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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

India's tigers struggle for space

Even as tiger numbers have increased from 1,411 in 2006 to 1,706 in 2010, their habitat has shrunk. According to a report on the 'Status of Tigers in India,' the loss of habitat has been mostly in places outside protected areas. This means that man is literally eating up the forests, and beyond the protected fences, tigers face a certain death, observes Atula Gupta

In March this year, the Ministry of Environment announced that the tiger population of the country had increased from 1,411 in 2006 to 1,706 in 2010.

This caused a flutter among environmentalists around the world, who hailed India’s efforts to finally usher in some good news when most other species under threat were still in the danger zone. But amidst the celebration, what got overlooked was the other revelation of the census - the fact that more than 12 per cent of the habitat of the Indian national animal has shrunk in the past four years.

The combined effect of the two statistics therefore alters the picture in a major way. It signals a warning that if the imbalance continues, it can only lead to further problems for the animal and the entire ecosystem of the country.

The report ‘Status of Tigers in India’ cited two important points. The surveyors found that compared to 2006, the estimates showed a 20 per cent increase in the tiger population. They also found that tigers now occupied an alarmingly lesser area than 2006. From 93,600 square kilometres to just 72,800 square kilometres, their home had shrunk. What further added to the worry is that close to 30 per cent of the  estimated tiger population was outside the 39 tiger reserves and India does not have a strategy to protect the big cats in these areas.

The real picture
For tigers in India today, therefore, the scenario is far from being less threatening. In fact, it has turned more complicated because while the number of tigers has increased, there is not enough space to contain them. According to the report, the loss of habitat has been mostly in places outside the protected areas. This means that man is literally eating up the forests, and beyond the protected fences, tigers face a certain death.

Biologists say this is a rather alarming turn of events because it may not just lead to more human-animal conflict in the future but also restrict the healthy growth of tiger numbers. With no access to different breeding populations in other parts of the country, the genetic exchange will be reduced to zero and inbreeding will eventually weaken the entire tribe of an area.

The greatest fear now is that if the tiger population is wiped out at one place, it can still be re-introduced, but if it does not have any place to live, no amount of re-introduction and relocation can help in its survival.

Y V Jhala, lead author of the report says, “The loss of corridors does not bode well for the tiger. Poaching can wipe out individual tiger populations, but these can be re-established by reintroductions as has been done in the Sariska and Panna Reserves. However, once habitats are lost, it is almost impossible to reclaim them for restoration.”

The most natural progression for the tigers looking for new territories is to roam outside the protected areas and under current circumstances that is what might spell their doom. First they will not find a habitat they are used to and second they will face humans. Looking at India’s history of tackling incidents such as these, the wild animal will unquestionably be the last one to be saved if human life is threatened.

Tiger and its habitat
India is home to half of the world population of tigers with just 3,600 tigers worldwide. We have a significant role in ensuring that the species is protected not just for the sake of the country, but for the whole world.

Within the country, the Nagarhole-Mudumalai-Bandipur-Wayanad reserve forests have 534 tigers, which has the single largest population of tigers in the world. This proves that especially in the Western Ghats belt, the increasing population needs more habitat, and the major hindrance to declaring more protected areas is infrastructure growth.

“Many tiger reserves are under threat from coal mining, hydel power projects and irrigation projects. There is a need for nine per cent economic growth and there is no dispute in that, but we have to reconcile growth with environment,” said former environment minister Jairam Ramesh. The task now is to have a multiple action plan. Reduce poacher insurgency, increase forest cover, reduce human-animal conflict and increase protected areas.

India’s chance to save the tiger is also a chance for the country to save its forests and create a self-sustaining ecosystem. Rising tiger numbers is not a hindrance to growth but a means to sustain it. The problem is not restraining the tigers, but finding equilibrium between development and biodiversity. If India can step up to the challenge, then the country can rightly take pride in its efforts to save tigers.

Tiger bones seized from two suspected poachers

The seizure of a sack filled with tiger bones from two men suspected to be involved in poaching is threatening to turn conservation measures into a myth. The sack also contained five skins of barking deer and spotted deer, all bearing bullet holes. The deer are also protected animals under Schedule III of the Wildlife Protection Act.

Officials fear that the two men arrested are involved in the lucrative, but illegal trade of tiger bones. What is more alarming though, is that officials suspect the animal to have been poached in the vicinity of the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, an area heavily monitored by forest guards. Officials believe that the case would draw the wrath of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau.

Normally, wildlife sleuths stumble on tiger skins. But it’s hard to establish a case of poaching from the skin alone. The bones are a different matter, and is indicative of a true case of illegal hunting. Police have begun investigations in Bangalore and Kushalnagar, where the arrests and seizure were made.

“We were shocked as this is probably the first time we have found tiger bones,” a source, who was present during the seizure, said. “We hope this gives us leads to the bone trade, which is a serious concern.”

The two men arrested in the Bharatinagar police station limits on Sunday were identified as Chidananda and his associate.

Both have a criminal past. Police also recovered deer horns and a skull from them. The tiger bones are said to be of an adult animal. One of the accused claimed he found the contraband in Dubare, Kodagu district. However, officials suspect the origin to be between Dubare and Nagarahole — right in the middle of a tiger reserve.

Police are now searching for the tiger’s paws and other body parts, which will provide more leads into the case. Those found guilty of poaching tigers face a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment under Section 51 (1) c of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act.

“The bullet holes are cause for grave concern,” said Sharath Babu, honorary wildlife warden, Bangalore. “Entering a forest area with an illegal weapon attracts charges of hunting under the Wildlife Act. A thorough investigation has to be done to crack the case and bring those involved to book.”

Pramod Kumar, sub-inspector, Bharatinagar, said, “Yes, we have arrested two people and have seized a bag full of bones and other wildlife products. An investigation is being conducted and details cannot be divulged at this stage.”