That dreaded number, 1,411, which triggered panic in India’s wildlife conservation circles a few years ago, seems to be a thing of the past. The high profile conservation campaign that ensued has paid off — the 2010 census showed the tiger population had increased to 1,706 and the 2014 census counted 2,226 tigers in forests across the country. For the time being, tigers have returned to India’s forests, or whatever remains of them. The latest census figures may be cause for cheer. But a growing tiger population in shrunken green cover could be the making of a new predicament in wildlife conservation.
Small, isolated pockets of forest, with few green corridors linking reserves and thinning buffer zones, present their own set of problems. The lack of forest connectivity means tigers cannot travel from areas with surplus populations to reserves which can accommodate more. Trapped in island forests, these populations run the risk of inbreeding and loss in genetic variation. For long-term survival, connected habitats that allow gene flows are essential. Densely packed forests have also led to tigers straying into human settlements on the edge of the reserves, giving rise to man-animal conflicts. Over the last couple of years, “man-eater” attacks have been reported from forests with large tiger populations, such as Bandipur, Corbett, Ranthambore and Kaziranga. Apart from the terrible human costs, it alienates local communities from the project of conservation, to which their support is crucial.
Wildlife protection in India has fallen prey to a flawed and unimaginative dichotomy between development and environment, with the concerns of the latter being identified as “obstructionist” and inimical to economic growth. It is an opposition that must now be resolved at the level of policy. An environment ministry that mulls redefining buffer and eco-sensitive zones to clear the way for “development” projects must also stop to consider the reverses this could spell for its success story in tiger conservation.