Saving the Tiger

There is a saying, “when tigers disappear, forests will fall.”

Towards the end of the 19th century tiger hunters started realizing their guilt. New suggestions started pouring in and one was certain areas should be closed to sport while others should be thrown open so that the cat can get time to recover. Slowly a new branch also emerged where people started taking more interest in tiger’s natural history and behaviour. The notable names who gave away guns in favour of pen and camera include A.A. Dunbar Brander who was the member of the Forest Service in Central Provinces. He wrote in Wild Animals in Central India, “For about six years I practically ceased to shoot, and it is to this period that I am chiefly indebted; one can see so much more of a animal, and under such different circumstance, if one is not intent on killing it.”

F.W. Champion wrote in the introduction to The Jungle in Sunlight and Shadow (1933), “It has been written, also, in the hope that it may add a little to the accumulated knowledge of the intimate lives of some of the inhabitants of the jungle. And in the even greater hope that it may raise a deeper sympathy for wild creatures; that it may give some sportsmen cause to think twice before they pull the trigger on animals that, possibly, they often gain nothing by shooting; that it may remind others that life is the dearest possession of all the dwellers in the wild – a treasure of which they should not be deprived without very adequate reasons.” Champian, who was also a forest officer, but gave away gun for camera. He can be termed as the pioneer wildlife photographer in India. Besides the above book he also wrote With Camera in Tigerland (1927). There were other men too who also raised their voices in favour of conservation rather than killing wild animals.

In 1930 it was estimated that in India alone there were forty thousand tigers, and probably as many throughout the rest of the Asia. Now there are only 3200 tigers living in the wild throughout the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), against 1 lakh (a hundred thousand) a century ago.

E.P. Gee, a noted naturalist of these times, writes in his book The Wildlife of India (1964), ‘As I see it, there can be no doubt that at the present rate of cutting vegetation, overgrazing by domestic stock, and killing of wild animals in India, by the time public opinion can rally in support of wise conservation of wildlife, there will be practically nothing left to conserve. There will be very little wildlife left by the year A.D. 2000, only thirty-six years from now, except is zoological gardens.’

First Global alarm

Global alarm for the species was first sounded in 1969, and early in the 1980s it was estimated that some 8,000 striped cats remained in the wild. The Congress of IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) held in 1969 in New Delhi passed a resolution for the first time in favor of Bengal tiger and its name was added to the IUCN Red Data Book, which contains endangered species. In 1970, a national ban on tiger hunting was imposed in India. The Congress passed the resolution under the impression that the number of tigers have reduced to 2,500. Due to the special efforts of the then Prime Minister of India Mrs. Indira Gandhi legislation by the name Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 was passed by the Indian Parliament. Among other reforms, the Act established schedules of protected plant and animal species; hunting or harvesting of these species was largely outlawed.

An international conservationist, Guy Mountfort, at a joint meeting of IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), proposed an international effort to create effective and fully equipped reserves for the long-term survival of the tigers. His suggestions also included that all efforts and resources be focussed on tigers’ race that was still found in relatively large numbers, namely the Indian subspecies or the Bengal tiger. The resources required were some 400,000 pounds and the project was accepted and called ‘Operation Tiger’.

In 1972 itself H.R.H. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands who was also the President of the WWF launched appeal for the funds, which raised more than 800,000 pounds in just 18 months. To coordinate the action in India a special committee was constituted under the Chairmanship of Dr. Karan Singh. Governments of India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan contributed to the five year budget which was set aside for the first time.

Project Tiger

The first ever all-India tiger census was conducted in 1972 which revealed a shocking figure of only 1827 tigers in existence. The ‘Tiger Task Force’ selected nine areas to become special reserves, in different States representing various bio-geographical regions falling within Indian Union. During the period 1973-74, by pooling the resources available with the Central and State Governments. Reserves covered an area of about 13,017sq.km-viz Manas (Assam), Palamau (Bihar), Similipal (Orissa), Corbett (U.P.), Kanha (M.P.), Melghat (Maharashtra), Bandipur (Karnataka), Ranthambhore (Rajasthan) and Sunderbans (West Bengal).

The project started as a ‘Central Sector Scheme’ with the full assistance of Central Government till 1979-80: later, it become a ‘centrally Sponsored Scheme’ from 1980-81, with equal sharing of expenditure between the centre and the states. The W.W.F. gave an assistance of US $ 1 million in the form of equipments, expertise and literature. The various States are also bearing the loss on account of giving up the forestry operations in the reserves.

In 1973 ‘Project Tiger’ was inaugurated in the oldest National Park of Asia and India’s first Tiger Reserve the Jim Corbett National Park, which was in Uttar Pradesh at that time, now it is in the state of Uttrakhand. This project later proved to be one of our most successful conservation ventures in the recent times.

Its main objective is to ‘ensure a viable population of tiger in India for scientific, economic, aesthetic, cultural and ecological values and to preserve for all time, areas of biological importance as a natural heritage for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people. Main objectives under the scheme include wildlife management, protection measures and site specific eco-development to reduce the dependency of local communities on tiger reserve resources.’ At this time the global population of tigers was about 4,000.

The project strives to maintain a viable tiger population in the natural environment with a focus on ‘core-buffer’ strategy. The core areas were freed from all sorts of human activities and the buffer areas were subjected to ‘conservation oriented land use’. Management plans were drawn up for each tiger reserve, based on the principles outlined below:

Elimination of all forms of human exploitation, biotic disturbance from the core area and rationalization of activities in the buffer zone.

Restricting the habitat management only to repair the damages done to the eco-system by human and other interferences, so as to facilitate recovery of the eco-system to its natural state.

Monitoring the faunal and floral changes over time and carrying out research about wildlife.

The main achievements of this project are excellent recovery of the habitat and consequent increase in the tiger population in the reserve areas, from a mere 268 in 9 reserves in 1972 to 1576 in 27 reserves in 2003. Tiger, being at the apex of the food chain, can be considered as the indicator of the stability of the eco-system. For a viable tiger population, a habitat should possess a good prey base, which in turn will depend on undisturbed forest vegetation. Thus, ‘Project Tiger’, is basically the conservation of the entire eco-system and apart from tigers, all other wild animals also have increased in number in the project areas. In the subsequent ‘Five Year Plans’, the main thrust was to enlarge the core and buffer zones in certain reserves, intensification of protection and eco-development in the buffer zones of existing tiger reserves, creation of additional tiger reserves and strengthening of the research activities.

The management strategy was to identify the limiting factors and to mitigate them by suitable management. The damages done to the habitat were to be rectified, so as to facilitate the recovery of eco-system to the maximum possible extent. Management practices which tend to push the wildlife populations beyond the carrying capacity of the habitat were carefully avoided. A minimum core of 300 sq. km. with a sizable buffer was recommended for each project area. The overall administration of the project is monitored by a ‘Steering Committee’. The execution of the project is done by the respective State Governments. A ‘Field Director’ is appointed for each reserve, who is assisted by the field and technical personnel. The Chief Wildlife wardens in various States are responsible for the field execution. At the Center, a full-fledged ‘Director’ of the project coordinates the work for the country.

In 1982, there were eleven tiger reserves under the Project Tiger covering an area of 15,800 sq. Km, which constitutes 2.10% of the total forest area of India and only 0.49% of the country’s geographical area. There were in total 19 National Parks and 202 sanctuaries (including the 11 tiger reserves) covering an area of 75,763.23 sq. Km which in turn constitute 19% of the reserved forest area of the country and 2.3% of the total geographical area of India. An expert committee of the Government of India has recommended a minimum of 4 per cent of the country’s geographical are to be set apart for the National Parks and sanctuaries. In other words the existing areas must be almost doubled.

Even this miniscule target appears to be ambitious in the context of India’s present day population problems. In 1947, the year country became independent, population was around 330 million. Today (2011 census) population is 1.21 billion (1,210,000,000).

In 2008, there were more than 40 Project Tiger reserves covering an area over 37,761 km2 (14,580 sq mi). Project Tiger helped in increasing the population of tigers from 1,200 in the 1970s to 3,500 in 1990s in the country. In 1984 the official population was around 4,000, an in increase over the previous decade of 2,200. However, a 2008 census held by the Government of India revealed that the tiger population had dropped to 1,411. Since then the government has pledged US$153 million to further fund the project, set-up a Tiger Protection Force to combat poachers, and fund the relocation of up to 200,000 villagers to minimize human-tiger conflicts.

Tigers can be saved

According to Save the Tiger Fund, wild tiger numbers worldwide have slid from around 100,000 as recently as early 1900’s to as low as 3200 in 2010 (WWF). Extinction appears ominous for the Siberian tiger, which are thought to be around 500 at present, claimed to be the world’s largest cat. A 2009 report by the Siberian Tiger Monitoring Program, which was coordinated by the Wildlife Conservation Society in association with Russian government organizations amongst others, revealed that recent Siberian tiger numbers have plummeted by 41 per cent.

In late 2009, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin unveiled a one billion dollar effort to save the Siberian tiger. An international summit with the World Bank in Vladivostok, Russia, in September 2010 has set the goal of doubling wild tiger population worldwide to 6500 by 2022.

If given the chance, these beautiful cats can still be saved from becoming extinct as they breed like cats and can boost their numbers as quickly. Since their population crash is not a very old phenomenon, genetic diversity in the remaining tigers is still there and they can recover without falling into a downward spiral of inbreeding. Good thing about this magnificent cat is that it is not finicky to restrict itself to a particular diet, habitat or ecosystem like many other animals. Tigers tracks found in Bhutan above 13,000 feet, an altitude overlapping the habitat of snow leopard, while tigers in the saltwater mangrove swamps of Bangladeshi and Indian Sunderbans are powerful swimmers and have learned to supplement their diets with marine life. Besides, tigers also produce well if given a chance. An average tigress can rear some six to eight cubs over her 10-12 year lifespan—which helped a population like that at Huai Kha Khaeng in Thailand triple in 20 years.

Conservation Efforts

In India

The Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 empowers the government agencies to take strict measures to ensure the conservation of the Bengal tigers. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) estimates reveal that the number of tigers had fallen in the state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) by 61 per cent, Maharashtra by 57 per cent, and Rajasthan by 40 per cent. The government’s first tiger census, conducted under the Project Tiger initiative, begun in 1973 and counted 1,827 tigers in the country that year. Using that methodology, the government observed a steady population increase, reaching 3,700 tigers in 2002. However, the use of more reliable and independent censusing technology (including camera traps) for the 2007–2008 all-India census has shown that the numbers were in fact less than half than originally claimed by the Forest Department.

Tiger scientists in India, such as Ullas Karanth and Raghu Chundawat, have faced criticism from the forest department. Both have been for years demanding for use of technology in the conservation efforts. Chundawat, in the past, had been involved with radio telemetry (collaring the tigers). While studying the striped cat in Panna reserve, he over and over again warned the authorities about the problem of tiger poaching in the reserve, but the authorities remained in denial mode, producing bogus numbers of tigers in their reports, and banned Chundawat from the reserve. Ultimately, however, it was proven he was right. In 2008 it was officially admitted that all tigers in Panna have been poached. Karanth has been instrumental in using camera traps, radio telemetry and prey counts. During the 1990s and early 2000s he also noticed that the population of tigers were considerably lower than the official figures; his insistence on using modern science in tiger conservation and uncompromising efforts to save tigers and their habitat have earned him many enemies.

George Schaller wrote:

“India has to decide whether it wants to keep the tiger or not. It has to decide if it is worthwhile to keep its National Symbol, its icon, representing wildlife. It has to decide if it wants to keep its natural heritage for future generations, a heritage more important than the cultural one, whether we speak of its temples, the Taj Mahal, or others, because once destroyed it cannot be replaced.”

In January 2008, Indian Government launched a dedicated anti-poaching force composed of experts from Indian police, forest officials and various other environmental agencies. Officials successfully undertook a project to reintroduce the tigers into the Sariska reserve. The Ranthambore National Park is often cited as a major success by Indian officials against poaching.

In Bangladesh

Bangladesh Forest Department’s initiative – Sundarbans tiger project – started its field activities in February 2005. The idea to create this project was first developed during a field survey in 2001. The survey was conducted by Ishtiaq U. Ahmad, Md. Osman Gani, K. Ullas Karanth and James L. D. Smith. The team came to the conclusion that the Sundarbans mangrove forest at the mouth of the Ganges River holds probably one of the largest populations of wild tigers in the world. In the light of these facts an urgent need automatically arises to start measures that would ensure the protection of this precious area. The Save the Tiger Fund and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service generously donated funds to support the initial phase of research that aimed to collect data on tiger ecology using telemetry, and study the tiger’s environment by assessing its habitat and prey.

From research base, the project is developing rapidly to also include capacity building and conservation awareness activities. It has been able to do so through the forward thinking approach to management taken by the Forest Department, and the incredible support of the Bangladeshi people.

In Nepal

Government aims at doubling the country’s tiger population by 2022, and in May 2010, decided to establish Banke National Park with a protected area of 550 square kilometers (210 sq mi), which bears good potential for tiger habitat.

In captivity

Indian zoos are known to have bred tigers since 1880. The first such breeding took place at the Alipore Zoo in Kolkata (former Calcutta). The 1997 International Tiger Studbook lists the global captive population of Bengal tigers at 210 animals that are all kept in Indian zoos, except for one female in North America. The compilation of the Indian Bengal Tiger Studbook is an essential prerequisite to establishing a captive management program for tigers in India.

Fraud project

In 2000, the re-wilding project of Bengal tigers – Tiger Canyons – was initiated by John Varty, who jointly with the zoologist Dave Salmoni trains captive-bred tiger cubs how to stalk, hunt, associate hunting with food and regain their predatory instincts. It is claimed that once the animals prove that they can sustain in the wild, they would be released into the wilderness of South Africa to fend for themselves. Two tigers have already been re-wilded. This project claims to breed and re-wild only genetically pure tiger specimens.

A documentary on the project was featured by The Discovery Channel with the name Living With Tigers. Voted as one of the best Discovery Channel documentaries in 2003, the project has been proven to be a fraud in 2004. In fact these tigers are unable to hunt, and the film crew chased the prey up against the fence and into the path of the tigers just for the sake of dramatic footage. Cory Meacham, a US-based environmental journalist, mentioned that “the film has about as much to do with tiger conservation as a Disney cartoon.” In addition, the tigers have not been released, and indeed still reside in a small enclosure under constant watch and with frequent human contact. The Discovery documentary contains footage that its maker, John Varty, has admitted on an affidavit to be false.

Challenges

A UNESCO report of 2007 says, “Case Studies on Climate Change and World Heritage” has stated that an anthropogenic 45-cm rise in sea level, likely by the end of the 21st century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, combined with other forms of anthropogenic stress on the Sunderbans, could lead to the destruction of 75 per cent of the mangroves in Sundarbans.

India’s Forest Rights Act of 2006 grants some of the country’s most impoverished communities the right to own land and live in the forests. This brings the inhabitants directly into conflict with wildlife and under-resourced, under-trained, ill-equipped forest department staff.

According to a newspaper report an estimated 1,500 villages or 65,000 families or 325,000 people reside in just the 30-odd tiger reserves in India. A 1989 report estimates about three million (30 lakh) people live inside the 600-odd protected areas of the country.

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