On International Tiger Day, India is still a long way from making sure that the future of our national animal is safe.
“He is two months old. He is hungry. Scared. He is wondering when his mother is coming back.”
“Maybe she is not.”
And then, an ominous message that flashes across the TV screen, “Just 1,411 left”.
Back in 2010, the distressed furry little face of Stripey, the tiger cub in Aircel’s famous ad campaign “Save Our Tigers” brought the entire nation together.
Eight years on, that crisis seems to have been averted. The concentrated efforts of independent activists, government policies, and amendments to the Wild Life Protection Act, and rising awareness have helped push the number of the wild cats to 2,226 in 2014, when the last tiger census was held.
This International Tiger Day on Sunday, India can take solace in the fact that it remains the nation with largest tiger population.
While the number is something to be proud of, experts believe issues such as poaching, receding forest areas and development projects infringing on tiger habitat need to be tackled. If not, we are looking at a bleak future for India’s national animal.
Leading wildlife conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra cites several infrastructure projects that will cut through tiger corridors and habitats to stress that the future of the big cat is uncertain if we continue to violate their habitat.
“Unless tigers have inviolate habitats where they can breed and flourish and there are corridors linking these breeding populations, we are isolating tigers in very small reserves which is fatal in the long run,” Bindra said.
“What is worrying is that even the best of tiger habitats and reserves are not spared,” she said, adding that highways and railway lines are being expanded in the corridor connecting Kanha and Pench tiger reserves and a railway line through Melghat tiger reserves is being expanded.
Unless we factor in tiger concerns in our development agenda, unless we hold tiger habitats and the critical tiger corridors as sacrosanct we are looking at a bleak future, Bindra said.
Another controversial decision by the government has been to sanction the Ken-Betwa river linking project, which when realised will submerge over 100 square kilometres of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.
“India has one of the lowest per capita forest areas in the world. Forests as carbon sinks are deemed to be a major mean of controlling climate change. Depletion of forests is responsible for reduction of tiger habitats. I believe that forest and tiger conservation begins from grassroots, literally and metaphorically,” said tiger activist Ajay Dubey.
As forest lands fall to development projects, habitable land for animals that make for the tiger’s food base are also reduced.
According to Y V Jhala, senior wildlife scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, the country has enough forest area for the tigers to strive but the problem is the lack of food base.
“We have 300,000 sq km of forest tiger area and tigers are currently found in 90,000 sq km. So there’s enough forest area out there for increasing the number of tigers. Unfortunately, this entire forest area doesn’t have the prey base. It’s not only about protecting the tiger but also protecting its food source,” he explained.
He added that the tiger population has scope to increase if the prey base is restored.
“The local communities that live in and around these areas eat these animals, there is poaching there. Of course, it is illegal but a ban is very difficult to enforce… And if the tigers live there they will start feeding on the cattle and that gives rise to conflict,” Jhala said.
Another issue that has hindered tiger conservation in India and globally is poaching, which, according to Jhala and Bindra, will persist as long as there is an illegal market for tiger body parts.
“The tiger population in India has been increasing for last decade, which can only happen if tiger birth rate exceeds the poaching rate. So as long as that is happening, the tiger population will remain healthy in the country. We need to control poaching, you cannot stop poaching,” Jhala said.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority has launched the M-STrIPES (Monitoring System for Tigers - Intensive Protection and Ecological Status), a mobile monitoring system for forest guards.
Jhala said improving patrolling and doing it specifically in areas vulnerable to poaching can bring the crime rate down.
As long as the frontlines of tiger protection, the forest guards, are not empowered with latest technology, better training and manpower, poaching will remain a threat to the animal, say Bindra and Dubey.
“There is acute shortage in our frontline forest staff, and they are also not well-equipped or trained in intelligence and other policing skills for their task. They do a tough job in the worst of conditions, but we fail to appreciate it. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau is not empowered enough to tackle the gravity and scale of wildlife crime,” Bindra said.
Earlier this year, NTCA and WII kicked off tiger census 2018 with better technology and more cameras. Considering the trend of the last 10 years, it is expected that the report, likely to be released in 2019, will show a rise in numbers.
However, given the many challenges, we have a long way to go before Stripey and his ilk have a home to call their own without fearing for his or his mother’s life.