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The Tiger Debacle in India

Suhas Kumar

Top carnivores are predestined by their perch at the apex of the web to be big in size and
sparse in numbers. They live on such a small portion of life's available energy as to always
skirt the edge of extinction and they are the first to suffer when the ecosystem around them
starts to erode.

Wilson, 2003

Some months ago in a high level meeting held in New Delhi, where the fate of tigers in India
was discussed, several causes were enumerated by the managers and experts for the present tiger
crisis - poaching, accidents and diseases, human- tiger conflict, territorial fights, old age and so
on; the officials maintained that out of 52 tiger deaths in the country this year only 15 were
confirmed cases of poaching and out of these 15 cases only 5 occurred within protected areas.
But despite this knowledge nobody in the meeting talked about finding out the ecological reasons
for extirpation of tigers, nobody spoke for protecting dispersal areas, potential habitats and
corridors, nobody voiced concern for inculcating a sense of responsibility among officers who
look after the territorial forest habitats outside protected areas(PAs) and are custodians of the
corridors, and nobody talked about equipping the officers in-charge of non-PA forests (territorial
forest divisions) adequately to combat wildlife crime and to enrich wildlife habitats in the
forests under their charge.
"Little knowledge is a dangerous thing" and this observation is amply reflected in the reports that
we read in news papers and watch on TV screens - most reports and interviews sound
ostentatious and little-informed on the issues of wildlife conservation in our country.

Through this write-up, I wish to dispel the half-truths that surround the tiger crisis. In my view,
the reason for disappearance of a species is manifold - and in most cases it is a combination of
unsuitable biological causes, fast changing ecological conditions and man-made decimating
factors like poaching and habitat loss. When an endangered species suddenly vanishes the
experts tend to blame it on ‘poaching' alone, and nobody cares to find out the ‘other reasons'.

The seeds of downfall of the tiger were sown long back when 'powers that be' couldn't fully
implement the conservation strategies that the GoI has most thoughtfully enunciated in 1983 and
1989; I am referring to the "National Wildlife Action Plan, 1983" and the strategic document
prepared by WII- "Planning a Protected Area Network for India" 1988-89.

The major constraint that our country has faced eternally has been acute dependence of forest
side people on forest resources. And this ground reality compelled our conservation strategists
and planners to opt for creation of smaller protected areas in India, which by no means are
adequate for conserving long ranging large mammals like tigers and elephants. To overcome this
shortcoming, the planner's envisaged creation of a closely knit network of PAs connected
through viable forested corridors. But, unfortunately, little attention was ever paid to securing
dispersal areas and reviving weak links of remaining corridors. Forestside people are perpetually
angry as protected areas have curtailed their access to forest resources on which they have been
dependent for their daily needs and for livelihoods. As PAs became inaccessible to people they
turned to the reserved and the protected forests adjacent to protected areas more heavily, further
degrading them. As a result dependence of people on non-PA forests has become so acute today
that the governments find it difficult to declare buffer zones around Tiger reserves. Over the
years the smaller PAs and tiger reserves have turned into islands surrounded by degraded and
deeply fragmented forests, agriculture fields, mines, villages and townships and necklaces of
hotels around popular tiger reserves that cut off movement of tiger to other possible habitats
(which now are difficult to find beyond PAs), in some cases the habitats were further impacted
by polluting, disturbing and resource degrading mines and industries operating just outside the
core areas of tiger reserves.

Ecology of small populations in fragmented landscapes:

Wildlife conservation through in-situ conservation areas (PAs) alone has been a serious flaw in
our conservation strategy for ecological boundaries of most large and long ranging species
extend beyond protected areas. The territorial forests surrounding these PAs are managed for
production of timber and are heavily used by local people who suffer grazing and nistar rights
within these forests. There was never an attempt to seriously try and inculcate a system of
management that could take care of peoples' needs as well as the ecological needs of wild
animals dispersing from natal areas (PAs) in search of new habitats. Even in some exceptional
tiger reserves where the buffer area is managed by field directors no effort was ever made to
manage buffer to achieve its twin objectives - i. cushioning core areas from resource use by local
people by managing buffer forests for sustainable production of small timber, fodder, firewood
and non-timber produce and ii. protecting and enriching degraded habitats for wild animals in the
buffer areas.
Any ecologist or wildlife scientist would affirm that species vanish at greater pace on an island (a
patch of habitat that has lost connectivity with other similar patches in the landscape). They will
also tell you how smaller and isolated but well connected populations of a species form
'metapopulations' that could survive for a very long time provided they remain connected in a
way that genetic interaction among these populations is possible and also that the areas
surrounding natal areas (undisturbed habitats where wild animals breed) have potential habitats
for dispersing individuals to occupy and also infuse new vigour that might rescue doomed
populations. Unfortunately, there are very few metapopulations left today, what we have in
case of tigers are small and almost isolated population in some of the well managed sanctuaries
and tiger reserves. These small isolated populations are bound to perish in not so distant future
for want of connectivity between habitats and a dearth of unoccupied suitable habitats. Outside,
in most non -PA forest, prey base is sparse or absent, water is scarce and cover deficient, - tigers
shun such areas. Any effort that concentrates only on protecting tigers in tiger reserves
cannot help tiger survive in the long run.

Securing dispersal areas and corridors: Why most shy away from the real issues:

I can understand the reason for every one who matter shying away from real issues that are
critical to conservation of tiger - to them the task of securing areas other than already declared
PAs appears politically incorrect as well as harmful because people who live in and around
PAs have become wary of wildlife conservation as they don't see any stake for themselves in
conserving wildlife. The original plan of GoI to elicit public support was explained in a
document - "Eliciting Public Support for Wildlife Conservation" written almost 27 years ago, in
early eighties, but very little was done towards its implementation. Besides, the financial inputs
required to implement a meaningful ecodevelopment programme in the buffer areas for the
benefit of forestside communities is going to be enormous and that kind of money is apparently
not available for such a 'low priority task'. Within Forest departments there is always a war going
on - those who work in wildlife areas are pariahs, non-elite. Today, it is almost impossible to find
an officer who willingly consents to undergo wildlife training or join a wildlife area. The present
atmosphere of distrust towards wildlife managers is going to be counterproductive; if this
continues, I am afraid that the hitherto devoted officers, who deliberately chose a career in
wildlife management, would soon like to move in other directions.

The officers managing the non-PA forests were never made to feel responsible for tigers and
other wildlife. Today the tiger has become a dangerous thing to them - tiger is hot potato that can
burn their fingers and dislodge them from their commands or may lead to their suspension. And,
therefore, the managers of non-PA forests have now begun to avoid supporting reports of
movements or presence of tiger within their jurisdiction.

On the other hand the wildlife personnel who work in remotest of areas braving harshest of
conditions and without incentives are further marginalised by media and public breathing down
their neck. I know of no other civilian set up where field personnel are subjected to such
hardships. Their plight was amply highlighted in the report presented by Subramaniam
committee to MoEF in 1993. This report was prepared after the committee met and discussed
with large number of field personnel, park mangers, scientists and NGOs across the country. The
committee gave several excellent recommendations that were only sparingly implemented.
Today I am sure there may be only a few who would wish to acknowledge the existence of this

In such a grim scenario only following two options are available:

A. Secure Dispersal areas and corridors

1. Garner political courage and financial resources to support a well planned
ecodevelopment programme in villages that are dependent on PAs, dispersal areas and
2. Implement well conceived awareness programmes to win public support and participation
of forestside communities in protecting dispersal areas and corridors, outside major Natal
areas (PAS)
3. Declare and manage buffer zones as areas to accommodate nistar by local people and as
dispersal habitats for wild animals
4. Enforce a land use policy that supports protection of potential wildlife dispersal areas
around tiger reserves (stop land-uses such as mining, hotels, industries that degrade its
use as habitats and movement corridors by wild animals).
5. Make managers of territorial forests as responsible as the protected area managers and
equip them to combat wildlife crime and protect habitats.
6. Provide funds to territorial divisions to implement prescriptions to enrich potential
habitats within forest areas under their jurisdiction.
7. The Tourism industry that makes huge profits from protected areas must become partners
in supporting conservation programmes financially and also through overt actions by
adopting conservation measures in their businesses ( location of facilities, design, water
and energy use, local employment, ecodevelopment inputs and so on)

If the above strategy sounds unachievable and too ambitious and risky, follow the one

B. Manage tiger reserves and other tiger bearing habitats like Zoos.

1. Fence off the tiger reserves and other tiger bearing habitats.
2. Ensure population management through management interventions - translocation of
surplus populations to depleted areas.
3. Ensure gene exchange through aerial corridors - exchange of males among parks.
4. Create and fence off new suitable areas for preservation of tiger.
5. Earn dollars from elite tourism

I am sure the second option will appeal to most, though; I would any day prefer the first.

Note : The views expressed above is solely of the author and not written in any official