International Tiger Day: Human animal conflict could derail Indian success story

India stares at declining habitats amidst rising tiger population

Environment

July 29, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

International Tiger Day: Human animal conflict could derail Indian success story

Mitigation of human-tiger conflict at the root of tiger conservation (MIG Photos)

Ever since the launch of Project Tiger in 1970s, India has spectacularly succeeded in bringing its national animal back from the brink and today it can boast of being home to 70 pc of world’s tigers living in the wild. But rampant destruction of protected forests, often in name of development, poses twin challenge of human animal conflict as tigers seek to reclaim their lands.

On the occasion of International Tiger Day, India certainly has a fair bit to celebrate. It has reported a consistent rise in the number of tigers in its 50 tiger reserves, which numbered 2967 in the last census conducted in 2018. Not just the tiger numbers, but the government has also claimed a significant rise in their habitats. When Project Tiger was launched in 1973, there were a total of nine tiger reserves spanning 18,278 sq km, which has now increased to 50 tiger reserves approximately 72,749 sq km.

Unfortunately, for India and its tigers, the silver cloud has a few very dark linings. Despite almost half a century of efforts by the government as well as conservationists, tigers in India continue to face several existential challenges, with the two biggest being rampant destruction of their natural habitat, including protected tiger reserves, under the pretext of development and poaching, which has continued despite increased patrolling by well-equipped forest rangers.

According to poachingfacts.com, a non-profit group based in the United States, poaching of tigers has continued to be relatively high in India over the past few years, with anywhere upto 38 tigers being slaughtered annually by poachers who are normally part of international smuggling rackets that operate the illegal trade of tiger parts.

Poaching has been so serious in India that it has led to extinction of three of the eight sub-species of tigers. Armed with light rifles or cheap tranquilisers, poachers have, often under the very nose of the authorities, succeeded in procuring the skin of these magnificent creatures, shedding light on the shortcomings of those responsible for the protection of these endangered species. There have been reports that since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in India, poaching has risen sharply as some villagers facing loss of employment took up poaching to keep the family fed.

Loss of habitat a more serious threat              

Though the government has frequently highlighted the successful growth in tiger population, experts say India is still far from doing well in its conservation efforts. The traditional measure adopted by the government of securing the protected areas is not enough, says experts, but the real fruit of the efforts lie in maintaining the tiger’s geographical range and areas that fall outside the protected zones, or unprotected areas where the tiger is at greater risk of being harmed.

“The effort has to be directed beyond protected zones, towards the mitigation of human-tiger conflict. This must be ensured for the long-time sustainability of the tiger population,” says Jose Louies from the wildlife trust of India.

As per the government, the tiger population in India is spread over 381,400sq km of forest land, spread across 20 states, which makes it the world’s largest home for tigers. But conservationists say that the real success of Project Tiger will be achieved when the geographical range of tigers is no longer restricted and the tigers are once again able to occupy forests all across India. This goal is confronted with a challenge when the decision-makers are made to decide between wildlife and allowing industries, mines, roads, railway tracks as well as power projects to come up in these areas.

For instance, in 2019, the government allowed 13 railway projects to go ahead without environmental approvals, turning a blind eye to the fact that these projects would largely fragment national parks, tiger reserves, tiger corridors or wildlife sanctuaries in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. Similarly, between the years from 2014 to 2018 the government mandated around 519 infrastructure and industrial projects that were in stark violation of India’s environmental laws. The areas allotted to these projects were largely protected and eco-sensitive zones. With ‘development’ as its foremost driving force behind its policies, the current government has allowed projects at a rate twice that of the previous government, often without taking environmental impact into consideration. No wonder then that this pace and drive for development has come with decline in forests and green cover that constitute the living space of the tigers. The government claims that the protected areas have significantly increased from 692 in 2014 to 860 in 2019 and community reserves numbered 100, up from 43 in the same period.

Despite this growth in the number of protected areas, there has been a rise in number of tiger deaths due to accidents or attacks by humans, mainly villagers living in the vicinity of tiger sanctuaries as well as in tiger corridors. In 2019, many violent deaths of tigers were reported from many parts of the country. A tiger was run over in Karnataka, another lynched to death in Uttar Pradesh while another was killed in a four-lane highway in Maharashtra.

“Educating and creating awareness is a necessary pre-requisite to ensure the protection of wild animals outside the protected zones. First of all, people should know how to deal with them instead of making up their mind to harm them intentionally. The government has very strong laws for the protection of tigers, but implementation is yet to be that strong. The tiger doesn’t know of any demarcated territory it is supposed to be in, labeled as protected, so the government and responsible organisations have to come up with innovative, scientific, and creative ideas to deal with the situation of the unprotected areas,” says Nadeem Shehzad, co-founder Wildlife Rescue, an NGO involved in rescuing animals in danger.

Unfortunately, the government does not seem to be listening. The new environment laws that are currently being debated by the government do away with the necessity of environmental impact analysis for most proejcts and also could open even the densest of Indian forests to industry.

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