There is every reason to applaud the finding of the latest tiger census that reveals a 30 per cent increase in the number of big cats in the wild – now projected as 2,226. With the figure two years ago estimated at 1,706 it confirms a continuing turn-around since the 2008 count of a mere 1,411 sent out shockwaves. A “lucky” Prakash Javadekar – lucky enough to be the minister to cash in on the efforts of others – was entitled to be ecstatic when releasing the census report at the opening of a meeting of officials entrusted with the management of tiger reserves. No less meaningful will be the action plan presented at the conclusion of that meet; there are several issues critical to the future of “stripes” that require attention.
Without undermining the efforts that have resulted in the population-rise virtually across the country, it must be noted that the tiger has flourished only in areas where a degree of protection has been provided. The “success” is attributed to more effective policing of game parks, sanctuaries etc; a crackdown on poaching and trading in wildlife material, and enhanced public awareness of the tiger&’s plight. The reality remains that beyond those specified protected areas the threat has not diminished – hence the term “living in the wild” has to be qualified. It is not as though more tigers are now running “free” than in 2008. There are no positive signs, perhaps there never will be, of a reduction in the “real” threat – the expansion of human activity that results in a shrinkage of the habitat of wildlife at large, the tiger (in the context of the Indian jungle) being at the proverbial top of the tree.
A crucial query remains – the number of tigers that the now-constricted habitat can sustain without “pressuring” the big cats to extend their domain and thus provoke further man-animal conflict. Estimates of the ideal population-level vary considerably but the bottom line remains that there must be no relaxation in the “management” effort – and the positive findings of the survey must be harnessed and converted into even higher levels of commitment in tackling poachers and preventing any further nibbling away at the land notified as parks etc. It is now imperative that the management effort is extended to the creation, or preservation, of the corridors linking one tiger habitat to another: “island forests” and in-breeding will eventually impact the gene-pool.
There must be no getting carried away by the minister&’s jingoism that “at a time when the global tiger population is under threat, it is heartening to see that the number of tigers in India is increasing.” Such comparisons belittle.