What do we mean by the word “wild”? How do we define and preserve wild places? How many tigers and other creatures actually still “live in the wild”? Though there is no clear, precise answer to any of these questions, our future depends upon ensuring that a significant portion of our planet remains wild.
Earlier this year, my wife and I visited the Pench and Tadoba Tiger Reserves, on either side of the state border dividing Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Late in the afternoon, driving along a forest track, we were fortunate to see a large tigress, visibly pregnant. She was lying in the shade, camouflaged amidst the foliage, about 100 metres from an artificial waterhole. A few minutes after our jeep pulled up and our guide pointed out the tigress, approximately 20 other vehicles congregated at the same spot.
We watched the predator for half an hour before she eventually got on her feet and slowly made her way directly in front of us to a concrete-lined tank of water, filled by a solar-powered pump. Lowering her hindquarters into the pool, until half her body was submerged, the tigress emitted a soft moaning sound, as if she was in distress. Perhaps the cubs inside her womb were getting restless or the jeeps had disturbed her; possibly the high temperature that day added to her unease. But the cool water seemed to soothe the tigress’s discomfort.
Though this “tiger sighting” was one of the highlights of our visit to the parks and allowed me to get a good photograph, the conditions under which we observed the tigress made me wonder about the underlying purpose of tiger reserves. Our noisy convoy of “jeep safaris”, engines revving, as they took up a position near the waterhole and the impatient crowd of visitors, including an obnoxious woman who shouted abuses at the other drivers for blocking her view, could just as easily have been a traffic jam in the nearby city of Nagpur.
On July 29, 2019 — the “International Tiger Day” — the Prime Minister of India released encouraging figures from the country’s most recent tiger census. Officially, India now has 2,967 tigers in the wild, their numbers doubling from an all time low of 1,411 in 2006, when poachers and the illicit demands of Chinese medicine seemed close to wiping them out. A wildlife census is a notoriously difficult project. But, with camera trap technology and trained scientists from the Wildlife Institute of India conducting the recent survey, it seems that the current numbers are relatively accurate, though there is always a margin of error.
Nevertheless, a healthy debate over this census has already begun and one of the world’s foremost experts on tigers, K Ullas Karanth, Director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru has written, “When tiger recovery efforts began 50 years ago we had about 2,000 tigers. If after all this effort and expenditures we are satisfied with just 3,000 tigers, it points at a serious management problem.” Karanth’s research leads him to believe that India’s forests have the “carrying capacity” of 10,000-15,000 tigers, which means we still have a long way to go.
In order to allow tigers to regain some dominion over the jungles of India, it is essential that their habitat remain as wild as possible. Paradoxically, we might argue that the true definition of a wild environment is one that does not require the protection of human beings, where nature preserves and sustains itself. Of course, with population pressures and the chanted mantras of development, that isn’t feasible. But, in essence, human beings need to be excluded from the limited percentage of forested land that has been designated for wildlife preservation. Most of India’s conservationists have long recognised that forest-dependent communities must be part of the solution. However, while that goal may be achieved through designated areas of “mixed-use forest”, humane and generous relocation packages, as well as dialogue, education and ecologically-sensitive job opportunities, it still comes down to providing wildlife with enough space and biodiversity to survive.
Some years ago, Madhusudan Katti, a professor of vertebrate ecology, wrote an insightful and provocative essay entitled, “Are leaf warblers more important than tigers?” The essential point he makes is that wild forests are complex, interdependent ecosystems in which a tiger’s survival depends as much on tiny birds eating swarms of insects that devour the foliage and denude the jungle, as on the preservation of prey species or the deterrence of poaching. Wild places need much more than just the simple mathematics of a wildlife census.
As we watched the pregnant tigress rise from the waterhole and vanish silently into the jungle, I couldn’t honestly say that I had observed a tiger “in the wild”. The intrusive presence of our jeep safari seemed to negate that phrase. Perhaps, like graziers or woodcutters who are relocated outside the perimeters of tiger reserves, we too need to be excluded so that the litter of cubs the tigress bore might grow up with fewer “human sightings.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 30, 2019 under the title ‘Fewer human sightings’. Alter is the author of Wild Himalaya.