India’s journey to conserve its national animal is completing 50 years on April 1, 2023. It is a journey of Project Tiger, initiated on April 1, 1973, – India’s first species-centric inclusive endeavor to preserve areas as a national heritage. However, if a hunting ban is considered the most favourable decision for a tiger, the foundation stone of tiger conservation was laid on July 1, 1970.
The 50 years of Project Tiger have been incredible – from nine tiger reserves across 9115 sq. km. at the inception to 53 tiger reserves covering 75,797 sq. km., from a meagre seed budget of Rs. 5.8 crore to over Rs. 300 crore in 2023-24.
The expansion of tiger reserves and increment in budgetary allocation, together with the change in the statutory status – from a project to a statutory body of the National Tiger Conservation Authority – has Project Tiger impacted the tiger population of India?
At the beginning of Project Tiger, there were little over 1800 wild tigers in the country in 1972. In 2018, it reached approximately 3000 tigers, an annual growth of less than 1 per cent since the inception of Project Tiger.
However, these two numbers should not be compared due to different methodologies adopted for tiger enumeration since the inception of Project Tiger.
Project Tiger has moved from counting pug impressions under the poor scientific framework of total count to a more robust model-based estimation of tigers identified through their unique stripes and habitat status from 2006 onwards.
Based on the new method, the population estimates have registered a population growth of 6 per cent annually. The pan-India exercise steered by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) – two strong arms of wildlife research and management in India - has earned laurels from many corners of society and set a Guinness Record for being the world’s largest camera trap wildlife survey.
In the 50 years of the tiger conservation journey, Project Tiger got the statutory backup after the creation of NTCA in 2006, leading to a change in role from a fund disbursing body to an authority that drives active management of tiger reserves across the country.
However, tiger conservation also encountered setbacks due to hunting. Panna and Sariska tiger reserves lost tigers to poaching. Later, both have been successful in regaining the tiger population through reintroduction.
Core of tiger conservation
Over the past 50 years, tiger conservation has witnessed a significant shift from a reserve-centric approach to a landscape approach. Tiger is a long-ranging animal and requires large spaces, with a significant expanse of undisturbed areas. The core and buffer approach of managing tiger landscapes envisages inviolate and multiple-use areas, respectively.
Converting the country’s core area – approximately 55 per cent of the tiger reserve area- inviolate would require relocation and rehabilitation of about 600 odd villages, which is a gigantic task ahead for the state governments and NTCA. Equally challenging is managing buffer areas not only in terms of mainstreaming tiger conservation agenda in other forestry and non-forestry sectors but also mobilizing stakeholders towards developing a buffer into a ‘shock absorber’ against human pressure to the core area.
Considering the increment in tiger numbers, the importance of buffers in providing space for the increasing population cannot be underrated. In addition to core and buffer areas, corridors connecting two tiger populations are equally essential to maintain gene flow for the species' long-term survival.
The corridors are prone to several hindrances due to linear infrastructure and other developmental activities, resulting in an impediment in the movement of tigers and the diversion of forest lands.
Linear infrastructure projects require provision for the passage of wildlife. Any faulty plans might lead to the severing of the tiger movement. These situations require buffers and corridors to be managed much better for sustaining tiger populations over the long run.
Keeping the tiger at the center of ecological balance and epitomizing it as the best protector of the forest ecosystem, the project, since its beginning, kept people as a significant beneficiary of the tiger areas in the form of education and recreation mainly through tourism on the east African model.
Later on, engagement of local communities in a protected area management and integrating conservation and development at the landscape level started with the implementation of time-bound eco-development projects with the support of the Global Environment Facility in seven tiger reserves, including Periyar, Nagarhole, Buxa, Palamau, Pench (Madhya Pradesh), Ranthambhore and Palamau during 1996-2001.
The project did not meet the expected outcomes and produced several lessons for wildlife managers. A few successes also emanated from a couple of sites. The people’s institutions and the eco-development committees, drive the project’s key objectives of reducing forest dependence of locals by providing alternatives and increasing their stake in decision-making on natural resource use and management and were greatly influenced by protected area officials.
There is a severe need to bring innovation in reducing dependency and other measures to reduce dependence on tiger reserves, significantly reducing livestock grazing pressure and fuelwood dependence. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Scheme has increased access to LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) for cooking, but disparities in access for the marginalized population in forest areas are still evident.
Studies show that 90 per cent of LPG-using households continue to use firewood. Benefits emerging from tourism activities contribute very limited to locals' income compared to the gross revenue generated in the area. However, good scalable models of dependency reduction and tourism benefits sharing with local governance have emerged in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
Creating more space
At its inception, Project Tiger recommended not undertaking measures like uncontrolled habitat modification that would cause tiger numbers to grow at artificially high levels. However, in the later years, habitat development became a critical management intervention, influencing the tiger number positively.
Increased tiger density causes them to move out of the natal habitat to either suboptimal fragmented habitats or a human-dominated landscape with adequate food availability in the form of domestic livestock or natural prey in agriculture farms.
It is one of the leading causes of human-tiger conflict, resulting in the loss of human lives and property and the retaliatory killing of tigers. The human-tiger conflict has emerged as a major management challenge in recent decades.
Such situations are evident in the Brahmpuri forest division in Maharashtra and the Dudhwa-Katarniaghat-Pilibhit landscape in Uttar Pradesh.
Several protected areas and tiger reserves support fewer tigers than capacity, either due to poor habitat or protection status. The need is to enhance the management of these areas and restore their connectivity with tiger source sites to accommodate the increasing number of tigers.