Royal Bengal Tiger Conservation
Tigers are the Kings and Queens of our jungles. It is estimated that until the end of nineteenth century, there were more than 100,000 wild tigers roaming the wild habitats of Asian forests. There were lots of big predators, and even larger number of prey. Now, there are only a handful (about 4,000) tigers are remaining on the planet. In the last century alone, tiger population has declined significantly due to human activities, trophy hunting, poaching for illegal trade, habitat loss, loss of primary food source etc. According to Valmik Thapar, in the fifty years between 1875 and 1925, in India alone 80,000 tigers were killed. Probably an equal number were injured and died later of their wounds1.
Let me start with a little history of the species. There are 9 subspecies of tigers known to have existed in the wild. 3 of them (the Javanese, the Balinese, and the Caspian) are already extinct. Out of the 6 others, South China tigers remain only in captivity now and 4 other subspecies have just around 300-500 in wild population. The last subspecies, the Royal Bengal Tigers (Panthera Tigris Tigris), have the only healthy tiger population in the wild (2,500-3,000 approx., around 70% of total tiger population)2. They reside in Indian subcontinent and are currently listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List since 2008. It is our responsibility to understand and conserve these species as the whole food chain will have a huge impact if these Kings and Queens are extinct.
Until the 1960s, there was little awareness of the impact of trophy hunting or human civilisation on tiger population so villages and agricultural fields kept encroaching into tiger habitat. As the declining tiger population came into light, Indian government launched Project Tiger in 1973 to conserve tigers and their natural habitat. The first protected tiger reserve under Project Tiger was Jim Corbett National Park2. During late 1970s efforts were made in Ranthambore to separate human establishments from tiger habitat. One of the pioneers in this effort was Fateh Singh Rathore. His efforts helped relocate a number of villages and helped define the core area dedicated to tiger habitation where no human settlement was allowed. This effort paid off and the tiger population started growing. They became less scared of human presence and started getting spotted by forest officials and handful of tourists. This is the time where some of the groundbreaking research/documentation of wild tiger behaviour started1.
In the early 1990s, another big challenge hit- Poaching. Poaching has always been an issue in Tiger conservation. However, in the 1990s, nearly two thirds of the tiger population was wiped out in a matter of few years1. One of the main reasons for poaching was illegal demand for tiger bones, claws, skin etc. for traditional Chinese medicine. In 1993, in Delhi, 400 kgs of Tiger bones were seized which brought to light the extent of the problem. In the middle of 1990s Indian Government started building awareness campaigns to highlight the reducing tiger population. As a child, I remember seeing the government awareness campaigns on decreasing tiger population as there were only 1,410 left in the wild. Some national parks like Sariska and Panna Tiger Reserve had their whole of tiger population wiped out due to poaching in and around 2004.2
As part of Project Tiger (currently NTCA or National Tiger Conservation Authority), the government passed and implemented several regulations to protect and grow tiger population. Currently, there are 50 tiger reserves in India spread across 18 states covering 2.21% of the geographical area of India. One strategy was the Core-Buffer area allotment in these tiger reserves. The core areas have the legal status of a national park or a sanctuary aiming to foster a healthy growing and breeding tiger population, whereas the buffer or peripheral areas are a mix of forest and non-forest land, managed as a multiple use area. NTCA is responsible for implementing strict regulations, patrolling and monitoring the tiger reserves, protecting habitat, economic development of local people in buffer areas, relocating human establishments from tiger critical habitats, and addressing human-animal conflict3. Due to many such initiatives, tiger population has started growing again. But there are still many concerns that cause the Royal Bengal Tiger to remain endangered.
We need to know a little about wild tiger behavior before we dive into some issues which still persist with tiger conservation. Tigers are apex predators that stay and hunt alone. They are shy, territorial and solitary animals who need their own territory, often exclusive. An adult female tiger needs nearly 30 sq km territory whereas male tigers need nearly 100 sq km territory. After staying with their mothers for approximately 2 years, the cubs look/fight to establish separate territory for themselves. This means a vast habitat requirement where there is a healthy population of prey (bigger birds, medium/ large herbivores or smaller carnivores).
In today’s world, this lack of habitat with proper food sources is one of the biggest challenges being faced by the tigers. Lack of habitat is increasing due to human encroachment, with increasing infrastructure development, or unwillingness of locals to relocate. In many cases, the government has failed to integrate and effectively incentivise humans to coexist with tigers. Also, there are very few gateways or wildlife corridors that exist between these national parks. These corridors are vital to help the tigers find newer territories. Otherwise, the tigers become threat to each other and may get severely injured or killed in territorial fights. Wildlife corridors (geographical linkages through forests, river courses or other habitat attributes) are of immense importance in overall survival of the species.
Another huge issue is human-animal conflict. Many accusations have been made against some of these tigers about being man-eater. However, it is important to understand that humans are not naturally on tiger's menu. Tigers eat humans only under exceptional circumstances, like, when they are injured/ old or when other natural prey is not available. However, if the tiger feels threatened, s/he can kill humans (but not eat them). This can happen when a human suddenly comes very close and the tiger cannot see an easy escape route or when tigress with cubs feels threatened. As per Indian regulations, when a tiger kills 3 humans, they are declared as man eaters (doesn't even matter if the human is eaten or not) and are ordered to be killed or are bundled off to a zoo4. There are national parks where questionable tiger killings happened after unfortunate incidents of human death. Most times, the tiger killings are due to human encroachment or the humans not abiding by the laws. Some even suspect that there are political reasons for killing tigers in these regions as those national park areas were being targeted for industrial development.
Poaching by organised crime syndicates to meet illegal market demand still poses threat to the survival of this majestic species. Poor implementation of policies, mismanagement of funds, bad administration have often been cited as reasons for the failure to stop poaching. In a first of its kind relocation program, tigers were moved to Sariska Tiger reserve in 2008 to re-establish the population. But continued poaching has not allowed the population to grow considerably. In 2017, famous tigress Kankati was found dead in the reserve, leaving behind 3 cubs. Too young to survive on their own, they were shifted to an enclosure by the forest officials. Only time will tell if they can ever be released back in the wild since the absence of a mother has left them without necessary skills to survive in the wild2.
The relocation of tigers was started with noble intentions but actually implementing these strategies is a bit difficult. Apart from solving the problem of habitat, it also helped the tigers to start a healthy population with diverse gene pool in the new area. But poor execution can almost be fatal to these tigers. A recent example being Satsokia National Park where the locals were not properly informed about the relocation of a male and female tiger from other national parks (Mahavir and Sundari, Kanha and Bandhavgarh national park respectively) in the first inter-state relocation project. Presence of a tiger can cause a lot of inconvenience for the locals like making some areas in the forest inaccessible and tiger attacks on the cattle due to lack of healthy prey in the forest. In light of this, it is important to show the benefits to the local community to get their buy-in. In this case, the locals, allegedly, supported by political goons, were upset and even claimed that the male tiger is a man-eater. In this resulting human animal conflict, locals threatened to kill the tigers and eventually killed the tiger Mahavir. Forest department was forced to remove Sundari to avoid any danger to her. Also, relocation of tigers requires tranquillisation, which can lead to trauma and certain health issues for the tiger. Unplanned, mismanaged and repeated relocation can even cause death2.
One of the things that helped the tiger conservation is Tiger Tourism. Tiger tourism has helped the local communities generate more jobs and income. This gives incentive to locals to protect the wildlife. Sometimes tiger tourism can create menace for the tigers and other animals. However through new regulations (like limiting the number of vehicles and time inside the park, presence of certified guide and driver in the vehicles, creation of separate zones to control vehicle traffic, putting a cap on vehicle speed, banning humans getting out of the vehicles, etc.) government is trying to reduce impact on wildlife due to tourism. It is still a struggle to achieve a perfect balance though.
To impact tiger population positively, it is important to protect tiger habitat and build wildlife corridors for tigers to migrate. There is a need for implementation of strict laws against poaching and disturbing wildlife. One of the most important action is to build communities with education about tiger behavior through promoting wildlife tourism and development of local communities through creation of jobs. If the communities are invested in the well being of the tigers and wildlife, we will have a much positive impact on the conservation efforts of the government.
1. Thapar, Valmik (2016) Living With Tigers. New Delhi: Aleph Book Company
2. Tigers In The Wild, 2019. Accessed on June 15, 2019, at: https://tigersinthewild.org/
3. National Tiger Conservation Authority, 2019. Accessed on June 15, 2019, at: https://projecttiger.nic.in/content/107_1_Background.aspx
4. Firstpost, 2017. Accessed on June 15, 2019, at: https://www.firstpost.com/india/tiger-matkasur-versus-tadoba-man-he-killed-both-innocent-3441324.html