Necessary intervention: On India’s conservation ethos

Improving the habitat that sustains tigers is key to increasing their numbers 

Updated - August 11, 2023 12:25 am IST

Published - August 11, 2023 12:10 am IST

The Wildlife Institute of India and the National Tiger Conservation Authority, who are responsible for the quadrennial ‘tiger census’ reports, recently updated their estimates for the animal’s numbers. Madhya Pradesh, for the second time in eight years, reported 785 tigers, or about a fifth of the national count. The State reported a 50% rise in tigers since the last census, a figure bettered only by Bihar which has less than 10% of M.P.’s tigers. While many factors contribute to the dynamics of the tigers present in a region, M.P. over the years has perfected the approach of actively moving both tigers, as well as their prey, within the State to balance predator and prey population.

In the last two decades, M.P. has reintroduced species such as barasingha (swamp deer) to new habitats such as Satpuda and Bandhavgarh, and the gaur to the Bandhavgarh and Sanjay-Dubri tiger reserves. Prey species such as chital (spotted deer) have been successfully supplemented in the Satpuda and Sanjay tiger reserves, Nauradehi, Kuno, and Gandhisagar wildlife sanctuaries through translocation from high-density Pench and Bandhavgarh. These often involve tracking, darting and capturing animals, keeping them in temporary enclosures until they reach sufficient numbers and then releasing them into their new habitat. Principles of ecology however insist that such relocation only be done within landscapes that are not too alien to the species, lest it be counter productive. However, recent amendments to the Forest Conservation Act give more leeway for large parcels of forest land to be diverted for industrial concerns. These would mean greater fragmentation within reserves and more dependence on the practice of moving prey around to maintain carnivore numbers. This approach, however, increasingly poses a conundrum to India’s philosophy of conservation, which is to avoid creating fenced, segregated spaces and confine species to admittedly large but bounded tracts. India’s conservation ethos, right from the conception of Project Tiger, was to restore the beast’s numbers in a way that it could co-exist with humans. With the government finding it harder to maintain connected forest landscapes and ensure man and beast stay within their confines, expecting nature alone to restore the predator-prey balance is a fantasy. It is time that more States implemented active prey management policies. This will require drawing on scientific expertise and also support from people living in the vicinity of reserves. More importantly, this should prompt a move away from the approach of focusing on carnivore numbers to evaluating whether the habitat necessary to sustain these animals is being consistently improved.

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