The Tiger in India
“No wild animal in the past hundred years has arrested the imagination of man to the extent that this greatest of living felines has…It is at once an enigma and the epitome of all that is grand and wild inanimate nature…Indian Wildlife – M.K. Ranjitsinh”
With stripes that ripple when he walks, eyes that glitter in the darkest hour, a tail that flicks when disturbed and ears that twist when enraged…The Royal Bengal Tiger is one of India’s most precious and beautiful baguettes. An enigma to most, this feline has a fascinating mythological and anthropological history with the people of India. Respected and lauded for his being, the Tiger gained much popularity in the bygone era.
About a hundred years ago it was easy to see the tiger in its natural habitat – around 100,000 of them roamed across Asia, including several sub-species that are now sadly extinct. However, this population is slowly depleted because of man-made hunger. Hunting for pleasure became a common affair and the tiger seemed to disappear, province by province, leaving behind only data and narratives of its presence.
The decline in Tiger Population
In the early 19th century they were reported in the unlikeliest of places. For instance, in 1822 a Tiger appeared to have come from the Malabar Hills to drink water at the Gowalia Tank, which is now the middle of metropolitan Mumbai. They were also regular visitors for several British Troops in Rajasthan and Southern India. Dunbar Brander summarized that “At one time in parts of India at the beginning of the 19th century, they were so numerous that it seemed to be a question whether man or tiger would survive.” Little did anyone know that their presence would be cherished and craved for only a few centuries later.
Over the last few decades, India witnessed such unfortunate events that led to a slow yet ill-fated decline of the Royal Bengal Tiger. In what was known to be the erstwhile Bombay Presidency in western India, 1053 Tigers were killed between 1821 and 1828 to claim rewards offered to them by the administration. Similarly, 349 tigers were killed in the Central Provinces of India during a six-month period in 1864. In 1877 alone, 1579 tigers were killed in British territories in India, excluding the Indian states. Such large-scale slaughter was the primary, if not the only reason, behind India’s depleting tiger population.
Over time, as humankind has assimilated and organized itself, it has pushed wildlife and various ecosystems to the point of no return. Self-defense, the cruel act of Sport Hunting and Poaching and finally the economic aims of the developed world has pushed the wildlife population to dangerously low levels. Some of the major reasons for a sudden drop in tiger population were:
- Habitat Loss: In a bid to achieve development goals, we continue to encroach upon territory that’s rightfully theirs. Cutting forests to build highways, pushing the agricultural boundary further into the jungle, and illegally collecting timber, are some of the major reasons why we’re losing the world’s biggest cat. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) commissioned a study by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) to highlight what percentage of India’s forests in tiger habitats are really capable of supporting them. In the case of the Shivalik belt, comprising one of the most important national parks of India, Corbett, only 20.34 percent were found capable of really holding tigers. The remaining areas are degraded and under pressure from human activity.
- Loss of prey species: Growing human populations, particularly since the 1940s, have contracted and fragmented the tiger’s former range. Although the extensive habitat is available in some landscapes, agriculture, clearing of forests for development – especially road networks, hydel projects are forcing tigers into small and scattered islands of remaining habitat. Tigers need comparatively larger territories and along with habitat, they have also suffered a severe loss of natural prey populations – in particular ungulates such as deer and antelopes.
- Hunting, poaching, and illegal trade: For over a thousand years, tigers have been hunted as a status symbol, decorative items such as wall and floor coverings, souvenirs and curios, and for use in traditional Asian medicines. Tigers were prized as trophies and as a source of skins for expensive coats. Hunting for sport probably caused the greatest decline in tiger populations until the 1930s. In the early 1990s, trade in tiger bone for traditional Asian medicines threatened to drive tigers to extinction in the wild.
Increase in Tiger Population
India has emerged to be one of the safest havens for Tigers and its future. The country is burning bright with an ever-increasing tiger population, more forest reserves, forest coverage and better conservation efforts.
Project Tiger: A Brief
Launched by the Government of India in 1973, the main agenda of this statutory authority is to promote the conservation of the Tiger.
The implementation of Project Tiger over the years has highlighted the need for a statutory authority with legal backing to ensure tiger conservation. On the basis of the recommendations of the National Board for Wild Life chaired by the Hon’ble Prime Minister, a Task Force was set up to look into the problems of tiger conservation in the country. These recommendations include
- Strengthening Project Tiger by giving it statutory and administrative powers
- Creating the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau.
- An annual report should be submitted to the Central Government for laying in Parliament, so that commitment to Project Tiger is reviewed from time to time, in addition to addressing the concerns of local people.
This statutory authority is now the NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority). The NTCA addresses the ecological as well as administrative concerns for conserving tigers, by providing a statutory basis for the protection of tiger reserves, apart from providing strengthened institutional mechanisms for the protection of ecologically sensitive areas and endangered species.
The success story of increasing tiger numbers
According to the All India Tiger Estimation Report 2018, the tiger population in the country has grown from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,967 in 2018. The main reason: Project Tiger, better management and precise counting methods.
This is by far the biggest increase in terms of both numbers and percentage since the four-yearly census using camera traps and the capture-mark-recapture method. The biggest increase has been witnessed in Madhya Pradesh with an increase from 218 individuals in 2014 to 526 in 2018. In Maharashtra, the numbers have gone up from 190 to 312, and in Karnataka, from 406 to 524. Uttarakhand has gained over an incredible 100 tigers (340 to 442).
However, since tigers keep moving between states, conservationists prefer to talk about tiger numbers in terms of landscapes. India’s five tiger landscapes are: Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains, Central Indian Landscape and Eastern Ghats, Western Ghats, North-East Hills and Brahmaputra Plains, and the Sundarbans.
The success owes a lot to increased vigilance and conservation efforts by the Forest Department. From 28 in 2006, the number of tiger reserves went up to 50 in 2018, extending protection to larger numbers of tigers over the years. Healthy increases in core area populations eventually lead to migrations to areas outside the core; this is why the 2018 census has found tigers in newer areas. Over the years, there has been an increased focus on tigers even in the areas under the territorial and commercial forestry arms of Forest Departments. The other important reason is increased vigilance and the fact that organized poaching rackets have been all but crushed.
The tiger population increase also highlights the health of the forests. Since tigers are at the top of the food chain, a rise in their numbers means there has been a rise in herbivores, and, before that, a rise in the plants that the herbivores eat. A healthier forest is better able to absorb carbon, a major climate change mitigation measure.
Therefore, it is only wise to protect the big cat, for you know not how they protect us and our forest cover.