My Big Paws
- Better tiger survey techniques
- Addition of forest area to different reserves has created more buffer areas
- More guards to stop poaching
- Better rehabilitation package for villagers living in the core areas
- Sharing of tourist revenues from the tiger reserves with locals
- Sensitisation programmes
Once you sign up for a tiger safari, your fervent prayer is that the rare big cat obliges with a darshan. And if you are in Maharashtra, your chances just got a little brighter. A tiger count conducted in 2012 in four reserves in the state shows an addition of nearly 40 tigers in less than two years, says an internal report. The tiger census, using the camera trapping method, was conducted in the Tadoba, Pench, Melghat and Sahyadri tiger reserves. The figure does not include tigers from other reserves such as Nagzira, Navegao and parts of Gadchiroli.
“The survey of the four main reserves shows actual pictures of 159 tigers including 11 cubs (tigers aged less than 18 months). Even if we assume the figures from other areas will be the same as in 2010, we are easily looking at 200-plus tigers in Maharashtra,” says Praveen Pardeshi, principal secretary, revenue and forest department. But 40 more tigers in just two years? “Yes, absolutely. I am not disputing the estimates at all. Improvement occurs when individuals apply themselves. However, an increase of 30, 35 tigers can go up or down in no time, like a seesaw,” says tiger expert and wildlife author Valmik Thapar. “But I don’t think it is because of the department of forests. I believe it is a defunct institution. I’m sure this flash must be because of specific individuals involved,” he adds.
However, it’s been far from easy. Officials have been working at several levels, from rehabilitation of people living in the core areas, additional forest guards to counter poaching, sharing tourist revenue with the locals to boost their participation as well as awareness programmes. Mansingh Deo, a new 183 sq km sanctuary, has also helped create a bigger corridor for the big cat. Forest officials claim that over 500 sq km of forest has been added to various reserves in the state in the past few years. “You cannot expect people to simply start cooperating. We have provided biogas, subsidised LPG and smokeless chulhas (stoves) to reduce dependence on wood fuel as also jobs to provide them a livelihood,” says Pardeshi.
Over 1,200 forest guards and frontline posts have been filled in the past one year, with another 800 to go. A rehabilitation package of Rs 10 lakh was offered to villagers to move out of the sanctuary zone. The exact number of relocated families, though, is unavailable. Total revenue from tourists in the tiger reserves was Rs 45 lakh last year. Of this, Rs 51,000 was given to all 53 buffer zone villages. Initiatives such as village eco- development committees and the Special Tiger Protection Force have also helped the conservation efforts.
Many activists and wildlife experts are still being cautious about the steep increase in numbers though. Some say the addition of certain sanctuary areas and exclusion of those in previous surveys may have led to the increase. “There is no evidence to show that countrywide tiger numbers have increased in recent years because national-level estimates from the official surveys in ’06 and in ’11 are both flawed,” says K. Ullas Karanth, director, Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society. However, he added that their “rigorous data” showed that tigers were doing well in Karnataka and adjoining areas of TN and Kerala.
The situation could be similar in the landscape around Tadoba-Andhari in Maharashtra, says Karanth. “The success of new efforts will be reflected only in the next national census. It is essential that efforts mentioned by government officials should continue as a long-term measure of tiger conservation,” says Tito Joseph, programme manager, Wildlife Protection Society of India. Also, warn wildlife activists, a rise in tiger numbers makes the animal more vulnerable. “Even after all this, last year 14 tiger deaths were reported from Maharashtra and most of these occurred in the Tadoba landscape. A periodic evaluation of efforts is necessary to find any lacunae,” says Joseph. “As the numbers increase, the tiger moves around and may get out of core areas into the buffer or unprotected areas. It makes them vulnerable to poaching where the monitoring may not be strict,” adds Vidya Athreya, who has extensively studied man-animal conflict.
Thapar says the government still does not have a foolproof long-term plan for tiger conservation. “Certain individuals in reserves like Tadoba, Ranthambore and Kanha are responsible for their sanctuaries showing better results. But when they get transferred, very often, people with no training replace them, resulting in increased cases of poaching and conflict,” he says. According to estimates, over 50,000 families still reside in core areas. With the average age of forest guards being 45, chasing down poachers may not always work. Local involvement is crucial here. The previous national census itself underlined this threat. It pointed out an “increase in tiger populations in high human use areas”—e.g. surroundings of Corbett, Ranthambore, Tadoba, Bandhavgarh, Bor—have heightened human-tiger conflict. Even Pardeshi admits poaching chain links that go right up to China are hard to crack. “Monitoring of protected and unprotected areas is an important issue. Strengthening of buffer zones will be the key to tiger protection in the future. Even today, if you ask the people who live on the periphery or inside the core areas they may not ‘want’ the tiger because of a perceived threat to their lives and crops,” says Sanjay Karkare, education officer, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). “These are complex issues where they seem to be choosing between livelihood and tigers and then deciding if the magnificent animal is their friend or enemy,” he says. But despite the complexities and ongoing challenges, the tiger seems to warming up to the efforts. For now, in Maharashtra at least, the tiger is burning bright.