They say I am a pessimist. Here was the country in euphoria over its bumper crop of tigers, an increase of about 30 per cent, than the previous count of 1706, and here was I, muttering about corridors and fretting if the tiger had a secure future. Why?
The 2014 tiger estimation was surely a moment to celebrate, and I was as delighted as anyone-and far more-that India's tiger population has stabilised, indeed increased. At the same time, I am very worried that we are getting fooled by numbers-deluded into believing that 'all is well'. Truth be told, we are not giving the tiger the priority it deserves, and the will or commitment to save its habitat, is waning.
Reasons to worry about
The 2010 report clearly showed that tiger habitats outside of the reserves are declining, and corridors are being decimated and fragmented. The final report of the 2014 estimation, expected sometime soon, reportedly reiterates this.
And lost in the euphoria over the jump in numbers was another report, Connecting Tiger Populations for Long-term Conservation, by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), on India's key tiger corridors. The report stressed that vital connectivity between isolated reserves is very fragile, and increasingly threatened.
Most of our reserves are small, and are increasingly getting islanded. Such isolated tiger populations eventually hit a genetic dead end, and succumb to inbreeding depression, causing them to collapse. If we want the tiger graph to rise, or even remain stable, conserving tiger corridors and landscapes is crucial, and this is the weakest link in this success story.
Far from conserving vital wildlife habitats, there is no will to even ensure effective mitigation measures.
While this is happening across habitats, let's just focus on the expansion of National Highway 7 which cuts across the vital linkage that connects the Kanha-Pench tiger reserves and onward to Nagzira-Navegaon and Tadoba, one of the finest tiger landscapes in the world.
In its initial reports, the National Tiger Conservation Authority had clearly stated that the "road widening would 'irreversibly damage the tiger habitat' and 'should be implemented under no circumstances'. However, unmindful of the dire consequences, the road widening has pushed ahead.
The Wildlife Institute of India's mitigation plan was turned down by the National Highways Authority of India, for being unnecessary, impractical, and mainly as "too costly". The NHAI has bulldozed ahead with expansion, brushed aside wildlife concerns, and has come up with its own 'mitigation' plans with miniscule underpasses which may allow a jackal to sidle through, but short of shrinking the tiger...it is difficult to understand how it will allow the animal passage. What the underpasses would do instead is to serve as easy snares for poachers, and also get flooded during monsoons, rendering them ineffective.
If such a key corridor of one of the world's finest tiger habitats-and a very high-profile case-is being frittered away, what would be fate of other forests, habitats of creatures deemed 'lesser'.
This is just one example-across the country, the tiger habitat is under siege-the Ken-Betwa river linking scheme will drown the heart of Panna, a large chunk of critical tiger habitat, while the river linking of Godavari-Mahnadi will submerge the tiger habitat of Satkosia; a road is being constructed all along Dudhwa's periphery, bisecting vital tiger habitat, and dams across Arunachal threaten vital wildlife habitats downstream, including Kaziranga and Dibru-Saikhowa. And this is by no means an exhaustive list.
The steady erosion of regulations that govern wild habitats, weakening of conservation policies, and the overhauling-read dilution--of wildlife and forests laws (the key to our tiger success story), all geared to accommodate an aggressive growth agenda, and the increasing demand for land-and forests-for roads, power projects, mining, industry, infrastructure, will devastate tiger habitats.
If the foundation--the legal framework that secures forests and wildlife is weakened -- there is little hope.
The immediate ask to 'Save the Tiger'
Only about two per cent of India's geographical area constitutes protected tiger habitat. Even within this tiny area, there are highways, railway lines, canals, reservoirs, temples, townships, irrigation colonies, dams and mines-and we simply cannot afford to devastate and fragment these further. These reserves and the landscapes connecting them are no-go. Period.
Our foremost priority in conserving tigers should be to protect and consolidate their habitat. Among the factors that contributed to the recovery of tiger populations is fair and voluntary relocation, which has created inviolate habitats for wildlife. I repeat again, voluntary relocation of those staying within core critical tiger habitats to outside of the park, in places largely of their choosing, under the government's enhanced relocation package.
This is important for the welfare and advancement of marginalised communities who live in considerable hardship in remote forests, denied basic necessities such as access to healthcare, education and markets. They also face the brunt of human-wildlife conflict, which results in loss of livelihood, and in extreme cases injury or loss of life. Most communities living in remote forests are eager, if not desperate to move out. Forest dwellers from across tiger habitats have petitioned state and central governments and even courts seeking speedy voluntary relocation.
But the government, in its wisdom, has drastically cut the budget for Project Tiger (indeed of the wildlife sector) and voluntary relocation, and protection, has taken the hardest hit.
Another critical must-do is to recognise the gravity and scale of wildlife crime and empower institutions to combat the same. It has long been established that the illegal wildlife trade is an organised crime, second only to arms and narcotics in scale, and is annually calculated at over $25 billion worldwide. The trade is a known source of funding for global terrorist activities.
Importantly, India is a major 'supplier' of wildlife products-including tiger derivatives such as skins, bones etc. To deal with this serious crime we have a woefully under-equipped and toothless Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, which must be strengthened and empowered. Even more crucial is to have sufficient frontline forest staff and to enable, equip and empower them. Forest staff-our first line of defense to protect tigers and other endangered wildlife-live in the tough conditions, and the worst of odds. The forest department works with a skeletal staff, and do not have the powers for even basic requirements, like access to call detail records, which are crucial aids in investigations. They are not empowered to use arms. I know of a tiger reserve where the staff laid down their (virtually defunct) guns. When they used it to defend the tiger--against a gang of armed intruders--they had to personally fight chargers of murder in court, with no aid from the government.
The fact is, we commit to save the tiger, but saving the tiger isn't easy. The land the tiger treads has other-seemingly more lucrative and competing needs. Saving the tiger calls for hard choices, clarity in priorities, a commitment both in word and deed. Saving the tiger means we recognise the writ of the tiger in its habitat.
Prerna Singh Bindra is Editor, TigerLink and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. Her book on tigers for children is expected to release soon.