By Proloy Bagchi:
A lot of cheer has been brought to tiger and wildlife lovers by the latest Tiger Census conducted in late 2014. There seems to have been a revival in its numbers after the dismal count of 2006 when it had registered 1411 tigers. A marginal increase to 1706 was registered in 2011. In 2014, however, the growth was robust of around 30 per cent taking the tiger tally up to 2226. Singing paeans for the conservation efforts undertaken between the last two censuses, there is apparently an environment of backslapping among the tiger bureaucracy, the tiger NGOs as well as conservationists in general.
That 2226 tigers in a country that used to host around 100,000 of them at the turn of the 20th Century and around 40000 in 1947 is nothing much to write home about does not appear to throw cold water on their enthusiasm. We have been pretty profligate in the matter, particularly after we started ruling ourselves in 1947. The tiger numbers rapidly declined because vast tracts of forests were felled for increasing food grain production, for industrial growth and to meet the needs of a rapidly rising population. Within 20 years or so after independence the number of tigers in the country was estimated to have fallen down to around the same as what it is today – about 2500. Tiger numbers were in decline even during the time of Jim Corbett, the famous hunter who used to roam around submontane region of Kumaon a district in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh and hunt down man-eaters. He had also gone on record about it. Our authorities, however, did not pay heed to what he had said and the numbers came plummeting down from around 40000 to 2500 in mere twenty-odd years.
I still remember the “grow more food” campaign initiated during the 1940s and 1950s because of general shortage of food for reasons of the after-effects of World War II and inclement weather in the then food bowl of the country in its eastern parts. Vast tracts of impenetrable jungles given over to wild animals in the Himalayan Terai region were felled to raise crops for the rising needs of an increasing population and the needs of the post-partition influx of millions of refugees from Pakistan. As was expected the country lost heavily not only its rich wildlife – from elephants to tigers to rhinos– as also varied plant life of the region. Such clearances of forests had been carried out elsewhere in other regions as well causing disappearance and/or degradation of wildlife habitat seriously impacting their numbers. Apparently a desperate act to meet the human needs, no consideration was shown towards the other living beings.
It was only in the 1960s when it was realised that there was serious decline in tiger numbers that the process of tiger conservation was initiated, culminating in 1972 when the government decided to institutionalise tiger conservation through its Project Tiger. A census that year had revealed existence of an abysmal number of only 1827 tigers in the country. Launched in 1973, Project Tiger has become one of the most successful conservation measures through creation of protected areas known as Tiger Reserves which seek to maintain a viable population of the species in each in their natural environment. And yet, despite adding to the number of Tiger Reserves, investment of enormous financial and human resources the number of tigers has fluctuated above or below the 3000 mark since 1972, having never been able to get to even 4000.
That the number is going to increase in the future regardless of the efforts made is doubtful. The current government at the Centre has won the last elections on the plank of “development” and, hence, generation of more power and setting up more industries are its prime movers. Its minister for environment and forests, Prakash Jawadekar, had declared soon after his appointment that his ministry would not function as “roadblock” for development projects, indicating that projects for mining, setting up of industries and creation of infrastructure would not be held up for vital environmental clearances. Recently he gave away environmental clearances to 50 projects. Before him, Minister Veerappa Moily of the Congress government had cleared as many as 70 development projects within 20 days. He was brought in as his predecessor Jayanti Natarajan was considered a “roadblock” and had accumulated a large pendency of developmental projects which was suspected to have caused the economic slow-down. As the previous and the current governments are greatly persuaded by the concept of economic growth reckoned in terms of rise in gross domestic product (GDP) and with the Prime Minister keen on implementing his “Make in India” slogan damage to environment and forests is certainly on the cards. Unfortunately, the natural resources for both, power and industry sit underneath dense forests – generally the habitat that is conducive to wildlife. In this energy-hungry country more and more coal is going to be mined for want of any other alternative source of energy and for industrial growth more and more minerals are going to be mined resulting in denudation of more and more forests. In such a scenario does the tiger have a chance?
Politicians in power are seldom environment-friendly. They have always at the back of their minds the votes that can be harvested. In Madhya Pradesh Panna Tiger Reserve might not have lost all its tigers in 2008 had the political executive intervened to stop poaching o tigers on the advice of the experts. The chief minister also delayed demarcation of the buffer zone of the Reserve to facilitate mining by his crony. While doing so he said that he wouldn’t put people’s livelihood on the line only to save the tigers in the reserve. And, for preventing relocation of resident tribal people he has refused to convert Ratapani Sanctuary near Bhopal, the capital, into a tiger reserve despite approval from the Centre. Since the sanctuary has added to its tiger numbers forests near Bhopal get the spill over threatening theirs as well as human life.
That is another threat to their survival. If more are packed into their current confines they will either fight for territory or migrate out of the reserve. In either case they expose themselves to risks.Already fights for territory have taken the lives of at least two tigers and another simply walked out of the reserve only to be brought back mercifully without coming to harm. If tiger numbers are to be raised the government must see its way through to provide more space for them.
In the Management Effectiveness Evaluation report on Tiger Reserves 2014 the reserves have been rated in four categories. Only 15 out of 39 reserves have been rated very good and just 12 as good. The rest are all satisfactory (8) or poor (4). Efforts need to be made to ensure a rating of very good for at least 24 (60%) reserves raising their economic value by the next census. It has to be brought home to the state governments concerned that there is money in tiger reserves as has been shown by the first ever economic valuation of six reserves in 2014. Their economic value has been pegged at Rs.1.50 lakh crore – a very substantial amount.
Somebody has very aptly said that man– its sole predator – is solely responsible for the current precarious numbers of the tigers and, therefore, it is only man who can save tiger in the wild. An “umbrella” species, tigers provide space for several species to flourish in the vast areas they cover. A tiger website says “In India, more than 350 rivers originate from tiger reserves. These reserves also sequester carbon, provide oxygen and slowly release ground water to regulate floods. Protecting the tiger will in turn protect these vital habitats.” Vital as these roles are for us humans what is needed is strong governance in the reserves for their all-round development, if necessary, with the help of external experts.
Clearly, the country has to treasure and value whatever it has. But, Modi’s “achchhe din” (happy times) for the tigers in the wild do not seem to be anywhere near the horizon yet.