India’s tiger population rises, but shrinking forests raise chances of man-animal conflict manifold

Asghar Ali Khan was on edge; the adrenalin-fuelled amplification of the senses that happens in the presence of a tiger as described by the famed killer of man-eaters Jim Corbett. On 3 November, Khan was in an open-top Gypsy with staffers of the forest department, including one carrying a tranquiliser gun. He was armed with a .458 Winchester Magnum rifle, the WinMag that is the gold standard for taking down Africa’s ‘Big Three’— elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo.

Twenty metres away, and blocking their path, stood T1 (popularly known as Avni), the tigress credited with 13 human kills in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district. Khan says the tranquiliser expert fired a dart at the tigress. “And then she charged.”

n a blink, T1 had covered over half the distance to the bunch of puny humans in the car that she saw when Khan aimed his heavy rifle and fired, a chunk of lead travelling at well over 2,500 feet per second tearing into the tigress and killing her instantly.

But Khan didn’t just kill a man-eating tiger. The lethal shot raised the central question about India’s tiger conservation efforts, and whether the country is faltering in the face of a raging man-animal conflict debate.

In the past, the criticism was largely targeted at the dwindling tiger population, but the discourse has turned to a problem of plenty since 2014.

Has Project Tiger hit a roadblock because of the animal’s soaring population? Statistics bear out a complex ecological challenge.

In 2014, the National Tiger Conservation Authority released its report on Status of Tigers, pegging India’s tiger population at 2,226. The impressive figure called for celebrations as less than 10 years ago, in 2006, the count stood at a precarious 1,411, with tiger population wiped out in established reserves like Sariska in Rajasthan. It was a wake-up call, one which the government more than heeded to, putting in motion a raft of policy decisions that led to the population bulge.

“Remarkable improvements were achieved because of milestone interventions. From amending the Wildlife Protection Act to making the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) a statutory body to bringing in more scientific methods of tracking the animal’s population, a lot of planning and execution went into the exercise,” says Rajesh Gopal, ex-member secretary, NTCA.

In March, the minister of state for environment, Mahesh Sharma, told Lok Sabha that India lost 122 and 115 tigers in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The death of 23 percent of the animals was due to poaching, 55 percent because of natural causes and another 7 percent died of unnatural causes that can’t just be attributed to poaching. The death of T1 would fall in the last category.

According to a 2018 report in Mint, 47 percent of the total tiger deaths last year occurred outside of tiger reserves, where almost 40 percent of India’s tiger population is believed to be living.

“Dispersal is an ecological need of the species. Hence, the challenge is to maintain the population,” says K Ramesh, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India.

Often, tigers move hundreds of kilometres in their bid to mark out territories, leading to an inevitable man-animal conflict as the animals stray into agricultural tracts of land and human habitation.

The acute shortage of base prey is a serious cause for concern in India’s forests, which often prompts tigers to prey upon domestic animals. “For poor farmers, livestock being the key to their survival, many try to fend off attacks from tigers and sometimes lose their own lives in the process,” says Anish Andheria, president, of the Mumbai-based Wildlife Conservation Trust. And in some cases, though rare, attacks on humans can turn fatal, branding a tiger the dreaded “man-eater” as was with T1.

According to an Indian Express report in October, 10 man-eating tigers have been killed in India since 2012, while five were successfully tranquilised and re-located as per NTCA guidelines.

“We need to work closely with farmers and local population in a bid to ensure that such incidents can be avoided. Villagers’ support is paramount to save tigers that stray into human habitat,” says Andheria.

Presently, most tiger corridors can at best be described as functional, or degraded, say wildlife experts.

In the majority of the 50 tiger reserves in India, villages in the buffer zone are the most vulnerable to the increasing man-animal conflict. Though the NTCA has a scheme, which funds the relocation of buffer zone villages, the success rate has been mixed.

“In Maharashtra, the Shyamaprasad Mukherjee Jan Vikas Scheme is helping relocate villages, situated in tiger corridors, since 2015,” says Kishor Rithe of Satpuda Foundation.

The scheme aims to reduce the villagers’ over-dependence on forests for grazing of livestock, collecting firewood and relieving themselves on the lap of nature, which brings them in direct conflict with tigers.

“So far, the scheme has only covered about 200 of the 1,000 villages located in the tiger corridor,” says Rithe, who gave up his cushy job as a lecturer in an engineering college to work full-time on wildlife conservation.

Re-location schemes have their fair share of troubles because of the demarcation of tiger reserves that are split into core and buffer zones.

Though the core area is meant to be free of any human habitation for easy movement of wild animals, the reality, often, is in stark contrast.

In wildlife reserves across India — be it Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand or even Sariska — villagers have refused to budge an inch, despite re-location scheme’s generous incentive of Rs 10 lakh for each displaced family.

“We shouldn’t touch these areas, but aspirations are often at odds with wildlife needs. Villagers want electricity and road connectivity, and poachers are cashing in on the locals’ demands by electrocuting tigers,” says Titu Joseph, programme coordinator, Wildlife Protection Society of India.

But, perhaps, the biggest threat to India’s growing tiger population comes from the country’s aggressive economic agenda, where mega infrastructure projects are trumping conservation.

“Typically, the core ‘inviolate’ areas in most tiger reserves is 300-400 kilometres at best, and even these reserves are heavily stressed, being fragmented and cleared by infrastructure projects like dams and highways,” says Prerna Singh Bindra, wildlife activist and author.

Bindra, specifically, refers to the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project, a first-of-its-kind in India, which will submerge a large part of the Panna tiger reserve in northern Madhya Pradesh.

Similarly, central India, one of the lushest habitats for tigers, is grappling with wanton highway construction and allied infrastructure push at the expense of further whittling down of the 700,000-odd square kilometres of forest cover.

“Wildlife must find a pride of place in our development agenda. Tigers will move, and, if confined to a small area, they will go extinct sooner than expected. The biggest challenge to tiger conservation is encroachment upon their habitat,” says Bindra.

In the past, political will has led to wildlife-friendly policies, including the drafting of a slew of effective laws, but now there appears to be a concerted bid to dilute these stringent norms in the name of economic development.

Worse, a face-off between pro-industry and conservationist lobby is being increasingly spun around as a deterrent to economic growth.

Gopal puts the raging debate in perspective as he believes the growing tiger population isn’t a drag on development.

“A strategy needs to evolve, which can strike a happy balance,” he says.

Fortunately, India is one of the richest countries in the world as far as biodiversity is concerned. Though the country has only 2.4 percent of the world’s geographical area, it is home to 7.5 percent of its animals, who are living cheek-by-jowl with 17 percent of the global population.

Minimising man-animal conflict and living up to lofty conservation goals is no easy task for a developing country like India. While the increase in tiger numbers is always a cause to celebrate, it cannot lead to complacency or a partial downgrading of our conservation priorities, otherwise, there will be yet another Khan getting ready to take an aim at another T1.

T1’s death at the altar of development must herald a new dawn for India’s tiger conservation outreach.

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