In the aftermath of Global Tiger Day, let’s take a look at tiger conservation and at this iconic species’ challenges for survival.
A 100 years ago, as many as 100 000 wild tigers were roaming Asian forests. Today, less than 3900 individuals are said to be left on the planet.
What happened ? Humanity happened. Trophy hunting, poaching, habitat loss caused by development, over hunting of prey are just some of the threats this species has faced and is still facing today.
Nine subspecies of tigers existed in the wild. Now only six remain, with one of them (The South China tiger) probably only alive in captivity.
The Javanese, the Balinese, and the Caspian tigers are already extinct.
Some 500 Amur or Siberian tigers roam the Sikhote Alin mountain region and the southwest Primorye province in the Russian Far East.
We count around 300 Malayan tigers, less than 400 Sumatran tigers, around 350 Indo-Chinese tigers in the wild.
The healthiest sub species today is the Bengal tiger. Mostly found in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, it is said to count around 2 500 individuals.
The survival of the Bengal tiger has often been seen as the key to tiger conservation. Many efforts are being made both by NGOs and governmental bodies of the countries who have the privilege to count this magnificent animal amongst its residents.
Bengal tigress in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Central India
What are the stakes of tiger conservation for the Bengal tiger in India ?
Let’s take a look at the geographical area where this sub species can be found across the Indian sub-continent.
It is believed that 60% of the world’s tiger population resides in India, a country with an ever growing population and a booming economy that is facing one of the biggest infrastructure developments of all times.
Let’s briefly go back in time to understand the background of tiger conservation in this specific country.
In 1973 the governmental conservation program Projet Tiger was launched to ensure the protection of the species and of its natural habitat. Even today, Project Tiger remains the world’s most comprehensive tiger conservation initiative ever created.
Thanks to this program, the Tiger Reserves – protected areas that were to maintain the natural
diversity of tiger ecosystems across the country – were created. The first tiger reserve and the place where Project Tiger was born was the famous Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, Northern India.
These reserves would be a place for tigers to thrive and breed. The surplus individuals would be able to migrate to other protected areas via wildlife corridors that connected them.
The program also addressed the problem of poaching, one of the major threats to tigers.
Project Tiger still exists today under the name of NTCA or National Tiger Conservation Authority and is responsible for Tiger Reserves’ norms and guidelines such as the establishment of the core-buffer strategy.
Today in India there are 50 tiger reserves and other national parks with different sizes of tiger population.
Bengal tigress roaming her territory in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Central India
What are the principal threats to tiger conservation for the Bengal sub species in India ?
LOSS OF HABITAT AND THE IMPORTANCE OF WILDLIFE CORRIDORS
Tiger Reserves cover about 1% of Indian land. Some of them are basically wildlife islands surrounded by villages and human activity such as farming, roads, railways and infrastructures.
Wildlife corridors are very important in this eco-system. They are pristine habitat areas connecting different protected zones that are separated by human settlement.
They allow wildlife to move from different areas and they reduce the impact of habitat fragmentation caused by human presence and activity.
Why do tigers have such a strong will to move ?
A healthy tiger population would keep expanding and moving. Being solitary animals, tigers have vast, exclusive territories. Dominant tigers would reside in a reserve’s core area and push the other individuals towards the buffer or towards areas out of the reserve.
Tigers would naturally move far from their birthplace to establish new territories, the place of their choice being remote forests with limited or inexistent human presence.
Evolutionally, this behaviour has allowed the species to spread their genes and to increase strenght to ensure survival.
The presence of wildlife corridors not only allows them to move without danger, but also to ensure that genetic diversity is maintained and that the risk of inbreeding is reduced.
This is true for many other animals that would use wildlife corridors, for example elephants.
Unfortunately, ever increasing infrastructure construction, industry and economical activities are destroying such corridors.
Protected areas are getting more and more isolated and the risk of animal-human conflict (and inbreeding of tigers) is growing exponentially.
Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan is the most famous example of a protected area that has become isolated. Although the number of tigers within the reserve is steady or even growing, the reserve has the least genetic diversity compared to other areas.
Active translocations of tigers are being made but is it the only way to ensure a healthy spread of tiger genes ?
If development doesn’t ensure the protection of corridors and of the wildlife that uses them, there can be no effective tiger conservation.
Tigress taking in new scents by doing the Flehmen Response in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Central India
The presence of human activities close to tiger habitat often leads to unwanted encounters and therefore to conflict.
Many villages can be found on the outskirts of any tiger reserve or even within their boundaries. People from these villages generally depend on the forest for their livelihood. They collect wood, fruits, leaves or bamboo. They are farmers whose fields extend around their houses and whose cattle share the same premises.
These villagers face daily problems related to the presence of wild animals. Sometimes, a tiger would prey on cattle or worse, injure or kill a person. Even if attacks on people are relatively rare their possibility is often enough to lower tolerance level.
An example of this is the sad tale of a male tiger from Corbett Tiger Reserve that last year wandered out of the park and caused the death of two people. It was then tranquillised (probably to the point of an overdose) and crushed to death with an excavator during a very badly organised rescue mission.
Reserves’ boundaries are not recognised by wildlife. Tigers wander out of protected areas when they feel there is not enough space for them and if they need to establish new territories.
Furthermore, an estimated 35% of wild tigers in India live out of reserves.
There have been records of tigers living and moving through a highly humanised landscape, mostly travelling at night and cautiously hiding during the day.
Sundarbans National Park, on the Bay of Bengal, is the world’s biggest mangrove area that lays between India and Bangladesh, famous for its swamp tigers.
Human-tiger conflict between tigers and local fishermen is quite high there, with tiger attacks in the past having been as high as 40 a year.
Recent conservation efforts have nonetheless helped to lower these numbers by building net fences between the forest and the villages and not allowing any human habitation within the forest. Aquaculture ponds have been set up near people’s homes to avoid going fishing in the reserve.
Roadkill is also an unfortunate and all-too-common example of animal-human conflict. On New Year’s Eve, Bajrao, the dominant male of Bor Tiger Reserve in Maharastra, was killed by a speeding vehicle on a highway that intersects several wildlife corridors.
Roads and railways are being built throughout wildlife habitat and this decision comes at a terrible cost. Unfortunately, wildlife experts’ and scientists’ advice to build those roads out of protected areas or corridors is often ignored.
Every year the animal victims toll is very high with leopards, deer, foxes, elephants, jungle cats, snakes, amphibians and many other species perishing in hit and run or train accidents.
As in any other tiger country, India has a long history of poaching.
It was at the beginning of the nineties that conservationists realised that tigers were vanishing from the forests. The seizure in 1993 of 400 kg of tiger bones in Delhi showed that the illegal trade of tiger parts for Chinese traditional medicine had hit the country.
Tigers were shot, poisoned and caught with snares to meet this increasing demand.
Although Chinese law prohibits the use of tiger bone for medicinal product the illegal demand is high and growing.
Unfortunately, at the time, the government and Projet Tiger officials denied the existence of such a problem until a sadly well-known scandal went public in 2004, when all of Sariska Tiger Reserve tigers were lost to poaching.
Bad management and misplacement of funds were the cause of such a tragedy. When three poachers were later arrested they told how easy it had been to kill the tigers. Not many officials were actually in the forest and those who were had only been equipped with broken walkie-talkies and wooden sticks.
That was no match for organised poachers who were helped by local villagers and had semi-automatic weapons.
It was this tragic event that eventually lead to the creation of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
Despite all efforts, India has seen many other episodes of poaching in the following years. Panna Tiger Reserve lost all its tigers to poaching from 2002 to 2008.
Today, poaching episodes still exist in Indian forests and tiger reserves.
Even if tigers have been reintroduced in Sariska in 2008 with the first of its kind relocation program, there have recently been news of tigers been poached or gone missing again from the reserve.
Just last year, one of the most photographed tigress of Badhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Kankati, was found dead inside the reserve. After being poached and skinned only part of the skeleton remained.
Her three young cubs were left orphaned. Too young to survive alone in the wild, they were shifted to an enclosure within the reserve where they can still be seen. They might never go back to the wild, the death of their mother having left them without enough tiger skills to survive by themselves.
One of the cubs of poached tigress Kankati in his enclosure in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve
Who are the poachers ? It depends. Some are members of professional gangs, some are small-time locals who are desperately poor. Some are long time criminals. Those who get caught are generally just the tip of the iceberg, the lowest link of the chain of international wildlife trade illegal organisations.
Tiger parts are then generally smuggled to China via Nepal and Tibet, following a dangerous route through the Himalayan foothills.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO PROTECT THE BENGAL TIGER
Conservation efforts are nonetheless being made as there are many ongoing initiatives in the country.
Life for rural communities who live within the boundaries of protected areas is often not easy as they are generally those who benefit the least from such a protection.
Apart from problems related to human-animal conflict, they cannot construct, get electricity
connection and in general build facilities without first obtaining permission from the Forest Department.
Although tiger tourism has risen over the last few years and has become a great source of income for those who work within it, local communities don’t always have the chance to take part in this economy.
The Indian government has a voluntary relocation plan and a compensation scheme for communities who agree to it. The relocations are being planned in all tiger reserves, many of them in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharastra in central India. Villages close to Sariska have been relocated too some years ago.
At the beginning of 2018 the government was offering 10 lakhs rupees ( about 12 500 EUR ) per adult to relocate or the equivalent amount of land.
Relocating entire villages is not an easy task and it often causes conflicts. People who have always depended on the forest for their activity might find themselves unable to adapt to the new environment and in need of new skills.
Also, many people would not accept to be relocated from their ancestral land invoking the right to stay in the place where they were born, the place they call home. However, there have
been rumours of forced evictions and disregard of villagers’ rights.
A tigress scent marking her territory in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve
As I am writing, we are witnessing the first inter-state tiger relocation in India. So far, two tigers have been shifted to Satkosia Tiger Reserve in Odisha from Madhya Pradesh, a male from Kanha and a female from Bandhavgarh. The operation so far has proven difficult as villagers living in the reserve have threatened to harm the animals after the male was released. The project is now on hold and the young tigress is still captive in her provisional enclosure waiting to be set free.
Even though this is the first time that a tiger has travelled such a long road to reach its new territory, the shifting of tigers from one protected area to another has become more and more common in the last few years.
Tigers have been relocated to Sariska several times to solve the problem of an ever dwindling population.
As isolated tiger reserves fill up, tigers cannot count on corridors to go look for new territories and they have to be relocated artificially. A good example is Ranthambore, India’s most famous Tiger Reserve that boasts a healthy tiger population but that is completely cut off from other natural habitats. This reserve’s tigers have often been part of relocation initiatives.
These shifting operations cannot replace the importance of maintaining pristine wildlife corridors and don’t come without risks.
The risks the relocated tigers are facing are conflict with neighbouring populations who don’t approve of their reintroduction and poaching if not carefully monitored (again, let’s think about Sariska).
Furthermore, in order to be relocated a tiger has to be sedated, an operation that can cause health complications.
Educating people and raising awareness
So, is it impossible for people and tigers to co-exist ? No, it is not, but people have to learn how to do that.
People who live close to the reserve can learn how to behave in tiger country. If they thoroughly know the animal behaviour and if they act accordingly there will be less risks of conflict.
If they learn to care about animals, environmental conservation and education, people will start to act as nature protectors instead of opponents.
Many NGOs are working within these villages, teaching people and their kids the principles of a life based on wildlife-humanity coexistence.
A guard from the Forest Department in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan, India
Anti-poaching patrols and trained guards
There is no magic solution to end poaching as the stakes are too high and linked to powerful international black market rings.
But effective law enforcement and well trained and well equipped guards patrolling the protected areas is something that could be achieved.
Forest guards in tiger reserves are the most important people on the field, the real tiger protectors and those who face heavy risks in their daily job. In many forests of India these people are not well equipped and often their work conditions are extremely unfavourable.
Enough funding must be allocated to ensure these patrols have the effective means to combat poaching and other illegal activities within the forest. Many organisations are working to implement such initiatives but there is still a lot of work to be done.
It’s also important to ensure that wildlife conservation doesn’t go against the well-being of local communities.
Kaziranga National Park in the far eastern state of Assam is a unique habitat, home to hundreds of species, the prominent ones being the endangered Greater One Horned Rhino and the Royal Bengal Tiger. In order to protect its animals, the park has a very strict policy when it comes to intruders. Its guards are allowed to shoot poachers if they’re caught within the park’s boundaries.
As the number of poached animals has effectively been reduced, other problems related to errors made by the forest guards have occurred.
On some unfortunate occasions, villagers who live very close to the forest have been injured or even killed by guards who had mistaken them for poachers.
It’s very difficult to draw the line on how to implement the perfect strategy for tiger conservation. .
Local communities should certainly be included in this process.
In the meantime, my thoughts go to all the people who are fighting daily for the survival of this incredible species, either by patrolling the forest, educating children, documenting or generally raising awareness for tiger conservation.
Bengal Tigress resting on a Sal tree in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, central India.