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Can we democratise tiger conservation in India?

GS Paper 3

 Syllabus: Conservation, Environmental Pollution and Degradation

 

Source: TH

 Context: As India celebrates 50 years of its Project Tiger (1973), there is a need to reflect on what needs to change in conservation practice in India.

 

Background:

  • The Tiger is an “umbrella species”. Hence, saving the tiger means saving the entire ecosystem.
  • Tigers in India occur in a wide range of habitat types, from the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats to the terai grasslands of the Himalayan foothills, and from the tropical dry forests of Rajasthan to the mangroves of the Sundarbans.
  • Project Tiger was able to sustain tiger populations in most of the geographical regions.
  • The Tiger Census 2022 (interim) indicated a 6.7% annual growth rate (in the last 4 years) in the number of Tigers.
  • The expected number would be approximately 3167, which is above the previous 2018-2019 estimate of 2,967 tigers.

 

Issues with India’s conservation practice:

  • Shifting baselines/conservation amnesia: The figure of 1,400+ Tigers estimated in 2006 resulted in the celebration of doubling the tiger population in 2019.
  • Reintroduction plan: This was done to reintroduce tigers from central Indian forests, where the populations are thriving.
    • However, this will lead to a loss of genetic diversity, reducing the hopes of maintaining long-term population viability and natural recovery.
  • Narrow and exclusive conservation practices: Conservation in India depends entirely on a network of Protected Areas (PAs) and the focus stayed on boosting tiger numbers rather than their habitat and concomitant (prey) species.
    • Also, all-natural habitats are managed by one agency and therefore the approach to conservation is singular and exclusive.
  • Lack of scientific oversight:
    • The most common interventions were to manipulate ecosystems so that they could support high densities of the Tiger’s principal prey species [“cheetalification” of tiger reserves].
    • However, in the Kanha Tiger Reserve, the explosion in the cheetal population made the habitat unsuitable for the endangered barasingha.
    • The excessive provisioning of water (in other parks) tends to reduce natural, climate-driven variations in populations of wildlife.
  • The Wildlife Protection Act 1972 – a restrictive law: There is no policy framework and incentive for ordinary citizens to aid in conservation – be it for tigers or for any other species.
    • As a result, conservation has not reached beyond these PAs.

 

Impact of Unscientific Tiger conservation practices:

  • Fifty years after the Tiger census, the number of Tigers has remained more or less the same.
  • The 2023 preliminary report, showed that
    • India is now losing tigers from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Eastern ghats and the Northeastern forests.
    • While tiger populations within protected areas in the W. Ghats have remained stable or increased, tiger occupancy outside of these regions has significantly decreased.

 

Way ahead:

  • Decentralise conservation: Frameworks that allow local communities, citizens, scientists, NGOs and businesses to participate meaningfully in conservation are needed.
  • For example, “Reserved Forests” can be co-managed with an approach that is inclusive and provides economic benefits for local communities.

 

Conclusion: Only by extending the reach of conservation beyond the present PA system and empowering local communities and ordinary citizens to meaningfully participate in conservation actual doubling of tigers and other embattled wildlife can be achieved.

 

Insta Links:

India celebrates 50 successful years of “Project Tiger”