Written By V P Singh Badnore
The tiger is not only our national animal but a symbol of the ecosystem. As a top predator, wild tigers play an important role in maintaining the harmony of the planet’s ecosystems. Tiger happens to be at the pinnacle of the eco-system triangle. If the tiger disappears, the entire eco-system gets affected and our flora and fauna is hit hard. The tiger is the pride of India.
In conserving the tiger, we are not just saving a particular species, but our endangered ecosystem. The tiger moves in a big territory and requires a sizeable forest area. The large range needed by tigers leads us to focus on landscape connectivity and conservation, which is also beneficial for the entire biosphere.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the number of Indian tigers was around 40,000; after Independence, tigers were killed mercilessly and the 1972 tiger put their number at less than 1500.
To preserve the tiger, the Indian government banned their hunting and launched ‘Project Tiger’ in 1973. It aimed at tiger conservation in the specially created tiger reserves in the country. The viable tiger population in their natural habitat was also maintained. Starting with nine tiger reserves in 1973, there are now around 50 tiger reserves in India covering an area of nearly 40000 sq. kms.
In the beginning of the 21st century, the tiger population again started declining. The main Protected Area (PA), which was left without tigers due to hunting and poaching activities, was the Sariska Tiger Reserve (Rajasthan) in 2004-2005; and subsequently, the Panna Tiger Reserve (Madhya Pradesh) in 2007-2008. Around the year 2005, tigers had vanished completely from the Sariska Tiger Reserve. This created a huge uproar among wildlife conservationists and was also an embarrassment to the Rajasthan government. This led to several inquiry commissions, at national and state levels to find out the reason behind it. Subsequently, the government reconstituted ‘Project Tiger’ and converted it into the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). The NTCA had more power to check poaching and preserve the tiger population.
Its mandate included setting up Tiger Protection Force and funding the relocation of villages from the protected areas.
After the debacle of Sariska, the Rajasthan government took up the challenge to reintroduce tigers in Sariska and set up a task force in June 2008, with the collaboration of several national and state agencies. This task force, chaired by me, was successful in reintroducing tigers in Sariska. This relocation and reintroduction of tigers opened a new era in the wildlife conservation history of the country. This can be gauged from the rapid speed with which the population increased from 1,411, as per the tiger census in 2006, to 2,226 in 2015 and 2,967 in 2018.
As an environmentalist, it has always been my endeavour to save environment and wildlife with measures on the ground and at the policy level. In 2005, the then Rajasthan chief minister, Vasudhara Raje Scindia, constituted the State Empowered Committee, also called the ‘Task Force on Forests and Wildlife Management’ in 2008, under my leadership to review the problems of conservation and management of wildlife in the state and also the relocation of tigers from Ranthambhore to Sariska.
The other members of the committee included Bharat Singh, MLA, Digod (Kota); Valmik Thapar, member, National Board for Wildlife; Rajpal Singh Tanwar, member, Rajasthan State Wildlife Board; Belinda Wright, Executive Director, Wildlife Protection Society of India; Dr. V B Mathur, Professor, Wildlife Institute of India; and R N Mehrotra, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests.
For the first time in the history of tiger conservation, the wild cats were translocated from Ranthambhore to Sariska. Our committee approached the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), World Wide Fund (WWF) among other reputed organisations, to plan and organise a population estimation exercise in Ranthambhore and Sariska. Methods like camera trap and transect count, including the digital pugmark technique, were tried. It was probably the first time in India that genetic studies were undertaken to identify tigers suitable for translocation. The committee worked on the relocation of tigers from Ranthambhore to Sariska, and I went all the way to the then Prime Minister to get the sanctions for this mammoth task. After that, the first such relocation happened with the help of the Rajasthan government and WII. Tigers were tranquilised and then relocated from Ranthambhore to Sariska in a helicopter which was provided by the Army
Sariska and Panna PAs had lost all their tigers between 2004 and 2008 mainly due to hunting and poaching. The most famous poacher of those times called Sansar Chand was closely connected with the international market and got these tigers killed and sent their parts through Nepal to other South-East Asian countries, including China, where tiger parts were being used for medicinal purposes. It was our committee which identified him, trapped him and put him in jail with the help of Rajasthan Police — a major achievement of the Task Force. Incidentally, it would be interesting to mention here that every part of the tiger had a very high price in the international market and a whole tiger would fetch nearly a million dollars.
But you may ask what the relocation of tigers really achieved.
For one, due to the loss of the forest corridors, tigers were surviving only in pockets like Sariska, Panna and Ranthambhore Tiger Projects and were not connected with the other tiger reserves. These tiger reserves could not hope to have tigers unless re-introduction was done by relocation.
Since tigers were surviving only in ‘Project Tiger’ areas, there was inbreeding of tigers besides other issues which in the long run, would have affected their biological fitness. This could be addressed only by relocation.
Another factor important for tiger reserves is to have the right male and female ratio which could be corrected only by relocation.
Though the tiger population is increasing and is likely to double by 2022, there are other issues as well. Every year, more than 100 tigers die due to several reasons (like health factors or poaching). They move between different habitats, and therefore, although protected areas are fundamental for their survival, connecting landscape is also essential. These areas often have limited protection as many development, mining and extraction projects are coming up in such regions. These activities not only diminish our forest areas but give additional opportunities to poachers to kill and hunt tigers and leopards. According to a study, in some parts of Central India, dispersal of source population has reduced by up to 50% over the last 25-30 years.
There is an emergent need to protect the forests and other natural habitats including the tiger reserves of India. We must engage local communities to ensure the survival of tigers. A strong message to protect our ecosystem through tiger conservation should reach the masses.
(The writer, an avid conservationist, is Governor of Punjab and Administrator, Union Territory of Chandigarh)