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Speaking for the stray cats

Conservation is focused on reserves,ignoring tigers in surrounding areas...

Written by Vivek Deshpande |
July 7, 2010 3:44:33 am

The extraordinary spectacle of a tigress sitting in a pond with a crowd of curious onlookers standing perilously close to her,outside the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR),which this newspaper carried on July 3,made the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) sit up and take notice. NTCA Member-Secretary Rajesh Gopal sent a concerned message to Maharashtra’s chief wildlife warden to send him a report on the incident,as also of the progress and status of a Centrally-funded project to mitigate the man-tiger conflict that has been raging in the TATR landscape (contiguous forest area outside tiger reserve) for the past four years.

Gopal did what he should have. But,ironically,his concern for landscape tigers still isn’t officially a part of the tiger conservation regimen in the country. In a recent interview about dwindling tiger numbers and alleged failure of Project Tiger,he reiterates — referring to the previous census figure of 1,411 tigers — “whatever tigers we have are only inside tiger reserves. We have not succeeded in saving tigers outside reserves. There are hardly any tigers outside protected areas.” While that’s a good way to shield Project Tiger,the facts point otherwise. Those who work in tiger conservation know with certainty that there is a cognisable population of tigers outside the buffer and core areas of tiger reserves. And that nobody is invested in them or cares about bringing them under the umbrella of Project Tiger,which remains restricted to tigers in the reserves.

In 2006,this newspaper was the first to focus on the growing man-tiger conflict in the TATR landscape. Since then,over 60 people have been killed in the conflict and nearly 30 injured,making it one of India’s most dangerous areas in terms of such casualties,along with the Sunderbans. Needless to say,this conflict wouldn’t exist if there were no tigers in these areas. So why is the NTCA shy of admitting the sizeable presence of tigers in areas outside reserves? It is a non-issue even for independent wildlife experts and conservationists.

As far as TATR is concerned,there could be not less than 20 tigers in the surrounding area with a radius of at least 50 km from its northern fringe. In Vidarbha,which has Maharashtra’s entire tiger population,there is one patch of forest (identity being withheld for the safety of the tigers),which is just about 27 sq km and is home to about nine tigers,including two tigresses with five grown-up cubs. Here,all theories that one tiger needs about 20 sq km area,fall flat. Not only have these poor tigers learnt to live in a terribly cramped space,but they have also refrained from the territorial fights that experts predict in such tight conditions. In the two years that their presence has been noted,there has only been one human death. A tigress would actually come to village fields in scorching summer and sit in the cowsheds. A surging crowd watching her from as close as 20 feet would make no difference,showing how she had adjusted to her desperate situation.

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So where do these tigers come from and where do they go if left unattended? Clearly,they are a product of Project Tiger and,as such,NTCA can’t shrug them off. In TATR,for example,good conservation efforts after 1998 saw a steady rise in tiger numbers. With their numbers growing,it was natural for the tigers to disperse to areas outside TATR. So how can they be seen in isolation of Project Tiger? In fact,had NTCA proudly claimed these for Project Tiger,it would have only enhanced their success and credibility. But instead,it has chosen to disown them,proving that we conserve tigers only to let them die in the absence of any post-conservation regimen. Tragically,while the NTCA doesn’t see them as its babies,for the state forest departments wildlife is the last priority in territorial and forest development corporation areas. For them,commercial forestry is the single-most important thing in these forests. Thus,the “outside” tigers have no takers except poachers.

On the one hand,Gopal says there are hardly any tigers outside protected areas (PAs) and in the same breath he also says,“We cannot save tigers by just managing tiger reserves,we have to think beyond that,at the landscape level,and manage the land use around tiger reserves.” If we are calling it a “sink” population — one that does not produce enough offspring to maintain itself in coming years — then why do we need to look beyond protected areas? The NTCA needs to explain this ambivalence by accepting that Project Tiger needs to officially take care of “outside” tigers too. If need be,a separate authority or project for these tigers should also be mulled.

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