme (Narain
et al., 2005) (Status of tigers, co-predators and prey in India, 2010, National Tiger Conservation Authority and Wildlife Institute of India).
The current methodology, employed for collecting data for the second assessment, involved a double sampling approach. In the first phase, the occupancy and relative abundance of tigers, co-predators, and prey was estimated through sign and encounter rates in all forested areas by the forest departments. Habitat characteristics were quantified using remotely sensed spatial and attribute data in a geographic information system in the second phase. In the third phase, wildlife biologists sampled a subset of these areas with approaches like mark-recapture and distance sampling to estimate absolute densities of tigers and their prey. Remote camera traps, GPS, laser range finders were used to conduct the survey.
A total effort of 81,409 camera traps yielded captures of 635 unique tiger shots from a total camera trap area of 11,192 sq km spread over 29 sites. The indices and covariate information (tiger signs, prey abundance indices, habitat characteristics) generated by Phase I and II were then calibrated against absolute densities.
Man-animal conflict: Human contact with predators can result in injury, loss of life, threats to economic security, reduced food security and livelihood opportunities. Rural communities with limited livelihood opportunities are often hardest hit by conflicts with wildlife. Compensation of losses with direct cash by the government of India is a fundamental strategy to reduce the human-wildlife conflict and build the tolerance level of the community towards wildlife.
According to the ‘Additional guidelines for the ongoing Centrally Sponsored Scheme of Project Tiger relating to new components’, the human-wildlife interface is extremely sensitive due to spill-over of wild animals from core areas of tiger reserves. The loss needs to be compensated adequately in a time bound manner to avoid ‘revenge killings’. The compensation on man-wildlife conflict has been doubled from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 2 lakh in the case of loss of human life, while the compensation for serious injury has been retained at 30 per cent of the amount of compensation on death.
Endnote: The 2010 Project Tiger assessment has shown that though the tiger population has increased in tiger reserves and PAs, it has lost ground in the connecting habitat corridors. It is important that the progress that has been made in terms of tiger conservation is upgraded as it would ensure a healthy ecosystem in the PAs. The tiger reserves and its corridors should be free of infrastuctural or human interference so that the tigers and therefore, wildlife of India is conserved for posterity.