January 9, 2022
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
One hundred and twenty six tigers died in India in 2021, the most since the National Tiger Conservation Authority, or NTCA, began compiling data a decade ago. The previous highest number of deaths was in 2016 when 121 died. The NTCA says the maximum number of deaths took place in Madhya Pradesh which recorded 44, followed by 26 in Maharashtra and 14 in Karnataka. Experts fear that even these numbers are under-reported because deaths deep inside forests often go unnoticed. This is a catastrophic decline caused by diverse threats, ranging from poaching to habitat loss and overhunting of the tiger’s prey species by local populations. And, yes, the COVID-19 pandemic had something to do with the last reason.
India is home to 75% of the world’s tigers. It is said that India had 40,000 tigers at the time of Independence but hunting and habitat loss ground down the population to alarmingly low levels. The tiger is on the list of endangered animals, called the Red List of Threatened Species, compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Over the decades, there has been great concern about the tiger’s future and, in 2010, India and 12 other countries signed an agreement to double tiger numbers by this year. There was great joy last year when the government announced it had reached the target ahead of schedule, with an estimated 2,967 tigers in 2018 versus a low of 1,411 in 2006. But the fact is we still have fewer tigers today than we did in 2002, when they numbered around 3,700. But that didn’t stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi from hailing the rise in numbers as a “historic” achievement.
The story of tiger conservation in India has been one of good intentions but chequered progress because of the ground realities.
In 1973, the Union Government launched Project Tiger, which was said to be the largest species conservation initiative of its kind. In 2006, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, was amended to set up the NTCA and strengthen anti-poaching measures and provide states with the funds needed for that. Accordingly, 19 states have received the funds and India is now home to 51 tiger reserves that account for 2.4% of the country’s landmass.
Yet, we haven’t got to where we should be on the tiger conservation front. While the NTCA cites natural causes as the leading reason for death over the past decade, poaching and man-animal conflict have been serious concerns.
It’s not surprising that in a country of 1.3 billion people, encroachment of tiger habitats is on the rise. As if that wasn’t tragic enough, this encroachment is at least partly responsible for 225 people dying in tiger attacks between 2014 and 2019, according to government figures.
I had mentioned earlier that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a rise in the hunting of animals by local populations. This is because livelihoods disappeared overnight when the lockdown was imposed, and villagers close to tiger forests resorted to hunting animals like deer that the tiger preys on. As prey numbers receded, the tiger was impacted.
The other problem that isn’t talked about a lot is the fragmentation of the tiger’s habitat. What that means is that, because the reserves are not necessarily interlinked, the tigers are not able to migrate from forest to forest, which they need to because they range over large areas. This means that they land up crossing human habitations a lot, increasing man-animal friction.
While this conflict plays itself out, the Union Government has taken the teeth out of many environmental regulations to allow mining in forests. This not only leads to huge pollution and loss of forest cover, animals like tigers pay a huge price for it.
On its part, the government has responded to macro issues with micro steps. For instance, it reintroduced tigers to the Panna and Sariska reserves where they had become locally extinct but has achieved very little on complex problems like man-animal conflict. There is an urgent need to create corridors for the tiger’s travel that balance the fragmentation of its habitat and to undo the shrinking of the spaces it lives in. Lastly, you can’t talk about saving the tiger while allowing rapacious, destructive mining and industrial projects in its home.
I’m not trying to say that India has done nothing for the tiger. However, unless we tackle the big issues, we won’t be able to achieve the significant gains we are aiming for in the long run.
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