In most cases the narratives in India about saving the Royal Bengal Tiger (panthera tigris) revolved around its majestic look which evokes an instant emotional bonding with the big cat that is struggling for its existence. No sane individual who has ever seen a wild tiger roaming freely in the natural settings, would go against the predator's existence. But can the tigers be saved only on the basis of a few group of people's emotional connect and therefore the desire to save it? We have seen how tigers and leopards have been brutally killed using lathis and stones, out of the hatred of villagers in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Assam, not to speak of organised gangs who poison them for poaching purposes.
Technology and Taskforce
Tiger conservation efforts started growing steadily as its number began dwindling fast after India gained her independence. At the turn of the last century, it is widely believed, India had 40,000 tigers with modern laws like Forest Conservation Act or Wildlife Protection Act not in vogue. Indian Wild Birds & Protection of Animals Act 1912 did exist during the British period. Nor was there an intensive tiger conservation programme like the Project Tiger. Yes, princely shikaris were there in abundance as the hunting of wild animals was permitted and killing tiger was a hobby linked directly to 'stature' of the Maharaja. A nation-wide census based on identifying and counting tiger pug marks was held in the summer of 1972 and the figure of just over 1800 animals was arrived at which was even fewer than the earlier estimate of 2500, counted in 1969. This bleak future of tiger made wildlife lovers anxious and with a nature lover Prime Minister in power, they approached Indira Gandhi who responded beyond expectations. This gave birth to Project Tiger in April 1973 with much fanfare and an initial investment of Rs four crore by the government of India, making it world's largest programme for wildlife protection then.That surely raised hopes of survival of tiger who was still far away from the national discourse. People like Karan Singh, Prince Bernhard of Netherlands, KS Sankhla and HS Panwar and such great tiger lovers and experts were associated with the Project Tiger. Looking back, the project did not really achieve what it had aimed at.
Upon 10 years of the project completion, Indira Gandhi was still worried as the local communities were hostile towards conservation efforts of the government. This led her to form the first Tiger Task Force in 1982 under Madhavrao Scindia's chairmanship.
But the growing human population, pressures on natural resources and poaching continued to add to the national animal's woes in the next few years. When tiger scientists and experts started getting reports of massive poaching and doubts were raised about fudging of census figures by forests officials to save themselves, the camera-trap method was introduced by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) to count each individual tiger in the wild. The pug mark method which was manual and easy to manipulate, was considered outdated and discontinued around 2006. The introduction of new technology showed just 1411 individual tigers in the country, creating an international uproar. This was the time the jungle ka raja was completely decimated from Sariska in Rajasthan and Panna in Madhya Pradesh. Tigers conservationists and lovers were never prepared for such a rude shock. Clearly, government efforts were falling much shorter than required to save tiger. Another task force was formed under well known environmentalist Sunita Narain. From its various recommendations came out the NTCA, now responsible for tiger's overall well being.
Target to double population
Today, with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) guiding the state forest departments with the use of technology, enhanced budgetary allocations, besides new landscape management theories, hopes for tiger are still alive. India is home to more than half of world's tiger population. It's also the only hope where the beautiful animal would survive. The last census showed us 2226 number of tigers in the PAs and it was 'celebrated' in the country because of the reliability of the number which reflected success of conservation practices. When Indira Gandhi had launched the Project Tiger, in all nine Tiger Reserves were created as exclusively protected forest landscapes as safe homes for tigers, which included MP's Kanha, UP's Corbett National Park, thorn-forest of Ranthambhor in Rajasthan, the mangrove jungles of Sundarbans and Assam's Manas tiger reserve, among others. Now, the number of Tiger Reserves has grown to 50 such forest areas across the country due to consistent demand to protect forests and its living species. Yet, the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) puts tiger under its 'Red List' of most threatened animals.
The Global Tiger Forum (GTF) with headquarters in India, had set a target at a meeting in Russia, of doubling the existing number across the globe and the strategy became popular as Tx2. Most tiger experts feel it's a tall order to achieve especially when economic growth appears to be the only parameter of the success of the government. Many wildlife experts speak in hushed tones that nature conservation, protection of wetlands and saving precious forests are not the priorities of the present political regime. Habitat fragmentation is also the biggest threat.They point out to the controversial Ken-Betwa interlinking project as a case in point, among many others. This project will almost finish Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh, with its tigers, gahrials and vulture populations, besides drowning thousands of well grown trees. But on the other hand the financial allocation to NTCA under Modi Government has increased from Rs 185 cr in 2014-15 to Rs 350 cr in 16-17, a fact that has largely gone unnoticed.
Eco services tiger renders
Since the economic idiom is dominating the national discourse, more so after Narendra Modi-led NDA government making economic growth as its mantra, a tiger's utility also needs to be measured in strict economic terms, more than emotional attachment. This could be the only strategy that would save the rare animal from all round hostilities. Although, Sreenivasa Murthy, the exceptional forester who turned around Panna tiger reserve from no tiger to now 45 animals there, says involvement of local communities and their active cooperation is a must if tiger has to survive in India. " In Panna, I brought down the animosity of people towards tiger and the park and succeeded in raising the number " he says.
A recent study by IIFM, Bhopal shows that a tiger extends many services to the human kind. Human well being is directly connected with the loss of biodiversity. Since tiger sits at the top of food chain, his survival and good health proves that a large number of other flora and fauna are also safe. So coming back to eco services provided by a tiger and its economic valuation, the study of six prime tiger reserves shows that services like carbon sequestration, tourism, grazing rights to villagers near a tiger reserve, soil conservation, pollination services, water provision, water purification, fishing, gene pool protection and employment generation are the important eco services which if monitised, they prove the real economic value of saving the tiger. Saving one tiger is worth a capital benefit of about 260 crores per year through such services, it says.
As said above if water is not available, no economic development can take place nor agriculture can survive. In addition, this study clearly show how a tiger is important in our economy which is a still rural based economy. Post Paris Climate Conference, forests and water, carbon sequestration and soil conservation have become national agenda. Tiger will surely contribute to achieve it.
If we have to secure our future, we have to be selfish and if we are selfish, we need to save tiger who in turn will save us, offering monetary benefits! Money matters, so does tiger !
(The author is member of MP Wildlife Board)