When Sachin Tendulkar dedicated his 42nd Test century, in the first India-New Zealand Test match at Hamilton two weeks ago, to tiger conservation, he seemed to be drawing attention to the unabated threat of extinction faced by this magnificent big cat. Tendulkar’s publicly stated concern is not misplaced, as can be seen from the alarming number of deaths of tigers that are still taking place in India’s wildlife reserves, notwithstanding the revamping of ‘Project Tiger’, the key tiger conservation programme. Nearly 30 tigers are reported to have perished in the first three months of the current calendar year, or one every three days. Most of these deaths are said to be the result of causes other than poaching which is believed to have come down following the crackdown that followed the disappearance of tigers from the Sariska reserve in Rajasthan and the intensification of tiger protection efforts, based on the report of the Tiger Task Force of 2005.
In some ways, though, the fact that deaths are caused by factors other than poaching points to a much larger problem than poaching. For, this would be a sign of the increased incidence of territorial fights between tigers, and the growing conflict between the animals and humans when the former transgresses into the latter’s territories in search of prey. The root cause of this is the decline of tiger habitats, within the protected areas as well as on their fringes, due to degradation. The Panna tiger sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh is the latest to go tigerless, largely on account of this factor.
Restoration and proper management of the health of tiger habitats are going to be tougher tasks than countering poaching, as these tracts need good forest cover, sufficient area for stalking and an abundance of prey. If any of these elements is missing, the tiger is forced to move out of the core reserve area and turn to livestock as food, or even become a man-eater. The dangerous truth is that this has been happening in increasing measure in and around many sanctuaries. The latest case, reported early last week, was from the Kaziranga National Park where a Bengal tiger sneaked out of the protected area to attack humans and got killed in the process.
The Tiger Task force, appointed by the Prime Minister, had very rightly included habitat maintenance in the plan of action that it suggested so as to reverse the decline in the tiger population. In particular, it laid stress on managing the fringe areas around the tiger’s protected enclaves, so that neither tigers nor the local communities that depend on forests for livelihood have to go beyond these zones. The problem is that little has been done on this front. Since Indian conditions are such that the complete isolation of the tiger from human beings is difficult, if not impossible, wildlife reserve management has to strike a balance between the interests of animal and people. In reality, though, the investment in tiger conservation has benefited neither the tiger nor the communities living in and around tiger reserves. Where the villages located within the reserves are concerned, they should ideally be relocated elsewhere. Simultaneously, the concept of joint forest management, involving the forest authorities and forest dwellers, needs to be promoted to protect the tiger as well as preserve its habitats, even while sustaining the livelihood of the people who live off the forest. This has been tried out with considerable success in the notified forest areas (even if not exactly wildlife sanctuaries) in Uttarakhand. Given a chance, it could prove its worth in protected areas and their peripheries as well.