An increase in its population is gratifying but the tiger still faces problems, including the frequent man-animal conflicts. A national-level strategy is needed to manage this interface

Jim Corbett wrote in the Man-Eaters of Kumaon, the “tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated —as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support — India will be the poorer, having lost the finest of her fauna.” Had the legendary hunter-turned conservationist and writer been alive, he would have noted with relief the contents of the latest estimation report on the number of tigers, titled the Status of Tigers, Co-Predators, Prey and their Habitat, 2018, released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 29, annually observed as Global Tiger Day. The report puts the number at 2,967, which marks an increase of 33 per cent over the figure of 2.226 in the estimated tiger count in 2014 and a phenomenal 210 per cent over the 2006 figure of 1,411.

The increase is gratifying because it comes as a part of a continuing upward trend since 2006. Besides it represents one of the few instances in which the Union or a State Government’s efforts have succeeded. It all started in 1970 when the Union Government banned the hunting of tigers throughout the country. Two other important developments followed in 1972. The country’s first tiger census put the number of the striped lords of the jungles at 1,827. More important, Parliament passed the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, for protecting animals, birds, reptiles and plants. It prohibited the capturing, killing, poisoning or trapping of wild animals, the injuring, destroying and removing any part of a wild animal’s body, also forbade disturbing or damaging of the eggs of wild birds and reptiles. It further prohibited the picking, uprooting, destruction, acquisition and collection of specified plants and trade in these. The Act also provided for the creation of sanctuaries and national parks where wildlife would be safe and for restriction of entry into these. More, it provided punishment for each category of crime.

The Act was an important step as the Wild Birds and Animals Protection Act of 1912 (eight of 12) and the various State laws prevailing until then offered little protection. It was, however, aimed at wildlife in general and not specifically tigers. For the latter, Project Tiger was launched on April 1, 1973, with two objectives — identification of the causes of shrinking tiger habitats, adoption of remedial measures and repair, to the extent possible, of the damage already done; and, second, the maintenance of a viable tiger population.

The project’s distinguishing feature has been the creation of sanctuaries, called Tiger Reserves, to protect tigers from poaching and other threats. Against nine spread over 9,115 square kilometres at the beginning, there are now 50 of these encompassing an area of 74,749 square kilometres. No human activity is allowed in their core areas, while limited access is granted to the buffer zones around these. Strong action is being taken against poaching with rangers and forest guards being provided wireless communication systems, improved weaponry and facilities for rapid movement.

Funded by the Union Government, administered by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC), and functioning under the direct supervision of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), set up under the provisions of the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Act, 2006, Project Tiger has made the most important contribution to increasing the number of tigers. One, however, has also to take into account the efforts made to protect wildlife from crimes against it, which has helped significantly, particularly since poaching to meet the demand abroad for tiger body parts for their allegedly medical and aphrodisiacal value, has been a contributory factor in the decline in numbers. In this context, one needs to recognise the critical role played by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) set up in 2006 under the same amendment act that established the NTCA.

A statutory multi-disciplinary body under the MOEFC, to combat organised wildlife crime in the country, it collects and collates intelligence pertaining to organised wildlife crime and disseminates the same among State and other enforcement agencies for immediate action. Its functions also include the establishment of a centralised wildlife crime data bank, co-ordination of actions by various agencies in enforcing the Act’s provisions and assistance to foreign authorities and international organisations to facilitate global action against wildlife crime. Among other things, it also helps to improve the capacity of agencies combating wildlife crime to conduct scientific and professional investigations and assists State Governments to successfully conduct prosecution for the same.

A proud feather in its cap has been the United Nation Environment Progamme’s conferring on it in November last year of an Asia Environment Enforcement Award in the Innovation category for successfully innovating enforcement techniques that have dramatically improved action against trans-boundary environmental crimes in India. Earlier, in 2010, it had received the prestigious Clark R Bavin Wildlife Law Enforcement Award for outstanding work on wildlife law enforcement. Not surprisingly, its actions, along with those of other enforcement agencies, have resulted in the arrest of 350 wildlife criminals and huge seizures of tiger/leopard skins, rhino horns, elephant ivory, turtles/tortoises, raw mongoose hair, mongoose hair brushes, protected birds, marine products, live pangolins, deer antlers and so on across the States.

There is, however, hardly any scope for complacence. Human-tiger conflicts are becoming more frequent as the increase in the number of tigers continues along with growing human encroachments into their habitats in the form of new settlements, more extensive farming, infrastructure, and environmentally-disastrous industrial projects benefitting blue-eyed entrepreneurs. In this context, there is an urgent need to implement the NTCA’s suggestion for developing a national level strategy for management of human-tiger interface and dispersing tigers in compliance to its standard operating procedure, ensuring active collaboration between district administrations, police and forest department personnel, and, when required, for mob management to ensure safe capture or movement of animals.

All this, however, will not help if State Governments clear projects threatening the tiger’s survival. Two examples come immediately to the mind. Maharashtra sanctioned last year the diversion of 467.5 hectares of forest land in Yavatmal district for a cement plant. Also, its recommendation has led to the clearance, in principle, of 87.98 hectares of land in Kondhali and Kalmeshwar ranges — barely 160 km from Yavatmal — to an explosives company in Chakdoh for manufacturing defence products.

Unfortunately, tigers do not vote. Nor do they contribute to the funds of political parties.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)