Burning Issues

Tiger Debacle-Part I

Tiger Debacle-Part I

-Suhas Kumar



To all who matter

In a recent 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 newspapers 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 roots of the debacle of tiger conservation was sown long back when powers that be failed to 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 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 PAs have curtailed and banned 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 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, 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 industries.

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 buffers 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.

 -To be Contd


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