By Pranav Chanchani, WWF-India
When I think of tigers in India, two questions come to mind. First, how does India ––a densely populated nation with a depleted forest coversupport half the world's tigers today? And second, what does the future hold for the species?
The persistence of tigers in India's human dominated landscapes is undoubtedly linked tothe establishment of Project Tiger over four decades ago and the subsequent creation of over 50 tiger reserves. Today, these reservesare spread from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Nilgiris.
Important as they are, it would be naïve to assume that protected areas alone have saved tigers, or that they will, in themselves, ensure the species’survival. The large cats’ abrupt disappearance from prominent reserves like Sariska in Rajasthan and Panna in Madhya Pradesh, and the documentation of fewer than five tigers in Achnakmar in Chhattisgarh and Buxa in Bengal are well known. There are many factors that determine whether PAs have positive conservation outcomes-habitat connectivity, park management regimens and human acceptance ofliving alongside tigers, risks and costs notwithstanding.
The willingness of communities to accommodate tigers can be strongly shaped by the degree to which communities are included in environmental governance and natural resource management. Tiger Reserves in Indialargely censure access and rights of local communities, resulting in the real or perceived alienation of communities from forests. Resulting attrition between communities and forest administratorscan ultimately undermine tiger conservation, as witnessed in several PAs. Tiger Reserves that have made tangible headway towards inclusive conservation include Periyar and Parambikulam in Kerala where innovative programs have been implemented in the areas of community involvement and benefit sharing.
Tiger populations have also persisted in India because the species is generally resilient andadaptable with the ability to occur in range of biomes, and breed quickly given adequate prey and secure habitats.As conservation biologists, we are becoming aware of the presence of breeding populations in areas beyond extant boundaries of PAs, including areas with extensive timber harvest practices or high human use. Such disturbed areas include Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, Sathyamangalam (which were managed as Reserve Forests for over a century)in Tamil Naduand 24 Parganas in Bengal. Thus, to hedge on the species' bet against extinction, it is important to disburse conservation resources over large landscapes that couldcomprisea mosaic of protected areas, reserve forests, agricultural tracts and settlements. Such a strategy is well aligned with the biology of wide-ranging mammals and allows for dispersal and immigration. However, the ability of tigers to persist in human dominated landscapes has sharp limits.If humans and cattle overrun tiger habitats, the species’populations may be restricted to small and isolated patches or in larger tracts that lack effective protection.
Importantly, the tiger's persistence in modern India's human dominated landscapes has been made possible by the acceptance of many millions of people living adjacent to tiger habitats to co-occur with the large cats, often at close quarters.Tolerancefor tigers is woven into India’s cultural fabric.Such attitudes are exemplified in the Terai and in Central India, where large tiger populations exist even as the felines routinely preyon livestock and periodically claim human lives.
While it is clear that the species has ultimatelysurvived in regions where people have willed it to live and co-existed with tigers, it would be imprudent to over-simplify human tolerance, or that such attitudes are ubiquitous. Regular news stories about big cats being poisoned, bludgeoned,snared and electrocutedin various parts of the country serve as reminders of the limits of accommodating tigers in areas that are also extensively used by humans.
This brings us to the second question: what is then the future of tigersin India?As the world turns its attention to this awe-inspiring and majestic animal this Global Tiger Day, there is reason for both despair and hope.
Poaching remains the greatest and most immediate threat to wild tigers today. In India, reported tiger deaths related to poaching reached an all time high in 2016. Worryingly, these reported figures only represent a fraction of actual mortality, as many deaths likely go undetected.
The systemic overhaul of protection measures in India has been slow and many areas still remain understaffed. Growing human populations, expanding settlements, and the proliferation infrastructure networks carving up habitats in ever smaller patchesfurther challenge the future of tigers. Projections of sea-level rise indicate that tigers in the mangrove islands of Sunderbans face an uncertain future on account of inundation of their habitats, andwidening channels between islands.
Though the challenges are many and complex, Iremain optimistic about the species’ future in India into the next century. Tigers will likely persist in large, connectedlandscapes where the big cats can move freely and safely between habitat patches -- such as theRajaji-Corbett complex in Uttarakhand and the Nagarhole-Sathyamangalam complex in Karnataka-Tamil Nadu, each of which support 300 or more tigers.However, with rapidly expanding linear infrastructure these and other landscapes continue to be carved up into ever-smaller fragments. If critical corridors are lost, the future occurrence within habitat fragments may increasingly require the species’ active translocation from one area to another. This will require further advancing of our capacity to undertake complex tiger translocations and developing more sophisticated systems to monitor tigers and ensure their protection. Some important steps have been taken towards these ends.A large number of frontline-forest department staff across tiger habitats in India are being trained in technology-aided law enforcement and monitoring, and are better equipped to curb poaching than they were a decade ago. This month, India became the third country to have a tiger habitat site (Landsdowne Forest Division in Uttarakhand) accredited under the global Conservation Assured Tiger Standards scheme.
While we persevere in our efforts to ensure the continued survival of this majestic species, it is hard to envision what their world, and ours, will look like. Will cultural ethos, that today engender coexistence, remain intact and large numbers of humans stoically continue to accept the risk of living in the shadow of fierce carnivores? Or will we fence off our reserves, and harden boundaries between human spaces and wilderness?Is it conceivable that will be able engineer landscapes, through prescient land use planning,that maintain permeability and facilitate tiger dispersal while also developing mechanisms to rapidly contain individuals that stray into settlements? Will future advances in technology -- and its application in protecting tigers and their prey and forecasting conflict -- ensure the species persistence? Time alone will bear witness to these questions.