We have achieved our goal of doubling our tiger population four years ahead of schedule – but is this the point where we applaud our own success or is it the beginning of an even greater crisis? Would merely doubling the numbers ensure the long-term survival of tigers?
In a tremendous turning point for a species on the brink of extinction, the global tiger population has stabilised and potentially increased, according to the latest International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species Assessment, led by Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation.
New data suggests a potential 40% increase in tiger numbers, from 3,200 in 2015 to 4,500 in 2022, despite extreme threats. Signalling a potential comeback for the big cat in the Year of the Tiger, this represents the first potential climb in the species' numbers in decades.
Panthera scientists cautioned that although new data suggest more tigers exist in the wild than previously estimated, this is partly due to improvements in or a more complete counting of the species, which has made population comparisons over time unreliable.
Is This Then Cause for Celebration? To Rest Easy Knowing That We Have Saved This Iconic Species From Extinction?
The increasing tiger numbers can be very heartening but what about the essentials for their survival – water availability, habitat betterment, prey availability, and the resolution of man-animal conflict?
The truth is that our protected area carrying capacity has not been increased and tigers are spilling out into human-dominated areas, resulting in rising conflict.
We have a poor understanding of movement patterns of dispersing tigers, and little work is being done to sensitise people about how to deal with tigers who stray into human habitation areas. Each day, we see stories of tigers or humans that have been fatally wounded from all parts of the tiger's range in India.
With a burgeoning human population, increased demands for all natural resources, a thrust on development, and a rising pressure for the creation of jobs, it is becoming difficult to balance the needs for environmental conservation and combating climate change with the pace of development projects.
India's Progress With Wildlife Conservation & Tourism
Huge strides have been made in wildlife conservation in India, especially the conservation of tigers in the country. Looking back over the past fifty years, I realise that some things have changed for the better, and yet, many things have been adversely affected. One of these things is the impact of mass tourism in popular Tiger Reserves.
The size of tourist flow in valuable natural areas affects the quality and conservation status of wilderness spaces. This is a kind of paradox – the more valuable and attractive the natural area is in the opinion of tourists, the greater the tourist flow, which translates into a greater threat to the habitat and wildlife in the protected area.
The excessive attendance of visitors, the increase in the number of tourist trails in the most popular places, trampling wild paths, damaging root systems, and trees, destroying vegetation and soil, noise pollution, light pollution, disturbing animals, causing fires, littering, changes in landscape and microclimate, and synanthropisation of flora and fauna and changes in the structure of biocenoses, anthropogenic denudation, excessive use of precious water resources, the introduction of non-biodegradable plastics and chemicals and wood burning – all of which diminishes the aesthetic values of the park and has a negative impact on the animal world.
Equally disturbing is the growing realisation in the wildlife scientific community that traditional tiger-centric conservation policies adversely affect other endangered species, especially leopards, bear, wild dogs, and hyena. Some traditional practices like burning for grassland management are showing a negative impact on prey species for the tiger as well.
Issues for Long-Term Survival of the Tiger
Issues for long-term survival of the tiger continue to grow with studies on the impact of island populations. Scientists agree that many more genomic studies are required on tiger populations to decide on conservation strategies.
New research shows that although India's two large, well-connected tiger populations (in south India and central India) are genetically quite robust, tigers in the northwest (from Ranthambore and Sariska) are showing high levels of inbreeding.
These tigers' parents were not only related to each other but were most likely close relatives. Such a genetic history has caused the northwest tiger populations to bear large mutation loads, which puts them at a high risk of inbreeding depression.
Threat Posed by Climate Change
Climate change, too, continues to threaten vital tiger habitats, especially in the Sundarbans. This is one of the most fragile ecosystems along the coastal belt of India and is home to the largest population of tigers in the country. One study warns that its model predicts that due to the combined effect of climate change and sea-level rise, there will be no suitable Bengal tiger habitat remaining in the Sundarbans by 2070.
Many of the non-protected forests across India have lost their tiger populations for over a century. Although the recent tiger census report states that the number of tigers has doubled, the region is no longer the sprawling abode of tigers it used to be about a century ago. Tigers in the country now primarily stay within the protected areas but acute anthropogenic pressure over time has led to their decline or disappearance from most non-protected forests.
Need for a New Vision
What is urgently needed is a new vision, a new commitment by the government. One that takes a more holistic approach to the sustainable conservation of ecosystems and not merely focuses on the increasing number of a single species.
We need to continue to address the most pressing threats facing tigers – poaching and habitat loss.
Besides securing protected areas, we need to conduct scientific monitoring of tiger and prey populations in non-protected areas, have intensive training and sensitisation programmes for communities living on the edge of tiger habitat in handling big cat encounters, genetic studies of island populations to understand conservation needs, and to maintain critical habitats keeping in mind the needs of multiple species and not just the tiger.
The tiger is our national animal – we need to renew our commitment to the future of this iconic animal of India.
(Latika Nath is an Indian author, photographer, and wildlife conservationist. In 2001, she was awarded the title of 'The Tiger Princess' by National Geographic, which featured her in a one-hour documentary film. She has worked since 1990 for the conservation of tigers in India.)
(This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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