The latest report on tiger population is music to ears for conservationists in Kerala.
Officially, the country has doubled its tiger population in just over a decade — from a precarious 1,411 in 2006 to 2,967 in 2018.
India now has more than 75 per cent of the globe’s tigers trotting in the wild. The feel-good is justified as the national animal is faring well in most of the tiger range states despite several odds.
In Kerala, the population of big cats increased from 136 in 2014 to 190 in 2018.
Appreciably, the Management Effectiveness Evaluation, a global methodology to assess the functional efficiency of conservation efforts, has rated Periyar Tiger Reserve as the best managed in India along with Pench Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.
Further, with an excellent performance from Parambikulam (7th among the 50 odd tiger reserves in India), Kerala cumulatively stood high on overall conservation efforts among states.
Will it lead to more and more conflicts with people?
The numerical estimation is only a popular way of expressing population status. In scientific parlance, it follows an elaborate process of field verification with modern technology such as camera traps. Through this process, the density of tigers per 100 square kilometres is worked out for a particular area.
It is a range (with minimum and maximum) of tigers using a defined geographic area with clear distinction on resident and migrant tigers. For instance, Wayanad has the highest tiger density in Kerala.
However, they include both resident and migrants from Bandipur, Mudumalai and Nagarhole, all excellent tiger bearing forests. Hence, relying merely on numbers can be tricky and give alarming signals to the general public.
At All India level, tiger estimation is carried out once every four years. On this front too, Kerala is a leader as it does it every year.
Tiger is a highly emotional subject that can raise eyebrows and hasten heartbeats. Even when the euphoria abounds, some people have started challenging the claim on “substantial increase” in numbers. They say India has always had a good population of wild tigers but underestimated and this time it was more comprehensive and technically robust that brought more tigers under surveillance radar.
Even if we give partial credence to this argument, that does not take the sheen away from the fact that tigers have still been able to hold on to India’s last remaining wilderness amidst numerous challenges. It is a remarkable feat accomplished by the concerted efforts of foresters, conservationists and people.
Can this “increase in numbers” means reduced threats to tigers, always perceived as a species on the brink of extinction? The answer is an emphatic no.
There was a time when poaching was a major threat to their survival. But with much-improved enforcement infrastructure, active participation of local people in conservation, and vigil and consciousness among civil society, media and judiciary, this threat has been addressed quite successfully during the last two decades. But, there are more serious and pernicious challenges now, especially the qualitative and quantitative changes happening to their habitats.
There are rapid changes in the land-use. Climate change and the proliferation of invasive species have started impacting tiger habitats. Developmental incursions deep into their territories lead to their habitat fragmentation and degradation. Most of Kerala’s tiger habitats are also places occupied and used by humans.
Their aspirations for increased access to markets, communication, education, power, healthcare etc. may seem legitimate. However, this may not augur well for tigers as it destroys the much-needed inviolate areas for tiger conservation.
Interestingly, in many places, forest-dwelling communities themselves have now started demanding opportunities to move to alternate locations - either outside the forests or their periphery. The rationale is better developmental opportunities, minimal human-wildlife conflict and reduction in disaster risk and vulnerability.
Here lies an opportunity for securing tiger habitats in Kerala. While extreme care and sensitivity needed in handling such demands, especially concerning tribal communities who have a deeper organic relationship with forests. In the case of other non-tribal enclosures and private estates, relocation could also open up a window for securing vital tiger habitats.
Even from a developmental perspective, relocation would be a viable proposition as the cost of providing infrastructure to a forested settlement is going to be 10-20 times more. It will also have ancillary benefits such as reduced human-wildlife conflicts and avoiding the exorbitant cost of setting up barriers against wild animals transgressing into human habitations.
All the 44 rivers of Kerala and their innumerable tributaries originate from forested landscapes, and most of them are invariably good tiger bearing forests. As taught in school textbooks, the tiger is a flagship species occupying the top of the ecosystem and food chain. That means tiger plays a vital role in maintaining its stability through population control of herbivores who could otherwise overconsume the biomass and disrupt the ecological balance, particularly its hydrological functions.
There are innumerable examples around the world how predator-deficient ecosystems have degenerated much below their optimal water-yielding capacity. This is particularly significant in the context of Kerala where rainfall has become a highly erratic and hydrological cycle in disarray on account of the climate variability.
Stable forest ecosystems are a must for retaining the precipitation to ensure sustained flow in streams and rivers throughout the year.
The role of tigers in this has not been adequately captured the attention and imagination of the public so far.
Tiger conservation can be effectively integrated with livelihood generation for the most disadvantaged sections of the society like tribal communities with win-win dividends for conservation and livelihoods.
Periyar and Parambikulam reserves are excellent examples. The revenue generated around tigers, primarily through community-based ecotourism and associated activities has become lifelines to such far-flung areas in a significant way. These models have now been replicated across the country and seem to be working quite well in poverty reduction and people-inclusive forest conservation. Carefully planned, highly regulated, tiger-inclusive programmes could be an instrument to support the livelihoods of forest-fringe communities as an alternative to destructive, forest-depleting enterprises. Places like Wayanad hold enormous potential for this. There is a common apprehension that an increase in tiger population means more violent conflicts with humans. A few things need clarification here.
Conflict occurs mostly when either human beings intrude into tiger habitats for various reasons or when old, incapacitated tigers are pushed out of their home range by competing tigers. Tiger as a species prefers inviolate, disturbance-free habitats where prey is bountiful. So, to the extent possible, disturbance and incursions should be avoided. That itself will reduce conflicts substantially.
In the case of weak and incapacitated tigers pushed out of forests and those indulge in cattle lifting, etc., a strategy of adaptive management is needed specific to the situation.
Dealing with problematic tigers is a highly complex operation, and there are well laid out protocols for this. As their rehabilitation may involve capture and relocation, it would be highly desirable to develop proper facilities to house them.
Sensitisation of media, public and politicians is also crucial. There is a tendency to term even mere sighting of a tiger as a conflict widely circulated across the media. Such sensational reporting confounds the truth and evokes extreme responses from the public, affecting the rational decision making and the operational ability of the forest department. Wayanad is a case in point.
(Author is a chief forest conservator in Kerala forest department and the views expressed are strictly personal)
Future of conservation of tigers in Kerala
Wayanad has the maximum number of tigers in Kerala. They are located in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and the adjoining forest divisions or migrating between the tiger reserves of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It would have been natural to consider upgrading the status of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and other tiger-bearing forests as a tiger reserve.
That would have brought in the much-needed management capacity, reoriented priorities, augmented financial resources, improved livelihood opportunities and reduced human-wildlife conflicts in a significant way.
As the area is already a wildlife sanctuary and reserve forests, converting this as a tiger reserve would not have brought in any additional restrictions and difficulties (as feared by some), but only benefits.
Unfortunately, the sensational and protracted campaigns and inadequate awareness among the people have delayed this much-needed intervention.
The upgrading requires proactive engagement with and prior consent from local people.
Dialogues with various stakeholders initiated a few years ago must be
strengthened and brought to a productive conclusion.
Allaying fears and accommodating local concerns right from the beginning, along with strong political will, shall be crucial.
If we succeed in creating a people’s tiger reserve in Wayanad where conservation and livelihoods co-exist and enhance each other, that will be a big shot in the arm....