Project Tiger – a conservation programme for tigers launched by the Government of India on April 1, 1973 – turned 50 this year. This coincides with a substantial jump in India’s big cat numbers in the 2022 tiger census — 3,167, against 2,967 in 2018. The efforts are laudable, and so are the statistics for revamping the process of ground-based surveys and images from camera traps since 2006. But do these numbers augur well for successful natural conservation efforts, and if they do, is preservation increasingly becoming a numbers game?

For a sustained tiger population, there is a need to examine whether prospects of supporting tigers in areas where wild prey occurs in low numbers are diminishing by habitat fragmentation or exacerbated human-wildlife conflict. Reports in the past point out at the shrinking spaces for wildlife and reveal that the insatiable hunger for numbers cannot denote the measure of success in conservation.

The big cat is not only a conservation icon but also acts as an umbrella species for the majority of ecoregions in the Indian subcontinent. Experts feel the increase in tiger populations in some areas is in part because of laws, political and monetary support for tiger conservation from bygone decades.

“The measures are bearing fruit in some areas, manifesting as population recovery. We will continue to see recovery in some areas as long as the country stays committed to sustaining tiger populations,” says Dr Pranav Chanchani, national lead for tiger conservation at WWF-India.

Watching tigers for 48 years, naturalist, conservationist and writer Valmik Thapar, however, rues that despite Project Tiger, there are only 2,500-3,000 tigers even when the country’s population is touching nearly 1.4 billion people. “When Project Tiger started in 1973, we had nine tiger reserves. Today, we have 53. The credit of this has been taken by ‘innovative’ chief ministers, ‘insightful’ government servants, ‘good’ forest officers, and most importantly independent experts, scientists and so many nameless locals that made a difference… But the most vital players were the thousands of forest guards that protect these wild frontiers and the dozens that sacrificed their lives to defend them against armed poaching and wood smuggling gangs. They are the true heroes of 50 years of Project Tiger,” says Thapar, who has also written 40 books on tigers and wildlife.

The numbers game

According to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), India is home to over 70% of the world’s tigers. Since 2006, every passing census shows a steady increase in tiger population — 1,411 (2006), 1,706 (2010), 2,226 (2014), 2,967(2018), and 3,167 as of 2022. Take for instance, the substantial rise in tiger population in Shivalik and Gangetic floodplains with a total of 804 tigers, higher than the estimated population of 646 in 2018, indicating free movement of tigers populating newer habitats.

But tiger numbers have shrunk in the Western Ghats due to “the rise in development work — leading to an increasing overlap between wildlife and humans,” stated the ‘Status of Tigers 2022’ report.

Today, apart from India, Nepal, Bhutan and Russia have shown a rise in tiger numbers among tiger range countries (places where tigers roam freely), while Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Vietnam have lost all their tigers from the wild. Though the rise in numbers is a success story, it has triggered concerns over lack of genetic diversity. Chanchani feels the country’s most significant populations have persisted in landscapes with good structural and functional connectivity, but in areas where connectivity has been eroded, populations have declined or have lost genetic vigour. “There are now a few examples of ‘green infrastructure’ in the form of overpasses in corridors that have helped reduce the impacts of fragmentation, but given India’s

ambitious development agenda, much more needs to be done. Tigers have been reintroduced to a few areas in recent years with varying success. Translocation programmes have led to a slower growth of populations or even failed in other areas,” he adds. In 2021, two tigers from Corbett Tiger Reserve were relocated to Rajaji Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand, whereas another tiger and tigress were reintroduced in the Madhav National Park in Madhya Pradesh’s Shivpuri district in March this year. Tigress T-1, the first big cat shifted to Madhya Pradesh’s Panna Tiger Reserve under a reintroduction project almost 14 years ago and who had given birth to 13 cubs in her lifetime, died early this year. Expanding these efforts, India also signed an MoU with Cambodia in 2022 to assist it with technical details and knowledge regarding reintroduction of tigers after they went extinct in Cambodia due to habitat destruction and poaching. The government will send tigers after addressing reasons for tiger disappearance in Cambodia and if the country has necessary infrastructure to support the animal.

“We need to aim at a viable and sustainable tiger population in the country based on scientifically calculated carrying capacity. To sustain a viable population, we need to bring all potential habitat under Project Tiger coverage, create more inviolate space and garner community support for tiger conservation by ensuring direct and substantial benefits to them,” says SP Yadav, additional director general of forests (Project Tiger) and member secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). 

Conservationists often give the example of tiger Raja, who was shifted to a rescue centre in Jaldapara, north Bengal, 14 years ago after surviving a crocodile attack in the Sunderbans. He passed away last year at the age of 25. Such rescue centres protect tigers in a combination of management efforts through critical corridors.

The productivity of habitats for tiger prey (deer, pigs), etc, determine how many tigers an area can support. A great example is of Dudhwa National Park and Corbett National Park in the Terai. Corbett Tiger Reserve is not larger than Dudhwa Tiger reserve, but has more than two times the number of tigers — likely because of better habitat connectivity and significantly higher herbivore  densities, which may be an outcome of past and current management, and of habitat heterogeneity.

Chanchani feels, “Tigers habitats in India and beyond can only support as many tigers as there is prey for, assuming that there is also adequate protection for the species, and suitable cover to raise cubs. If numbers increase in some areas, it indicates adequate numbers of prey. In other areas, like Buxa Tiger Reserve in WB and Anamalai Tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu, for example, tiger population recovery will be dependent on the recovery of herbivore populations. Some of the highest densities of tigers are found in the areas where there are also high human densities and thus a danger of conflict.

In Sariska in Rajasthan, and Panna in MP, tiger reintroduction and translocation have become a regular practice. “Tigers from high density areas are being translocated to low density areas as and when required. Such translocations have been successfully done in Rajaji Tiger Reserve, Satpura Tiger Reserve, Ramgarh Vishdhari and Mukundara Tiger Reserve. Many such translocations are planned based on the population dynamics and habitat suitability,” adds Yadav. The focus till now has been on the landscape approach with priority on ‘core-buffer-corridor’ (areas to protect sensitive landscape patches from negative external pressures) strategy with aggressively pursuing protection agenda of the natural tiger habitat.

India is the largest tiger range country with 70% of the global tiger population. And, 30% of India’s tiger population (around 1,000 tigers) resides outside tiger reserves. The number of tiger reserves has increased from nine in 1973 to 53 in 2022. “While the numbers are promising enough to showcase successful conservation efforts, the future of tigers now depends on habitat connectivity and prey base,” says author, artist and wildlife conservationist Ananda Banerjee. Banerjee cites examples of areas like Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar’s West Champaran region, Orang National Park in Assam, or Bor tiger reserve, Maharashtra, where incidents of tigers moving in and out to surrounding human habitation are an everyday affair.

As tiger numbers go up, some of the younger generation looking for their territories will step out of protected areas into an area of uncertainty.

Is relocating or reintroducing tigers a good idea? Thapar is against this and says, “We have to find ways to build corridors between tiger habitats and rewild areas adjacent to the 53 tiger reserves as this will increase numbers and keep a healthy population.” 

In fact, tiger conservation has led to the conservation of other animals. “Tigers are at the top of the food chain and co-exist with many other species, regulate the population of wild ungulates and maintain a good balance between herbivorous prey and the plants they eat. A decline in the tiger population would lead to an increase in the number of herbivores in the ecosystem, which could be a potential cause of forest disintegration. It would also be the precursor to the fall of an entire ecosystem,” says Pradip Shah, co-founder, director of social enterprise,

What can be done?

Some activation points to protect tiger populations are to plant trees and restore forests in and around popular tiger habitats. All plantation projects generate employment for local and tribal populations, and in turn educate the population about the importance of planting trees for tigers and other wildlife and discourage them from poaching by providing them with a steady source of income from the forest produce.

Also, the tiger population faces a threat from urbanisation and the fragmentation of wildlife corridors, climate change and illegal wildlife trade, which have proved to be a major threat to their survival. Even without mitigation efforts, it is estimated that a projected sea-level rise—about a foot by 2070—could destroy nearly the entire Sundarbans tiger

habitat. However, with the adoption of an inclusive approach and engaging the local communities with conservation, the government forest services must find and work with new partners and decision makers. 

“Our track record in wildlife conservation is questionable because we are unable to engage independent experts and local communities in any decision-making process. The bureaucracies that govern lack field knowledge and seldom accept good advice. The numbers of tigers do not indicate success. In the last five years, the tiger population has only gone up by 200 tigers to just below 3,200 tigers. That is barely 44 tigers a year. In 1989, the number of tigers was nearly 4,000. The numbers swing up and down depending on the crisis in hand. Our focus must be on protecting and increasing tiger habitat,” says Thapar, who suggests the field directors of tiger reserves must have within their field teams independent experts of that region that are contracted to work in different areas like man-animal conflict, wildlife science and anti-poaching.

India’s laws for wildlife conservation, including the Wildlife Protection Act, provide the bedrock for the species conservation. It is important that their sanctity be maintained. In terms of other policies — such as provisions of the Forest Rights Act 2006, which grant eligible forest dwelling people tenure over forests, including in tiger habitats — more needs to be done to implement the laws. “India lacks land use planning policy that can help protect vital tracts of tiger habitat and essential corridors from fragmentation and degradation,” adds Chanchani.

Independent experts can strengthen field management and create efficient field functioning between forest officers, independent experts and locals at the same time village wildlife volunteers need to be engaged all around the periphery of tiger reserves for better protection and monitoring. “We must create new land banks to encourage wildlife. These new rewilded lands will be after a dialogue with village panchayats, village land holders and any other government department that might own land. These adjacent areas could become hubs for engaging wildlife tourism and bird watching. Both will generate revenues for the local communities,” adds Thapar.

Conservation of other species challenging too

Today, wildlife is facing threats like effects of climate change, loss of habitat from deforestation, illegal wildlife trade, and animal cruelty, besides human-animal conflict, a complex issue arising due to the increasing competition for resources between humans and wildlife, resulting in damage to crops, livestock and property as well as threat to human life. Even India’s species-specific conservation projects such as Project Elephant, Project Lion, Project Dolphin, Project Snow Leopard, Indian Rhino Vision 2020, Project Hangul, Crocodile Conservation Initiative, etc, have been aimed at conserving fast depleting species. However, there is a need for convergence between governments to protect wildlife and implement an actionable and progressive framework with authorities.

VR Tiwari, an Indian Forest Service officer and director of the Wildlife Institute of India, suggests some key areas where improvements can be made to improve the existing policies. “To strengthen enforcement, research and monitoring, enhance collaboration, address human-wildlife conflict, address climate change and involve public participation,” he adds.

A sustainable animal growth is possible even in the face of human-wildlife conflict if we enhance co-existence by mitigating conflict and find balance between the needs of humans and wildlife and work towards coexistence rather than conflict, says Tiwari. 

India is home to over 27,000 Asian elephants, which is the world’s largest population of this rare species. Studies on conflict between elephants and humans in Asia have identified crop raiding as a conflict constantly rising and taking a toll on human lives, property, as well as elephant populations. 

Data from the ministry of environment, forest & climate change indicates that between 2014-15 and 2018-19, 2,361 humans were killed as a result of conflict with elephants, while 510 elephants were killed in incidents of electrocution, train accidents, poaching and poisoning during the same period. Elephant deaths due to electrocution between 2012-13 and 2022-23 show Assam at 120, Odisha at 106 and Tamil Nadu at 89. “At least 630 elephants were electrocuted between 2012 and 2022. Elephants are giant nomads and pollinators, and they travel the ancient routes handed down through generations. They can’t be boxed in national parks or wildlife sanctuaries. Unfortunately, these migratory routes are now fragmented with human habitation and infrastructure, thus forest connectivity is critical to conserve wild spaces which are shrinking every day due to our demands,” says Banerjee.  Most areas that form elephant habitat are close to or adjoining human settlement, and there is often conflict between animals migrating or foraging for food, and local people. The conflict is evident from elephants being killed in accidents on railway tracks, besides being killed by humans for reasons other than ivory and habitat degradation. For instance, Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand has linear infrastructure projects in the congested corridor between its western and eastern areas that has left the area functionally unviable for large carnivores and elephant movement. Adoption of green infrastructure is needed to recover the population. 

However, India has shown commitment in conservation efforts by the first cross-continental reintroduction of a species — the cheetah after 75 years— which was declared extinct in India in 1952. Eight cheetahs from Namibia and 12 from South Africa have been transported to Kuno National Park between September 2022 and February 2023 to expand the cheetah population following their local extinction due to over-hunting and loss of habitat. Kuno has a suitable habitat, inviolate space and adequate prey base. The project has an estimated 

budget of `39 crore for a period of five years. However, three of these animals have died so far. 

Gir is an exclusively managed lion habitat. The Gujarat government has proposed a second home for Asiatic lions in Barda Wildlife Sanctuary, Gujarat about 100 km away from Gir National Park. 

This new area would protect the lions from diseases due to the exceeding population in Gir.

Project Dolphin works in close tandem with several ministries and departments, such as Jal Shakti, shipping, agriculture, fisheries, power and rural development, besides state governments to conserve dolphin numbers. An environment ministry report suggests over 3,700 Ganges River Dolphins in Indian rivers, of which 962 are in Assam and 1,275 in Uttar Pradesh.

Effective awareness building programmes and alternative livelihood opportunities for local communities is needed for landscape-level animal conservation planning. “We need to address the issue of hunting by employing local communities in the management of protected areas and buffer zones and enhancing the technical capacity of protected area workers. Protected areas require continuous monitoring not to exceed their carrying capacity, as eventually it forces the wild animals to disperse to other places (including human habitats) in search of suitable less crowded habitat,” says Dr Reena Singh, senior fellow, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).

So, what makes a reserve a good animal habitat in India? Singh shares higher protection, better management, and existence of anthropogenically undisturbed habitats along with adequate budgetary allocations have resulted in many habitats to have good animal populations. “Project Tiger in the 1970s and Project Elephant in 1992 — both with flagship species — attracted global attention. These schemes are continuing even today and received a budget allocation of `332 crore in 2023-24. Today, a chain of 41 tiger reserves and 28 elephant reserves reinforce the endeavours of the Centre,” she says.

But do we lack good animal conservation policies in India? Despite numerous laws, regulations, and activities related to animal conservation, there is a growing demand to release some protected areas for roads, railways, mines, and industrial projects. Local opposition has been sparked by constraints on people’s rights imposed by conservation laws and practices. Additionally, variations in climatic factors, such as rainfall and temperature, may affect animals and their behaviour. “The forester or animal ecologist can no longer exercise control over how animal conservation operates in the 21st century. To gain a deeper knowledge of how India may redesign its animal conservation strategy plan, fields like environmental economics, political science, anthropology and sociology, as well as ethics and philosophy, must be incorporated in the system,” adds Singh.

While the numbers are promising enough to showcase successful conservation efforts, the future of tigers now depends on habitat connectivity and prey base” 

— Ananda Banerjee, author & wildlife conservationist

The numbers of tigers do not indicate success. In the past five years, the tiger population has only gone up by 200 tigers to just below 3,200 tigers. That is barely 44 tigers a year”

— Valmik Thapar , naturalist, conservationist and writer 

To sustain a viable population, we need to bring all potential habitat under Project Tiger, create more inviolate space and garner community support by ensuring them benefits” 

— S P Yadav, additional director general of forests (Project Tiger) & member secretary,  NTCA

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