By Vijay Pinjarkar
NAGPUR: From a lakh tigers in 1913 to a mere 3,000 now, global wild tiger population has been decimated over the last century. India, which had the maximum tigers, now has only 2,226 in the wild, and despite strong global support for conservation, survival of the species continues to be threatened due to fragmented habitat, largely due to missing links (corridors) in their habitat.
Even as the country celebrates International Tiger Day on Wednesday, substantial conservation effort is concentrated on a few, relatively large protected areas (PAs). It is high time the government focuses on forests outside the PA network, especially in Central India, say experts.
"India supports a large proportion of global tiger population in less than 7% of the global tiger habitat, most of which is fragmented. Tigers once occupied over 90% of the Indian subcontinent but now their range has been reduced by nearly 76%," says a recent study by Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).
The Central India landscape with 688 tigers (one-fourth of the population) has fine forests and maximum protected areas (PAs). However, corridors to and between these source populations are virtually under siege from projects like rail lines through Melghat and Kanha, NH-7 and NH-6 road widening, irrigation canals from dams like Gosikhurd, mines etc.
Even Rajesh Gopal, secretary general of Global Tiger Forum (GTF), admits tiger is a species of metapopulations and cannot be viewed in isolation from its landscape, which, beyond the source area, is beset with a multitude of ecologically unsustainable land uses.
"Therefore, to keep the corridor alive for tiger gene porosity, an aggressive 'co-occurrence' agenda of various stakeholders (people, business groups, developmental agencies, various sectors) is required in areas having corridor value," said Gopal.
This would involve mainstreaming tiger concerns in sectors where tiger is not the goal, besides taking steps for smart green infrastructure (avoidance, mitigation, revival and offsets). This could include providing ecologically sustainable livelihood options to local people, complemented by payment for ecosystem services (PES) to them along with ongoing tiger monitoring, and promptly taking care of human-tiger conflicts. Such active management can keep the corridors alive.
For example, Maharashtra, which has the highest number of PAs and is know as the best tiger state, notified at least 10 sanctuaries in the last five years in Vidarbha, but is doing little to protect linkage of source tiger populations. The government has cleared several projects in the tiger corridors. The worst part is that it has allotted over 200 sq km rich forest land to FDCM in Bhandara for tree felling in the Nagzira-Pench corridor.
"The biggest threat Tadoba is facing today is the 91km Gosikhurd canal network, most of which is in Brahmapuri, which has 27 tigers. The canals have destroyed linkages to Gadchiroli and Navegaon-Nagzira. Tiger migration has been hit and man-animal conflict is flaring up. Though such projects may fulfil development aspirations, the sad part is mitigation measures are not being taken," said Bandu Dhotre of Eco Pro, Chandrapur.
However, an RTI reply received by him claims that Rs 9 crore will be spent by VIDC to construct 60 passes for wildlife on existing and proposed Gosikhurd canals in the next three years.
The BJP government is also pushing the Human dam in Sindewahi adjoining Tadoba. This too will stop migration of tigers. "On one hand the government is planning to make Tadoba world-class and on the other it is pushing detrimental projects in its buffer," said Dhotre.
"The four-laning of NH-7 between Mansar-Khawasa and NH-6 between Sakoli-Deori is one of the biggest threats to Pench-Kanha-Indravati-Tadoba. However, NHAI wants to go ahead without strong wildlife mitigation measures. The NHAI widened NH-6 by violating provisions of FCA but no action was taken against. This has emboldened NHAI further," said wildlife expert Prafulla Bhamburkar.
Conservationist Kishor Rithe says, "Corridors between tiger reserves are important for genetic exchange and long-term survival of tigers and other carnivores. Corridors of Satpuda landscape in Central India are listed as one of the priority tiger conservation areas in India. These corridors incorporate Kanha, Pench, Satpuda, Melghat, Navegaon-Nagzira, Bor and Tadoba."
In Melghat, the Dharni-Amravati interstate highway poses a big threat to wildlife. Another emerging threat is the conversion of metre gauge track passing through Wan sanctuary, Rithe added.
What is International Tiger Day?
International Tiger Day is on July 29 every year, to give worldwide attention to the conservation of tigers. It is both an awareness day as well as a celebration. It was founded at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit in 2010. This was done because at that moment wild tigers were too close to extinction. The goal of tiger day is to promote protection and expansion of wild tiger habitats and to gain support through awareness for conservation.
THREATS TO TIGER CORRIDOR
* Thinning & degradation: Major, but highly underestimated threat to corridors is the thinning of the forests, which leads to degradation
* Fuel-wood extraction: Main cause of forest thinning. Local communities are highly dependent on forests for fuel wood
* Bamboo extraction: It leads to forest thinning. Large quantities of bamboo are extracted to make bamboo mats
* Setting Fires: Man-made fire leads to immense destruction and wipes out undergrowth. These fires are set in the summer, which makes it difficult for wildlife to survive
* Monoculture: Several reserve forests have been given out on lease to FDCM, which is involved in commercial farming and extraction of timber
* Roads, Railways & Mines: With several villages being connected with metalled road, there is increase in vehicular traffic even in remote forest areas leading to regular wild animal deaths. Coal mines have blocked corridors in Chandrapur
* Dams & Canals: Human river is one of the tributaries of the Wainganga passing through TATR-Brahmapuri corridor. Human dam will wipe out tiger corridor. Gosikhurd has already cut tiger corridor
* Hunting: Killing herbivores poses a continuous threat. Snares are set regularly to catch hare and nets are used to catch wild pigs. These activities go unnoticed
TIMES VIEW: Forest dept needs to do better
It is regrettable that even after decades of efforts, India's forest and wildlife remain as threatened as ever. In fact, in some cases, they are more threatened than before. We may pat our backs on rising tiger numbers but that is one part of the story. The future of tigers or other wildlife is not secure unless we can also protect their migration routes. There is no vision to preserve these from the assault of new roads, railway lines, canals, and power lines coming up as India plans a big push to the economy. Unfortunately, concerns about forest and wildlife are seen as anti-development and regressive. The fact is that without good environment we would only end up compromising everybody's quality of life, instead of improving it. It also does not cost much to protect sustainable corridors and still have development if things are planned well. The Ministry of Forests and Environment at the centre and forest department in the state need to try a bit harder to convince other agencies to see the merits of this approach.