A roar 50 years in the making
From boasting more than 40,000 Royal Bengal tigers at the beginning of the 19th century, the number of tigers in India had depleted to 1,800 in the 1970s, which set off alarm bells.
NEW DELHI: Earlier in April, Project Tiger completed 50 years since inception. Launched in 1973, it aimed at the conservation and protection of the species owing to a drastic dip in their numbers due to poaching. Numerics were shocking when the programme was started. From boasting more than 40,000 Royal Bengal tigers at the beginning of the 19th century, the number of tigers in India had depleted to 1,800 in the 1970s, which set off alarm bells.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature had in 1969 sought a moratorium on the killing of tigers, and called for protecting the animals. It prompted then PM Indira Gandhi to ban tiger hunting for five years in India. Project Tiger was born as the result of a report compiled by a task force chaired by conservationist and Union Minister for Tourism Karan Singh in Sept 1972. Launched with an outlay of Rs 4 cr with just nine tiger reserves of varied ecosystems, the project now encompasses 53 tiger reserves today, spanning an area of more than 75,000 sq km, home to as many as 2,967 tigers (per AITE-2018), spread over 18 states. Over the past five decades, the funding towards this project has surged — with an allocation of nearly Rs 500 cr.
The creation of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in 2006 hoped to address the issue of tiger protection using scientific management and evaluation of tiger reserves, and to undo the damage wreaked by poachers and shrunken habitats. The national assessment of the status of tigers, co-predators and habitat which is conducted every four years was prompted by the tiger population that year — 1,411 which was lower than earlier forecasts. NTCA’s focus areas included relocating villages from core habitats, aided by the Special Tiger Protection Force.
Still, saving the king of the jungle is no mean feat. Non-holistic citizen centric policies, combined with an acute lack of political willingness, has led to conservation facing an uphill journey. Activists have called out the fashion in which tiger habitats and corridors are being destroyed in an attempt to build infrastructure projects like roads, railways and reservoirs.
Take for instance, the manner in which a proposed extension of the rail network across Central India poses a hazard of criss-crossing 13 tiger corridors spread over 23 reserves. More than a dozen animals have been run over by trains in the Gondia-Chanda Fort-Ballarshah stretch. Several corridors in the Central Indian Tiger Landscape (CITL) will be disrupted by the plans of the Indian Railways to beef up the number of railway lines.
But things are changing for the better. In an attempt to ensure a safe abode for wildlife in Jharkhand’s Palamau Tiger Reserve (PTR), the railways and the forest department will shortly embark upon a joint inspection to explore alternative routes outside its core area. The forest department was concerned that the proposed 11-km long railway line will bisect the reserve into two zones, and the frequent passage of trains would permanently fragment the habitat.
Apart from carefully planning highways and railway lines away from such corridors, power transmission lines will also need to be erected far from such protected zones to keep human contact to a minimum. The practice of tribal communities in forests consuming wild meat, which depletes the prey available to tigers is also a problem. Tiger habitats can be preserved, but only if a fine balance is maintained between development and conservation efforts.