By G. Seetharaman
The narrow road in Dhikuli near Ramnagar in Uttarakhand, home to the Corbett National Park, may not at first seem like much more than it is. But it is illustrative of one of the most pressing issues in tiger conservation in India. One side of the road, which is dotted by hotels and safari operators, falls under the Ramnagar forest division, and the other, which is the woods, under the Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR). Tigers from CTR often cross the road to head to the Kosi river on the other side.
That means in the event of the death of a tiger, who takes responsibility depends on which side of the road the tiger is found. What if it is found dead right on the road? A local activist working on tiger conservation responds: "That is tricky. No one wants a tiger dead on their territory." This may seem like a flippant discussion but it certainly is not. More on that a little later.
Ever since the environment ministry released figures of its third-ever tiger estimation study in January, there have been as many who have said the numbers are a vindication of India's efforts as those who have said the numbers are not accurate. According to the study, the tiger count in India rose by a third from 1,706 in 2010 to 2,226 in 2014. While Karnataka, with 406 tigers, is the state with the largest number of tigers, Uttarakhand, which comes second, has reported the sharpest rise. It saw its tiger population jump from 227 to 340 in the same period, an increase of 50%.
A University of Oxford research paper has disputed the methodology employed in the collection of data, which involved the use of camera trapping over a small area, which is considered accurate, and then extrapolating the data over a larger area using evidence like paw-marks.
This has turned the debate on tiger conservation into one mostly about its population and the methods used in estimation when it ought to be about much more. "There is always a better way of doing things. But at some point we have to take a call on how much we are going to invest [in doing estimation studies\ because conservation is about much more than numbers. Let the focus not be lost on whether we have X or X+1 tigers," says Samir Sinha, field director of CTR.
Sunayan Sharma, president of the Sariska Tiger Foundation and former director of the Sariska Tiger Reserve, says the number of tigers is only an indicator of the health of the ecosystem. "The present government is only bothered about the numbers. Even if there are tigers, so what? The forest may be in a very depleted condition," he notes. Tiger reserves, which are protected areas that came into being as part of the government's Project Tiger initiative in 1973, are home to nine out of every ten tigers in India, which, according to the environment ministry, has 70% of the global population of the species.
CTR was the first, and now there are 47 in all, with Bor in Maharashtra being the youngest. "When the government set up protected areas, the objective was to increase numbers. We have now achieved that. Now we need to focus on other issues," says Harendra Singh Bargali, deputy director of the Corbett Foundation. Exact figures for the tiger population in CTR and the Corbett landscape, which includes the reserve and forest divisions in Ramnagar, Haldwani and Tarai, will be available only when the detailed version of the government's estimation study is released soon. In the 2010 study, the landscape contained 214 of the 227 tigers in Uttarakhand. CTR had the highest density, of 17.8 tigers per 100 sq km, among all tiger reserves. CTR is among the 17 reserves that got the highest rating in a study on management effectiveness conducted by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) and the Wildlife Institute of India in 2014. The other top-rated reserves include Bandipur and Nagarhole in Karanataka and Sundarbans in West Bengal.
Bargali says while reserves get monetary and manpower support, adjoining forest divisions suffer from lack of both. For instance, the forest divisions near CTR get only about Rs 5 lakh each annually from the NTCA, the nodal body for Project Tiger, while CTR gets Rs 3.5 crore. Sinha says it is a tough choice the government has to face with limited funds at its disposal. After environment minister Prakash Javadekar called the increase in numbers a reason to create more reserves, his colleague, finance minister Arun Jaitley, inexplicably cut the budgetary allocation to Project Tiger in 2015-16 by 13% to `161 crore. Bishan Singh Bonal, NTCA's member secretary, was not available for comment.
K Ullas Karanth, director of Centre for Wildlife Studies, who co-authored the study that disputed the latest tiger estimates, says many of the tiger reserves, which cover a total area of 68,700 sq km, are "degraded, densely populated areas without tigers in them and have no value". He adds, "The important thing is to bring all source populations with potential for recovery under increased protection, but also either delete or clearly designate areas which have no hope of recovery and not waste money and resources on them."
An official of the Terai West forest division says that there are as many tigers outside CTR in the Corbett landscape as within the reserve, which could not be independently verified. "But we face pressure in terms of protection of tigers. Retirement is happening so fast and recruitments are not happening," he says. Terai West is manned by 125 people compared with 600 for CTR. While Terai West does not allow safaris, Ramnagar does, and when ET Magazine visited it, the entrance to the safari route was poorly manned and entering the forest undetected seemed like a cinch.
Worse, these forest divisions do not have a permanent veterinarian and they have to rely on CTR's vet in case of an emergency. These forests are important because tigers move between them. When a tiger leaves the reserve, it does not have nearly the same protection from poachers. Moreover, while villages inside a reserve have to be relocated and a reserve cannot be used for cattle grazing or for collecting fuel wood, there are no such restrictions in an unprotected forest.
A senior officer of the Indian Forest Service, requesting anonymity, says that forest staff outside a protected area do not have the requisite investigative skills to determine the cause of death of a tiger from its carcass. Tiger killings dropped to a significant low of 13 in 2011 before rising to 42 in 2013 and then falling again to 23 in 2014. However, Shekhar Niraj, India head of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, says there has been an increase in domestic demand for tiger parts and poaching is still on the rise.
Though tigers are better off inside a reserve than outside, they cannot be cooped up there. "There should be a healthy gene flow between populations which can happen only when tigers move across a region. If they can't move freely, it will lead to inbreeding and seriously affect the population in case of a disease outbreak," notes Bargali. Bringing these areas under the reserves which they abut is not a viable solution because of the difficulty in — and implications of — evacuating people living there.
This ties into what many have been advocating as the next step in tiger conservation: the landscape approach. An ideal scenario in the case of CTR would be the government focusing not just on the Corbett landscape, but also on the Terai Arc landscape which extends from Uttarakhand to Nepal. This requires the preservation of corridors, which are fast disappearing.
The Gola river corridor in Haldwani, once key to the movement of tigers and elephants, has vanished thanks to roads and human settlements. "Connectivity between these [CTR and Ramnagar\ habitats is threatened by development along the Ramnagar-Ranikhet highway," noted a 2010 report by NTCA.
Poonam Dhanwatey, co-founder of Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT), says corridors do not have to be thick forested areas from where villages need to be moved, as in the case of reserves. The government could acquire a piece of farm land to maintain a corridor, according to her. "Large projects like mining, road widening and canals are what we need to be worried about," she adds. According to Karanth, only 15% of India's tiger forests is well-protected.
TRACT has trained around 400 forest personnel in and around the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve under its Corridor Conservation Program in association with the Maharashtra government and NTCA. Dhanwatey says this has resulted in a drop in man-tiger conflicts in the area. Dhanwatey adds that the relocation of villages from inside the Tadoba reserve is being done without any major problems. About 600 of 1,000 families have already been moved. The Bhadra Tiger Reserve in Karnataka has also been lauded for its relocation efforts. But not all reserves have had a smooth ride.
Threat From Humans
The Sariska Tiger Reserve, which shocked the country when its last tiger fell victim to poachers in 2004 before eight tigers were brought there from Ranthambore, also in Rajasthan, has been grappling with relocation. "Out of the 28 villages at Sariska, only two have been totally shifted and three partially moved. The whole process has been held up for the past two years due to lack of government will," says Sunayan Sharma. While tiger reserves are wellshielded by laws from any erosion of their powers, the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which gives tribals rights to forest land on which they depend for their livelihood, raised concerns among wildlife activists that it may hamper conservation efforts in forests which do not fall under protected areas.
As important as keeping reserves free of human settlements is coordination between the different arms of the government. Bargali says if the National Highways Authority of India or the state highways body is asked to build speedbreakers on a stretch to prevent wildlife being run over, they do not agree. "But if villagers want speedbreakers for themselves and stage a dharna, it is done immediately. There should be cooperation between the forest, transport, irrigation and revenue departments. Just the forest department can't do much," he adds.
Activists have also expressed concern over the exploitation of reserves for tourism. While tourism could be a key source of funds for reserves, it runs the risk of overriding conservation efforts. Sinha says putting an economic value on a tiger reserve could be a double-edged sword. Karanath believes tourism should be used as a tool to educate people about wildlife. But given the paucity of funds from the government, these reserves have no option but to meet the shortfall through tourism.
Even the harshest of critics admit that India has done a decent job of protecting its tigers and increasing their numbers since the 1970s and those who fight for the cause of other wildlife species begrudge the attention bestowed on tigers. Even so, it is high time the discussion moved beyond statistics which, if anything, are only a result of farsighted conservation policies.