Five years ago a collective sigh of relief was breathed when a census put the number of tigers in the wild at 2,226 ~ it had dwindled to a three-figure level a little earlier.

The joy has been shortlived, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has recently released information that points to 656 unnatural deaths between 2012 and 2018. And in addition to the “standard” threat from poaching, a new menace has manifested itself in the shape of electrified fencing which had earlier taken a toll of several lions in the Gir forests.

Over the last couple of years politically-sanctioned “cattle protection” has resulted in famers fencing their fields to keep unwanted cattle away ~ the big cats could have become collateral damage, though none in authority would risk stating that openly. Yet it is widely admitted that about 40 per cent of the tigers now live beyond the protection of designated sanctuaries, so the risk has increased.

At the same time the pressure on land is increasing and there are slim chances of a substantial expansion in the size of the sanctuaries. Hopefully, apart from releasing revised figures a few months hence, the NTCA will also suggest new conservation strategies: the tigers are breeding well, but their land is running out. The malaise is nation-wide: with 148 deaths Madhya Pradesh topped the unhappy list, followed by Maharashtra (107), Karnataka (100) and Uttarakhand (82).

Even the death roll in the current year is headed by those two states. Poachers have also been active since the sale of body parts to China remains as lucrative as ever. Rail and road accidents are other factors too, but electrified fencing remains the “number one enemy”.

It might be worth the NTCA’s while to study how the problem was said to have been addressed in Gujarat ~ there too an increased population had resulted in the lions spreading beyond the protected zones. Yet, what works in one region need not necessarily work in another, “local expertise” needs to be tapped.

The key to all conservation lies in the priority it receives from the Central government down to the local forest management staff. While in the last few years a number of grandiose schemes have been announced, the protection of flora and fauna have hardly been mentioned. Even the cleansing of rivers has failed to attain targets: the ministry for environment and forests simply muddles along.

Even Maneka Gandhi has opted to play a token role. The government is so focused on “nationalism” (which translates into giving Pakistan a bloody nose) that the unique riches of the Indian jungle are consistently overlooked. The jungle is sorely in need of an energetic minister for environment and forest ~ regardless of his/her party\ affiliation.