Saturday, February 23, 2008

Tiger, tiger, vanishing fast

It is official. There are only 1,411 tigers and their numbers are falling. With the threatened species fighting a losing battle against ruthless poaching and shrinking forests, conservationists are demanding that an emergency be declared to save the national animal, reports Vibha Sharma 

Indian forest workers recently released a rescued tigress into the Sundarikati river in the Sunderbans.
Indian forest workers recently released a rescued tigress into the Sundarikati river in the Sunderbans. The pregnant tigress, which strayed nearly 30 km from deep inside the Sunderbans, was rescued by the forest workers after being stoned and badly beaten by villagers. — Photo by AFP

This month the Centre released what has been termed as the most comprehensive, scientific and accurate report on the status of tigers in India. This, perhaps, is the only redeeming feature of the much-awaited report titled "Status of Tigers, Co-predators and Prey in India" that otherwise spelled doom and confirmed the worst fears of tiger conservationists.

The report prepared by the Dehra Dun-based Wildlife Institute of India and the National Tiger Conservation Authority took two years of extensive data collection. It has been commended by a majority of tiger scientists for arriving at a number through a comprehensive documentation of big cats, their habitat and population trends.

Arrived at by using different methodologies and techniques, the latest count indicates how tiger numbers had been grossly misinterpreted in the past to suit the interests of those supposed to be looking after the welfare of the national animal.

The 151-page report has been co-authored by Qamar Qureshi and Y.V Jhala of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and Rajesh Gopal from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) along with a research team that included 67 members. Open to scrutiny at all stages of data collection, this is the most scientific report that puts in place a transparent system that can be traced back to the beat level, says Qureshi.

"It found that where tigers are doing well, forests are also doing well. The report identifies areas where tigers are decreasing and why. Besides the report is not just about tigers and co-predators like leopards and wild dogs but it also looks at the number and quality of prey like sambhar, cheetal and blue bulls. Tigers do respond well to quality and number of prey," he explains.

The report also monitors source population or breeding units and other vital issues like spacing and connectivity. Executive Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India Belinda Wright calls the report the most scientifically robust estimation ever carried out on the status of tigers in India.

The sentiment is echoed by eminent tiger scientist Valmik Thapar. "At least, now we have an official figure that shows that tiger is in deep crisis in India," he says.

Dwindling numbers

The report spells it all, state-wise, area-wise, dividing tiger habitat into regions like Shivalik-Gangetic flood plains, Central Indian landscape and Eastern Ghats, Western Ghats complex, North-eastern Hills and Brahmaputra Flood plains and the Sunderbans.

Due to the Naxalite problem, Jharkhand and the Indravati reserve in Chhattisgarh have not been covered, while the census in the Sunderbans is not yet complete. But the report does point out that Naxalism, subsistence poaching and fragmentation of forests have worked against big cats in areas that had the capability of holding larger numbers.

As far as figures go, the bottomline is that the number of tigers is at a sinking low of 1,411. The positive is, a candid admission by the Central Government that there is a problem.

Estimates are distressingly low but with clear-cut population and habitat data now available hope has emerged that a strategic and effective way could be worked out to ensure that tiger populations recover and India is able to protect its national animal. The report has also invited criticism from certain states which have expressed reservations about the efficacy of the camera-trap method used to count the numbers. They are not willing to accept the report in its totality, and have questioned the figures released by the WII.

Writing on the wall

Whichever way it is seen, the WII report is unambiguous that the tiger — the most charismatic, the most exciting wildlife species on earth — is in danger in India and fighting a tough battle to survive. The alarm bells that sounded when the infamous Sariska incident came to light some three years ago are now again ringing loud and clear.

From 40,000 in 1900 to an all-time low of 1,411 in 2007, this is an emergency. Scientists say that in a scenario unlike any before, there could be, maybe 1657 big cats, which would still be lower than the 1800 tigers estimated in the first census in 1960. In any case the current figures are definitely a climb down from 2002 when tiger population was 3,642. Simple arithmetic shows that India has lost more than 2000 tigers to three basic reasons: incessant and ruthless poaching, loss of habitat and pressure of people.

The report also exposes that the figure of 3,642 in 2002 was fudged to cover up the failure of the government to protect the tiger. Maybe data was continuously being fudged even as tiger numbers kept dwindling. "Tigers have been continuously falling prey to poachers," Belinda says.

The silver lining

According to the report, the only safe places where healthy population of big cats still exists are Corbett in Uttarakhand, Kaziranga in Assam and other habitats in Brahmaputra, besides Bandipur, Nagarhole, Madurai and Wyanand tiger reserves in the South, Kanha, Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh and some parts of the North-East where tigers had a chance to breed and grow. This signifies that surveillance and good quality habitat and prey does work well for the magnificent predator.

Success stories like Corbett Tiger Reserve that recorded the highest tiger density as compared to other habitats show that if safe zones are created with inviolate core areas surrounded by a buffer, the tiger can survive. Corbett has 164 tigers in 1524 sq-km. Despite limited space, it appears to be doing well in comparison to some larger reserves.

Overall, there are 178 tigers in Uttarakhand, 109 in UP, 10 in Bihar, 95 in Andhra Pradesh, 26 in Chhatisgarh, 300 in Madhya Pradesh, 103 in Maharashtra, 45 in Orissa, 32 in Rajasthan, 290 in Karnataka, 46 in Kerala and 76 in Tamil Nadu.

In the north-eastern states, population estimates are based on possible density of tiger-occupied landscape in the area. They have not been assessed by double sampling. According to these estimates, there are 70 tigers in Assam, 14 in Arunachal Pradesh, six in Mizoram and 10 in northern West Bengal.

Denial syndrome

Several states have preferred to shut their eyes to the existing problem and questioned the latest official figures. During a meeting of senior forest and wildlife officials called by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in the Capital, wildlife wardens from states like Orissa, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh questioned the efficacy of the camera-trap method used in the latest census. The response of the state governments forced Thapar to declare that any state that rejects the report is, in fact, rejecting the future of the tiger. "States rejecting the government figures just means that they are digging more graves for the tiger. For Simlipal (in Orissa), the Centre’s figures are 20. The state government claims there are 100 tigers. They can continue sitting with their figures and let whatever tigers are left to also die," says a disturbed Thapar.

"The situation is extremely grim and it is time India declares an emergency for the tiger, The Prime Minister chairs the most important decision-making body, the National Board of Wildlife. He should call an emergency meeting of the board. He should ask the chief ministers to put solutions on board within the next two months. This ego problem between states and the Centre needs to be addressed immediately. The data is already two years’ old and if we do not act now, we will slip further. The Prime Minister should create a think tank of those who have worked with tigers all their lives. Not a body like the Tiger Task Force, where three of the members have no experience of working with the tiger," he adds. Belinda agrees. "If Orissa or any other state government does not accept the report they are living in a fool’s paradise".

As far as the WII is concerned, there is no reason why states should not accept the numbers. Defending the methodology, Qureshi says that the new system is based on a multivariate approach that has helped converge evidence for data assessment. "The methods are all scientifically valid, well tested and holistic in nature. They address the real-time monitoring of habitat quality and prey and provide tools for conservation planning at landscape level. There is no reason why anyone should reject the methodology," he says.

Checking crime

Some hope emerged when the much-awaited Wildlife Crime Control Bureau to deal with illegal trade finally started functioning this January. The Ministry of Environment and Forests says that the Bureau, with four regional offices at New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai and three sub-regional offices, was fully operational.

Set up at the behest of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to develop infrastructure and build capacity for scientific and professional investigation into wildlife crimes, the Bureau will have two joint directors, one from the IFS and another from the IPS rank, and will be assisted by regional directors. Inspectors and constables will also be sent on deputation from customs and police departments.

But this set-up has not found favour with former Director of Project Tiger P.K. Sen. "The offices will be in Delhi while tigers are being killed in jungles," he says, terming the Bureau "bogus, a complete eyewash".

"To deal with wildlife crimes you require a specialised force. You are not dealing with common thieves or smugglers that can be tackled by officials from the CBI, IB or Customs. Here you are trying to combat people from within your country who are poaching and trading in tiger parts because they are being abetted by those living outside the country. Their operations are based on economics of demand and supply. And to deal with situations like these, you need a specialised force on the lines of the Railway Protection Force or the CISF," he adds.

Dependence on forests

Indian forests have been bearing the brunt of growth and the country has already lost 728 sq-km of forests to dam construction and tsunami. Wildlife scientists fear that the depleting Indian forests may face further destruction due to recent rights given to tribals and dwellers. And any further loss of forests could spell more bad news for the country’s wildlife. It was a good start to the new year for lakhs of tribals living in wilderness in the country with the government finally notifying the much-awaited Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forests Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act), 2006, almost a year after it was passed by Parliament.

The Act aims to provide forest rights to STs and other people, living and depending on forests for their livelihood for three generations. Some of major rights recognised under the Act include forestland up to four hectares, right to collect, use and dispose off minor produce and traditional rights like grazing inside forests. The very same day the PMO issued a list of core notified tiger reserves that would be out of bounds for human beings, bringing a sigh of relief from wildlife conservationists. It stated that as many as 11 tiger range states had been identified as critical big cat habitats.

The notification said that an area of around 31, 940 sq km of tiger reserves would be completely out of bounds to support a viable population of wild tigers in the country.

Forest rights lobby alleges that the Act has been much diluted, but for wildlife activists the PMO notification came as a big relief.

They said this would initiate a process of creating inviolate areas for tiger conservation in areas where forest rights were likely to be modified or holders of forest right resettled. But fears continue to remain that once rights are given, the already falling forest cover would be reduced further and wildlife would suffer. After all there is a direct correlation between good forests and good wildlife.

The way forward

The Centre says it is doing all it can by providing enhanced funds and support to the states. There is a huge budget to resettle people from core tiger areas. This will help decrease the man-animal conflict and create inviolate zones for the big cats. The compensation for rehabilitation has been increased from Rs 1 lakh per family to Rs 10 lakh per family.

According to the Centre, establishing corridors between tiger habitats to create free movement zones and improving the gene pool is another step that will help to overcome the crisis. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau is finally in place. Locals and ex-Army men are also being recruited as forest guards to step up the vigilance.

Valmik Thapar, however, says these measures may not be adequate. What the tiger needs to fight the battle is a task force to flush out poachers and timber mafia from forests. "What we need is a dedicated anti-poaching force. Every country that wants to protect its natural wealth has one. We also need to introduce reforms in the Indian Forest Service and create a branch called the Indian Wildlife Service."