“The tiger is the very soul of India, and when the last tiger has gone, so will the soul of the country” – Ruskin Bond
Is all really well with India’s national animal?
Today, on World Tiger Day 2019, the Indian prime minister Shri Narendra Modi released the most-recent tiger census, undertaken by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). As of 2019, India is home to 2967 tigers, a nearly-33% increase from the last tiger census in 2014, marking a rise in the largest global tiger population and making enormous steps towards fulfillment of the goal prescribed in 2010 Global Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
All five tiger landscapes in India – the Shivalik and Gangetic Plains, the Western Ghats, the Northeast, Central India, and the Brahmaputra Plains and Sundarbans – showed an increase in tiger populations, with the highest increase recorded in Central India. Madhya Pradesh moved up to the position of state with the highest tiger population (526), closely followed by reigning tiger state Karnataka (524) and Uttarakhand (442). Tamil Nadu’s Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve was awarded for the strongest management of all tiger reserves in the country. Generally, tigers have seen an increase across India; however, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram recorded a decrease in their tiger populations. Every victory is accompanied by a small defeat, especially in conservation.
While India has traditionally maintained a strong culture of conservation, our national animal is not quite as cushioned from the threat of extinction as these rising population numbers might indicate. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), 76 tigers have died since the beginning of 2019. The most recent mortality was in Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, Uttar Pradesh, where a mob beat a tigress to death after she allegedly attacked a youth near a village. The villagers entered the forest to harass and eventually mortally wound the tigress, inciting rage across the country. Despite strict laws protecting forest areas and wildlife, India’s national animal took a public beating that brought India to the forefront of global news for the wrong reasons.
If India is experiencing a rise in its tigers, it is also experiencing a fall in the natural resource base available to support these big cats. Tigers, like all members of the cat family, require large tracts of forested land to survive. Forests provide habitat for the prey base of this big cat; preferred prey species include spotted deer, sambar, wild boar, gaur (Indian bison), nilgai, or other species in approximately the same weight class as the tiger.
The tiger is not extremely particular as to the type of forest it occupies. These big cats are found in inhospitable habitats such as the mangrove swamp forest of the Sundarbans, in West Bengal, as well as in the arid scrub thorny forests of Ranthambhore in Rajasthan. They are found in the lower foothills of the Himalayas and in the dry deciduous forests of Central India, where Kipling wrote of Mowgli and Sher Khan. Tigers roam in the wet tropical rainforests of the Western Ghats and were found in the similar rainforests of Northeast India before hunting wiped out large portions of their population in the latter. So yes, the tiger may not complain as to the type of forest available to it, but it does require intact forest. It is when the forest is cut down for development and agriculture that the tiger stalks out of its realm and into that of humans.
In 2017, the Forest Survey of India published its State of the Forest report, which states that 21.54% of India’s terrestrial land cover is under forest. But these forests are ever-shrinking. As urbanization continues to take a toll on our large patches of forest, we are increasingly faced with issues of humans and large wildlife coming into contact. It is common to hear reports of tigers making away with livestock or even injuring human lives in villages on the fringes of our national parks and protected areas. Is this because the big cats are out to kill us, as media often sensationalizes such incidents? No. Tigers, much like leopards and elephants, are large mammals with extensive territories that they patrol frequently. The territory of one adult male tiger overlaps with the territories of one to three females, allowing for more mating opportunities and gene flow. As we continue to build linear intrusions such as roads, railway lines, and power lines through forests, we are creating barriers to gene flow and fragmenting territories, leading to a situation of too many tigers and not enough space. When this happens, we see an increase in the incidences of tigers venturing into human settlements. Did anyone ever ask the tiger if it wanted to be in a village? I think if we tried we would certainly not hear the affirmative.
How can we ensure that tiger numbers continue to increase in our country given the oft-warring processes of development and conservation?
Reducing the presence of linear intrusions and ensuring the maintenance of wildlife corridors can make a large difference to the survival of a wild tiger. During my thesis research at Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, I assessed the quality of wildlife corridors leading from Ranthambhore to nearby forest patches and the usability of these corridors by tigers. Human activity, especially grazing, sand mining, and land conversion for agriculture were chief causes of habitat degradation and corridor disuse by wildlife. This is an issue seen across India’s protected areas. If we cannot ensure the sanctity of our protected areas, then we cannot ensure a rise in the tiger population. Reproduction may occur, but where will these cats establish territories? Competition is fierce and claws can inflict mortal wounds.
An India without tigers is an India without her soul. Can we leave enough space for these wild cats to make a comeback in their largest stronghold? It is pitiable that despite the tiger being our national animal, we as Indians are willing to overlook the environmental damage that denies this cat its natural habitat and a fair chance at survival. For a nation that preaches compassion, a nature-based lifestyle, and unity, we have done little to live in harmony alongside large wildlife.
An India without her tigers is not the India that I envision.