Predator on the prowl

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Predator on the prowl

Anand Sankar / New Delhi February 23, 2008

With an alarming dip in the number of tigers in the wild, will human-beings succeed in eliminating them altogether? Anand Sankar argues that there’s still a fighting chance of their survival provided we control our greed.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has a new number to mull over ? 1,411 ? and this one isn’t going to grow at 9 per cent annually.

With just that many tigers in the wild, according to the recent National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) report, it’s hardly surprising the Prime Minister is personally leading the inquest into the disappearance of the royal Bengal tiger ? first from the Sariska National Park, prompting Manmohan Singh’s Tiger Task Force (TTF) to conduct a post-mortem into the “Sariska Shock” and deliver a comprehensive report on the issues facing the tiger in India. It’s first concrete outcome, a report on the Status of Tigers, Co-predators and Prey in India, has been released by the NTCA, the re-named avatar of Project Tiger.

The Prime Minister’s reaction to the dwindled numbers has been to post a Tiger Conservation Plan to the states, and he will soon chair a meeting with the stakeholders to finalise a plan for its implementation.

Valmik Thapar, conservationist and a panelist of the TTF, bluntly summed up the conundrum facing Dr Singh: “The Prime Minister has to see now how many tigers this country can manage, and where?”

The latest status report on the tiger, compiled over three years, is billed the most “scientific” assessment ever. It has covered all existing tiger landscapes in the country except the Sunderbans and the large swathes of jungle in the grip of the Naxal insurgency in Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Jharkhand.

The numbers are being hailed across the board for definitively debunking the earlier “pugmark census” which, for years, has been accused of grossly inflating tiger numbers, both due to genuine misinterpretation and mass malpractice.

Instead, the median of 1,411 has been arrived at using a combination of data collection (animal sightings and presence indicators), satellite imagery (layered with inherent factors such as habitat quality, human presence and livestock density), camera traps for direct imagery and, finally, tracking individual tigers using GPS and radio tracking.

But what is one to make of the number?

Dr Rajesh Gopal, member secretary, NTCA, says “the tiger numbers can be more”. The report addresses the long-standing issues plaguing the tiger ? direct poaching, subsistence killing of prey by humans and habitat degradation and loss ? but an analysis actually helps in identifying areas where the tiger has the best chance of survival.

These are “Nagarhole-Madumalai-Bandipur-Wayanad (south India), Corbett (Uttarakhand), Kanha (Madhya Pradesh) and possibly the Sunderbans (West Bengal) and Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong (Assam).” They are the last remaining contiguous tracts of forest for the tiger to roam in.

The common call for saving the tiger has been due to its position at the apex of the ecological food chain. But over the years, realisation has sunk in that the tiger is the “key piece” in a myriad, multi-layered jigsaw that encompasses a variety of interests ? primarily economic.

The TTF 2005 report points out that typically, tiger habitats are the most fertile and resource rich, thus facing the most acute human and development pressures.

Scientists Ullas Karanth and Raghu Chundawat have been the biggest proponents of using science for studying and managing the tiger in India. After years of being “sidelined”, they are finally being credited for their efforts, though Dr Karanth remains short of actually “endorsing” the report.

He says that using previously identified density benchmarks “there is habitat for up to 6,000-7,000 tigers. We can sustain that tiger density, it is doable”, blaming the large-scale subsistence hunting of prey “in the vast forests of the North-east, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa” for the disappearance of the tiger there.

When Project Tiger was envisioned in the ’70s, a minimum of about 2,000 sq km of core habitat was deemed necessary for a breeding population. It was soon revised to 1,500 sq km and now stands at between 800 and 1,000 sq km.

“That is the number needed for a breeding population of, say, 20 female and 10 male tigers. If there is good prey density, that can result in support for a total of 60-70 tigers, which includes cubs, juveniles and dispersing individuals,” says Dr Gopal.

Dr Gopal and his co-researchers have identified that 31,111 sq km needs to be the country’s “core tiger habitat”, which should be inviolate to human presence. For this purpose they have suggested that Rs 10 lakh be set aside to relocate and resettle each family settled in villages inside these areas.

If events during the TTF in 2005, when the panel was polarised on the issue of relocation and resettlement, are a barometer, it remains to be seen how the process will be smoothened now.

There is also the matter of the Forest Rights Act being passed. Shankar Gopalakrishnan, who is part of a campaign called Campaign for Survival and Dignity, insists that defining Critical Tiger Habitats (CTH) under the Wildlife Act a day before passing the Forest Rights Act, which already contained the Critical Wildlife Habitat (CWH) clause, was unnecessary and done in hurry.

“The notion that because of the Forest Rights Act one cannot relocate people, and that with the CTH people have no rights, is wrong. People have rights and relocation can be done only if it is voluntary and proven absolutely necessary. You need the right compensation packages, not just a financial package. You need a provision for alternate livelihoods,” he argues, insisting on a review of how these habitats are identified.

Gopalakrishnan cites cases of improperly implemented relocation attempts, such as at Sariska, where the relocated returned to the reserve because it is said the land they were granted by the state was “barren”.

He stresses on the need for alternate livelihoods by pointing to examples such as the Soliga adivasis in the BR Hills of Karnataka, who generate 60 per cent of their income from wild honey.

“We need a transparent process to monitor resettlement because there are huge sums involved,” says Gopalakrishnan. Others are pressing for a “Director of Resettlement” drawn from outside the government cadre to oversee the process autonomously.

Rights activists say the biggest threat is not humans but resource exploitation, and question the role of the Supreme Court’s Centrally Empowered Committee (CEC) on forests, of which Valmik Thapar is a panelist.

They quote data which says: “Forest diversion for other uses from 1980-2001 (before the CEC) was 8,27,857 hectares or an average of 37,629 ha per year. From 2002 to April 2006, with the CEC, 3,38,345 hectares or an average of 78,139 ha per year ? a rate of forest diversion 2.08 times greater than before the committee.”

Thapar insists that “every little patch of forest given was scrutinised in detail”. “We need to question the model of development. Everybody is after the land of the tiger, and this development is most going to affect the lives of simple people,” he says.

He adds that the CEC’s task is doing a thorough “double check” and cites the case of its coming to the aid of the people against Vedanta Alumina’s bauxite mining initiative in the ecologically sensitive Niyamgiri hills in Orissa’s Kalahandi district.

To give a fillip to the population of tigers, both Dr Gopal and Dr Karanth feel genetic exchange between surviving isolated populations is critical. While Dr Gopal’s team might soon reintroduce tigers to Sariska from Ranthambore, Dr Karanth and Thapar feel it is an expensive proposition that only “distracts attention”.

“We need to identify critical habitats outside current protected areas as some current areas are write-offs. We can use the money to resettle the right villages in the right habitats,” they argue.

What is worrying now is a perceived “rift” between the state governments and the centre. The Orissa government has a lot of explaining to do after the NTCA released camera trap images of subsistence level hunting of the tiger’s prey. Dr Gopal says the loss of prey is the biggest reason for just 20 tigers being identified at Simlipal.

Next in line is the Sunderbans. Despite the West Bengal government’s protests, official sources in the centre and eminent scientists say a “rude shock” awaits the nation when the numbers are officially released.

With more states expected to follow Orissa’s example of ordering an independent count based on the “pugmark method” to prove increased numbers, it remains to be seen how much time the tiger has, at least in the wild.

Median of estimated tiger population (excluding the Sunderbans and reserves under Naxal insurgency) ? 1,411

Number released during last census in 2001, using the pugmark method of counting ? 3,642

Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, home to the largest number of tigers at 300 and 290

Highest tiger density ? Corbett at 19.6 tigers per 100 sq km

Biggest shock ? Simlipal, where poachers were camera trapped, and the count has revealed only 20 tigers compared to the 100 claimed in the 2001 count

The Orissa government has gone on record to dispute the latest count and ordered an independent count using the old method

31,111 sq km of core tiger habitat identified in 17 states in the current report compared to 17,612 sq km in the TTF report in 2005

Since Project Tiger was launched in the early ’70s, 80 villages and 2,904 families have been relocated

Largest relocation ? Kanha in Madhya Pradesh, in the 1970s and 1980s, and also the most criticised

Most-lauded relocation ? Bhadra in Karnataka in 1998. The centre spent Rs 11.68 crore and the state Rs 4.65 crore. 439 families were settled in “extremely productive and irrigated land” at a cost of Rs 8.3 lakh per family against a stipulated Rs 1 lakh.

Current report recommends Rs 10 lakh per family

The TTF report estimated the relocation of 1,500 villages within the 28 tiger reserves. That is roughly 65,000 families or 3,25,000 people

NTCA gets about Rs 600 crore in the current five-year plan, and the final bill could be around Rs 1,600 crore

Six reserves ? Panna and Kanha, Melghat, Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam, Indravati, and Bandipur ? contain 217 of the 273 villages in the core areas. 79 per cent of the human habitations in the core areas of tiger reserves are found in these reserves

NTCA gives each tiger reserve Rs 2 crore annually. Its 2007-08 budget allocation was Rs 60 crore; the 2008-09 budget might raise it to Rs 80 crore. Total funds spent on the tiger since 1972 could be around Rs 2,000 crore

Ranthambore in 2003-04 saw 1,11,375 visitors, which earned it a revenue of Rs 1.67 crore. But the larger monies go to the hospitality industry, which has been known to charge up to Rs 30,000 for a night’s lodging and on occasion has been known to offer “guaranteed tiger sightings”

The conservation lobby has often been accused of being elitist and having a stake in the booming tiger tourism business

Upto $25 million is rumoured to have been pumped into Tiger NGOs by foreign donors

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