“It is like a big safari park,” a Russian scientist working on Siberian tigers whispered conspiratorially to us after his first visit to Ranthambore National Park in 1996. From his point of view, the Russian far-east was “real” wilderness. To him, all of our National Parks and Tiger Reserves were little more than glorified zoos or safari parks. But is this necessarily the reality of conservation in a country with 1.4 billion people? A country that still boasts of having a remarkable conservation history, with robust populations of large carnivores such as tigers and leopards, the only populations of Asiatic lion and greater one-horned rhinoceros, and the largest population of Asian elephants.
Much of the success of wildlife conservation in India has been attributed to the Wild Life (Protection) Act (WLPA), enacted 50 years ago by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to arrest the alarming decline of wildlife across the country. But as we celebrate 50 years of the Act, and of the marquee Project Tiger that helped bring back our national animal from the brink of extinction, we also need to reflect on what needs to change in conservation practice in India, so that we can preserve these wins and also plan ahead for the challenges in the next 50 years.
The tiger number released on April 11, 2023, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the minimum estimate based on the tigers photographed during the survey. The final estimates will come in the next few months; authorities have indicated a 6% annual growth rate, so the expected number would be approximately 25-30% above the previous 2018-2019 estimate of 2,967 tigers.
Fifty years ago, India’s alarming revelation that tiger numbers had dropped below 3,000 shocked the world. India reacted by banning hunting and drafting one of the world’s strongest legal frameworks to protect its natural heritage. Fifty years later, more or less the same number is now met with celebration.
In science, a syndrome of shifting baselines is known as “conservation amnesia”. The new generation of wildlife managers mention only the figure of 1,400+ estimated in 2006 and so they were able to claim and celebrate the doubling of the tiger population in 2019. From the longer perspective of looking at 50 years of tiger conservation under Project Tiger, we have held onto the population but despite strong political support, funds, and the legal framework provided, the numbers do not reflect a great success.
Then again, just numbers do not paint the full picture. Many scientists, while not impressed by the figures, were happy that Project Tiger was able to hold on to tiger populations in most of the geographical regions where they existed at its inception. However, in the 2023 preliminary report, for the first time, we find that this hold is slipping away. We are now losing tigers from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and the Eastern ghats and from the Northeastern forests. With it, we lose genetic diversity unique to these geographical regions, dashing hopes of maintaining long-term population viability and natural recovery.
A tool that is increasingly being used is to reintroduce tigers from central Indian forests, where the populations are thriving, as was done for the Panna and the Sariska Tiger Reserves. However, if this is done too often, re-introduction will homogenise tiger genetic structure across the country. This needs to be looked at more seriously, and future reintroductions need to be planned in a way that can maintain as much of that genetic diversity as possible.
An umbrella that shades too much
The tiger was considered an “umbrella species”. Saving the tiger meant saving the entire ecosystem. Tigers in India occur in a wide range of habitat types, from the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats to the terai grasslands of the Himalayan foothills, and from the tropical dry forests of Rajasthan to the mangroves of the Sundarbans. Given the inherent differences in such habitat types, it is inevitable that not all of them will support similar densities of tigers.
Habitats that boast the highest tiger numbers are typically those with a high prey abundance. However, the idea was to save species across all the ecosystems using the tiger as an ‘umbrella’ to protect natural forests, sustain our rivers and keep our air clean. But in the absence of proper scientific oversight, the focus stayed on boosting tiger numbers rather than their habitat and concomitant species.
The most common interventions were to manipulate ecosystems so that they could support high densities of the tiger’s principal prey species. In most cases, this involved improving habitat for cheetal, a mixed feeder that thrives in the “ecotone” between forests and grasslands. It also required provisioning water. This has resulted in the “cheetalification” of tiger reserves.
For example, in the Kanha Tiger Reserve, the explosion in the cheetal population resulted in the habitat becoming unsuitable for the endangered hard ground barasingha, which depends on tall grass. Managers then had to create exclosures free of cheetal so that the barasingha could reproduce, and their numbers recover.
In other parks, the excessive provisioning of water during the dry season tends to reduce natural, climate driven variations in populations of wildlife. This is likely to have unknown and unintended consequences for these habitats in the long-term.
Conservation in India depends entirely on a network of Protected Areas (PAs). This is an exclusive conservation model and suffers from a “sarkaar” complex. This is ironic because the innate tolerance of Indians for wildlife is generally credited with the success of conservation. However, ordinary Indians, especially those who live closest to wildlife, and who often pay the price for it, have very little say in conservation.
The WLPA is a restrictive law. It describes in great detail what you can’t do. However, the law and associated policies have done very little to enable conservation. That is, there is no policy framework and incentive for ordinary citizens to aid in conservation – be it for tigers or for any other species. As a result, conservation has not reached beyond these PAs.
In other countries, natural lands are owned or managed by individuals, communities, farmers, ranchers, corporates, charities, and the government. Each one of them is incentivised to conserve these lands according to their interests. As a result, several conservation models operate simultaneously. But in India, all natural habitats are managed by one agency and therefore the approach to conservation is singular, and exclusive.
We need to have frameworks that allow local communities, citizens, scientists, non-governmental organisations, and businesses to participate meaningfully in conservation. For example, large tracts of forest land are “Reserved Forests” under the jurisdiction of the “territorial” wing of State Forest Departments. Such areas can be co-managed with an approach that is inclusive and provides economic benefits for local communities.
Indeed, in many landscapes, degraded agricultural lands adjoining these forest areas can be restored to enhance connectivity between PAs, and further afield forest patches can act as “stepping stone” reserves for tiger and other large mammal movement in our increasingly human-modified environment.
We are now in the fifth four-year cycle of tiger-population monitoring. Yet we lack a vision document that examines these figures critically and provides a way forward for the next 20 years. We are in a race against time to prevent further fragmentation and degradation of existing natural habitats. Only by extending the reach of conservation beyond our present PA system and empowering local communities and ordinary citizens to meaningfully participate in conservation can we hope to achieve an actual doubling of tigers and other embattled wildlife.
Abi T. Vanak is Director, Centre for Policy Design, ATREE, Bengaluru. Raghu Chundawat and Joanna Van Gruisen are with Baavan – Bagh Aap Aur VAN, Madhya Pradesh.
- As we celebrate 50 years of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, and of the marquee Project Tiger that helped bring back our national animal from the brink of extinction, we also need to reflect on what needs to change in conservation practice in India, so that we can preserve these wins and also plan ahead for the challenges in the next 50 years.
- The tiger number released on April 11, 2023, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the minimum estimate based on the tigers photographed during the survey. The final estimates will come in the next few months; authorities have indicated a 6% annual growth rate, so the expected number would be approximately 25-30% above the previous 2018-2019 estimate of 2,967 tigers.
- Fifty years ago, India’s alarming revelation that tiger numbers had dropped below 3,000 shocked the world. India reacted by banning hunting and drafting one of the world’s strongest legal frameworks to protect its natural heritage. Fifty years later, more or less the same number is now met with celebration.