'The tiger is the epitome of evolution.'
'Every tiger has a stripe pattern that is unique. Each tiger is unique.'
'Tigers are very elusive. It is said a tiger sees you nine times when you see it once.'
Dr Yadvendra Jhala wanted to be a zookeeper as a child and ended as one of India's prominent field biologists and wildlife experts.
With a PhD from Virginia Polytechnic, a post doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian, USA and a master's in zoology from Bombay University, Dr Jhala is a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India.
He spoke to Archana Masih/Rediff.com about India's successes in saving the tiger, and the challenges ahead.
When did you spot your first tiger?
In my college days in Bandhavgarh.
I was 11 when I probably participated in a tiger hunt. It was a pathetic sight to see a tiger being shot. It was revolting to see such a majestic animal being killed.
I always wanted a career in wildlife since I was a kid. I didn't know there were careers in wildlife at that time. The closest I knew was a zoo. I thought of becoming a zookeeper as a child.
A career in wildlife is a romance with nature for a lifetime.
What is it that makes the tiger so unique?
It is the largest carnivore. It's so majestic. It is the epitome of evolution.
Every tiger has a stripe pattern that is unique. Each tiger is unique.
In relation to other countries, what has India done well that has resulted in the increase in the tiger numbers?
The Indian attitude towards life forms and conservation in general.
Our culture does not take life, but promotes it. That attitude of the people is primarily responsible for what wildlife and biodiversity India has today.
The government's investment in Project Tiger has paid dividends. In the early 1970s there was good leadership in the country under Mrs Indira Gandhi who saw the importance of saving an iconic and flagship species and used it to conserve the entire biodiversity.
That project has paid dividends after 30 years. It went through a tide, going up and down, but it is on track. We need more projects like this.
The second most important thing that happened under this project was the incentivised, voluntary, relocation of people from protected areas.
That has cleared up a lot of forest landscapes which were meant for biodiversity conservation because people -- us, tribals, local communities -- are the problem for wildlife.
Since we evolved on this planet, we are causing extinctions.
So good or bad, people need to move if you have to conserve biodiversity. The government pays 10 lakh rupees (Rs 1 million) per adult in the family to relocate.
In fact the government is having a shortage of funds because people are more willing to go out of protected areas. That is a very important contribution that the government has made.
Outside the protected areas, where can tigers be found in the wild?
Uttarakhand has a lot many. Sighting tigers in Corbett is also difficult even though it has the highest density in the world. It is a thick grassland mixed with Sal forest where you don't see animals easily.
The culture in Madhya Pradesh where elephants were used to track tigers and then tourists would see them doesn't exist in Uttarakhand.
Tigers are very elusive. It is said a tiger sees you nine times when you see it once.
And it's also shy animal.
Yes, and it avoids people. In many tourism zones, tigers have become used to humans. They don't mind showing themselves to you. In areas like Ranthambore, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, you see them more often.
As a conservationist, do you have a favourite forest/national park?
Each one is unique. Corbett is lovely because it has its own natural landscape, a combination of mountains, rivers, forests, hills. It is one of the most picturesque parks we have today. Central India has a lot of animals to be seen.
Which are the other countries with tiger populations of consequence?
Russia has close to 400 tigers. Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand. Except Nepal, Bangladesh and India, none of the other countries have a proper assessment of their population, so we really don't know how many tigers there are.
What are some of the successes India has had?
We are one of the leading countries where wildlife conservation is concerned. In spite of the burgeoning human population, the economic growth and the pressures that are on the land, we have not lost many species to extinction like many other countries.
We have populations that are viable. Most of them are doing reasonably well in protected areas, but there is a lot that needs to be done.
If we don't continue with the implementation of what has happened in conservation in the last 30 years, then the future is bleak. These efforts that have been invested have to be continued and in fact increased because the pressures are increasing.
What are the issues that concern you?
The major issues that biodiversity and wildlife conservation in India faces is lack of area because of the large human population.
Is there anything that has been done differently at Corbett that has contributed to its success and which is being followed by other national parks?
The Corbett landscape is itself endowed with natural barriers on both sides. The Himalayas are on one side; the Shivaliks on the other and the forest in the Doon Valley.
It is very productive breeding ground for tigers and is a large enough reserve. All it requires is protection and because of the lay of the land, it is easier to protect than other parks.
The Uttarakhand Forest Department has done a good job to control poaching and that is sufficient to make the tigers bounce back and re-populate the entire state.
Whatever tiger habitat was there, except west of the Ganga, all of it is occupied today.
Hopefully now that Rajaji has been declared as a national park, tigers will probably be rehabilitated in the western side of the Ganga where the corridor is severed due to the township of Hardwar and Rishikesh.
Tigers are not crossing the Ganga to come to the western side of Rajaji and that should be rectified by moving tigers artificially from Corbett to Rajaji.
You have said before that Uttarkhand itself could not accommodate 100 additional tigers.
The protected areas are very small. Because of the size itself, viable populations of low density animals cannot be maintained by themselves.
These protected areas need to be connected, so that there is gene flow between them, especially of large carnivores which occur in low densities. If those corridors go, then the future of these protected areas and their objectives remains questionable.
These corridors are important. They are not legally protected today. Though many of these are eco sensitive areas and several of them get lost because of developmental projects.
Development can happen without hurting conservation if mitigation measures are rightly implemented, provided in time and there is no compromise.
What kind of cooperation do you get from state governments in establishing these corridors?
It is a mixed bag. Sometimes the agencies implementing them are really helpful and once you sensitise them, they go all out to help you. Others just don't want to listen. Even that few dollars or rupees of investment which is an insignificant cost compared to the project cost, people don't want to invest and that's a major concern.
Certain projects in the same state get different responses.
So it would appear that Karnataka and Uttarakhand are doing something right as far as conservation goes.
The landscapes of Karnataka and Uttarakhand and the inherent biological properties that they have is greatly helpful in allowing the tiger numbers to have increased.
The forested areas in Karnataka and Uttarakhand are large, contiguous and that is advantageous to the state. Not that the states are extremely sensitive to developmental projects.
Karnataka has done exceptionally well in the past five years. They have declared several protected areas in the adjoining boundaries of Goa and Maharashtra.
I would not weigh Uttarakhand and Karnataka in the same balance. They have done much better in terms of the state's role in conservation.
Is a clampdown on poaching a big factor in the increased tiger numbers?
Poaching is a major threat to wildlife conservation in India. One is organised, commercial poaching for tiger parts and bones though it is not consumed in India, but outside. There is a huge market out there.
Second, is the subsistence level poaching -- where people actually eat bushmeat. This is a pernicious, chronic problem in India.
If you look at the tribal forests, in the Northeast forests or in the Central Indian landscape on the eastern side, there is hardly any wildlife. The forests are intact, but people have eaten the wildlife, though it is illegal.
It is poaching, not hunting. But people are poor and depend on bushmeat as a source of protein. Unless we improve their livelihoods, give them alternative sources of food and nutrients, they will continue to poach.
It is not in the realm of the forest department to tackle that problem. It has to be poverty alleviation and a concerted effort of the upliftment of tribals.
So poaching still is the number one threat to the tiger?
Oh yes! Whatever we have achieved, if we are negligent about the control of poaching, we can lose that in a few years.
You were the principal investigator in collating the tiger numbers last year. Was that the best news you had heard in a long time?
We were not expecting those numbers (30% increase in four years). They were much beyond our expectations. It showed that whatever we were doing was something right.
It consisted of around 80,000 forest staff working for 10 days and we have a team of 70 trained biologists, a consortium of wildlife conservations organisations -- all working together to do camera tracking.
A huge effort that took 1 to 1.5 years and another 1.5 years to analyse the information. It was a 2.5 to 3 year process to get the information.
What kind of sensitisation is needed towards animals and wildlife?
It is very important to sensitise children and college kids in conservation. I think a national effort towards involving them in an exercise like the tiger count would go a long way.
So it becomes a citizen science and people start owning the forest and the resources. Once you actually walk around in a natural setting, you fall in love with it.
Urban kids don't have that exposure. There's a wonderful opportunity to give that exposure to them. Bittu Sehgal and many NGOs are doing a good job in educating the kids. Forest departments have nature camps in many of their parks. We need to do more of that. It's not enough.
Your research has also been on wolves and hyenas. How are those species faring?
Unfortunately, unlike tigers, these animals are not doing very well. The wolf population is dwindling in India. They don't live in protected areas. They mostly live in agro-pastoral landscapes where the lifestyle of people is changing very rapidly.
Pastoralism is dying out in our country especially of sheep, goats and in the places where it is practiced, people are not tolerant to losses so they start poisoning the animals even if they have lost 1 or 2 animals.
The use of poison is extremely dangerous for small carnivores like wolves, jackals, foxes, hyenas.
IMAGE: A majestic tiger at the Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Photograph: Srinath S.