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Editorial of the Day: On Democratising Tiger Conservation (The Hindu)

Context: The article is discussing the state of tiger population 50 years after the launch of Project Tiger- India’s a conservation initiative aimed at protecting the country’s tiger population. It highlights the 2023 preliminary report that notes the declining success of the project in preserving the tigers which are currently facing the threats of habitat loss, poaching, and human-wildlife conflict. The article further discusses the potential reasons behind this decline, as well as possible solutions to address the issue to save the remaining tiger population.

On Democratising Tiger Conservation Background

About the Project Tiger:

  • Background: It was launched in 1973 from the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand.
    • It was initiated in response to the rapid decline in the tiger population due to poaching, habitat loss, and other human activities.
    • It was initially launched in 9 Tiger reserves (TRs) in different states of India.
  • Aims and objectives:
    • To ensure the survival and maintenance of the tiger population in specially constituted Tiger reserves throughout India.
    • Reduce the causes of habitat loss for tigers and take appropriate management measures to counteract them.
    • To the greatest degree, habitat degradation must be repaired to allow ecosystem recovery.
    • Maintain a healthy tiger population for environmental, scientific, cultural, and aesthetic reasons.
  • Key features of the Project Tiger:
    • It is a Centrally Sponsored Scheme of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.
    • Implementing Agency: National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) was established through WildLife (Protection) Amendment Act, 2006 to provide statutory authority to Project Tiger.
    • Funding pattern: Centre provides financial assistance to States of 60% and 50% for expenditure on all non-recurring items and expenditure on recurring items respectively. North Eastern and Himalayan States are provided 90% central assistance in both cases.
    • Adopting core buffer strategy to manage TRs: The various tiger reserves were created in the country based on the ‘core-buffer’ strategy.
      • Core area: The core areas are free of all human activities. It has the legal status of a national park or wildlife sanctuary.
      • Buffer areas: The buffer areas are subjected to ‘conservation-oriented land use’. They comprise forest and non-forest land.
    • Community participation: Project Tiger recognizes the importance of involving local communities in tiger conservation efforts and promotes their participation in decision-making processes.
    • Habitat improvement: The project aims to improve the quality of tiger habitats by taking measures such as controlling poaching, managing forests, and reducing human-wildlife conflict.
  • Success/Performance of the Project Tiger
    • Increase in tiger population: According to the recently published ‘5th cycle of India’s Tiger Census’, the tiger population in India has grown from 1,411 in 1972 to 3,167 in 2022.
    • India’s achievements in the tiger conservation:
    • Highest tiger population in the world: India currently harbours more than 70% of the global wild tiger population, which is increasing at an annual rate of 6%.
    • TX2 achievement: India achieved the targets set under TX2 initiative in 2018 (4 years in advance). Tx2 is the global goal to double the number of wild tigers by the year 2022. It was adopted in 2010 at the St. Petersburg Tiger Summit by 13 tiger range countries.
    • CA|TS accreditation: 14 Tiger Reserves in India have been awarded with international Conservation Assured | Tiger Standards (CA|TS) accreditation. CA|TS is a globally accepted conservation tool that sets best practices and standards to manage tigers and encourages assessments to benchmark progress.
    • Establishment and development of new TRs: From nine tiger reserves covering 18,278 sq km in 1973, ‘Project Tiger’ has expanded to 53 reserves encompassing over 75,000 sq km (approximately 2.4% of India’s geographical area) today.

About Tiger

  • The tiger (Panthera tigris) is the largest living cat species and a member of the genus Panthera.
  • Indian Sub Species: Panthera tigris tigris.
  • Significance: It is an apex predator, considered a keystone species in their ecosystems.
  • Tiger Range Countries: India, Nepal, China, Russia, Bhutan, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Sumatra (Indonesia), and Malaysia.
  • Threats: Habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation and poaching.
  • Protection Status:
    • Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972: Schedule I
    • IUCN Red List: Endangered
    • CITES: Appendix I

Decoding the Editorial

The article analyses the 2023 report that notes a decline in the Tiger population. The possible reasons behind this decline could be:

  • India’s High Population Density:
    • Scientists believe that the national parks and tiger reserves in India, such as Ranthambore National Park, were not true wilderness and were more like safari parks or zoos.
    • This is due to the high population density in India and the proximity of the national parks to human settlements.
    • However, the article questions whether this perception is accurate or fair, given India’s remarkable conservation history and the robust populations of large carnivores and other endangered species that still exist in the country.
  • Loopholes in India’s Conservation Practices:

​​Wild Life (Protection) Act (WLPA):

    • The Wild Life (Protection) Act (WLPA), enacted by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi 50 years ago, has played a significant role in the success of wildlife conservation in India.
    • The act was implemented to address the decline in wildlife populations across the country, and it has helped to bring back some species from the brink of extinction.
    • However this stringent law had irregularities and limitations.
  • Project Tiger:
    • Project Tiger was another conservation initiative in India that has been successful in protecting the national animal. However it had a number of Limitations:
      • Loss of unique genetic diversity: There are areas where tigers are still declining, such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, the Eastern ghats, and the Northeastern forests.
        • This results in losing unique genetic diversity that is essential for maintaining long-term population viability and natural recovery.
        • Reintroducing tigers from central Indian forests, where the populations are thriving to these areas as done in Panna and Sariska Tiger Reserves, may homogenize the tiger genetic structure across the country.
      • Under Utilisation of Funds: Despite the political support, funds, and strong legal framework provided by Project Tiger over the past 50 years, there has not been a remarkable increase in the population of the wild cat.
      • Habitat fragmentation: The creation of designated tiger reserves has led to habitat fragmentation, which can result in isolated tiger populations that are more vulnerable to genetic problems, disease, and other threats.
      • Human wildlife conflicts and Retaliatory killings: Human-tiger conflict has increased in recent years due to factors like- habitat loss/fragmentation/degradation, saturation of tiger populations in certain regions, increase in human settlements and agricultural lands around protected areas etc.
      • Limited genetic diversity: The expansion of tiger populations in designated reserves has led to inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity, which can impact the health and survival of tiger populations in the long term.
    • Structural and implementation issues with Project tiger:
      • Lack of confidence and trust building between the forest department and the local communities leading to absence of their proactive participation in conservation efforts.
      • Low capacity among local forest officials to effectively conduct surveillance and monitoring of tiger population.
      • Lack of adequate protection in outside areas: As per the latest cycle of the All-India Tiger Estimation, 2018 nearly 35% of tigers in India are found outside tiger reserves.
      • Issues related to rehabilitation and relocation of population from critical tiger habitats.
      • Financial constraints in some TRs to undertake activities like restoration of habitats.
  • “Conservation Amnesia”: The recent announcement of tiger numbers highlights a phenomenon called “conservation amnesia.”Conservation amnesia refers to the tendency to forget past conservation challenges and become overconfident in the face of current successes, leading to a decline in conservation efforts and a potential reversal of gains made.
    • The minimum estimate of tiger numbers, based on photographs taken during the survey, indicates a significant increase from the previous estimate in 2018-2019.
    • However, the expected numbers are still relatively close to the previous estimate.
    • Fifty years ago, when India’s tiger population had dropped below 3,000, India enacted strong legal frameworks to protect its natural heritage.
    • However, now that the tiger population is increasing, India must not become complacent forgetting the importance of continued conservation efforts.
    • This implies that while the doubling of tiger population is a positive development, it is important to look beyond the current numbers and consider the long-term challenges that still need to be addressed to ensure the survival of tigers and other wildlife species.
  • “Cheetalification” of tiger reserves:
    • Since Tigers are an “umbrella Species”, the focus on boosting tiger numbers led to interventions that only manipulated the habitat to support the tiger’s principal prey species, such as cheetal.
    • This resulted in the “cheetalification” of tiger reserves, where the ecosystem is manipulated to favor cheetal by providing water and improving their habitat, which negatively impacted other species in the ecosystem.
    • Example: In Kanha Tiger Reserve, the increase in cheetal population due to habitat manipulation resulted in the habitat becoming unsuitable for the endangered hard ground barasingha.

Way Forward

  • Decentralizing Conservation:
    • Conservation in India relies heavily on a system of Protected Areas (PAs), which is an exclusive model of conservation.
    • However, this system suffers from what is called a “sarkaar” complex, meaning it is dominated by the government and lacks participation from local communities who often live closest to wildlife and are most affected by conservation efforts.
    • Therefore, decentralization of conservation efforts to include more local participation and decision-making power is seen as a viable option.
  • Making Provisions of WPA less stringent:
    • The WLPA is a restrictive law that describes what one cannot do but does not provide a policy framework and incentive for ordinary citizens to aid in conservation.
    • As a result, conservation has been limited to protected areas, and the approach to conservation in India is singular and exclusive.
    • Thus, like other countries where natural lands are owned or managed by individuals, communities, farmers, ranchers, corporates, charities, and the government, each has their own incentivized conservation model, India must also adopt diversified models for effective conservation.
  • More Inclusive Approach: A more inclusive approach that involves various stakeholders, such as local communities, citizens, scientists, non-governmental organisations, and businesses must be adopted.
    • The author suggests that the areas designated as Reserved Forests that are exclusively under the government could be co-managed with an inclusive approach that provides economic benefits for local communities.
    • The degraded agricultural lands adjoining forest areas can be restored to enhance connectivity between Protected Areas, and that forest patches further afield can act as “stepping stone” reserves for wildlife movements.
  • Need for a long-term vision document:
    • A long-term vision document that evaluates the current tiger-population monitoring figures and that provides a roadmap for the next two decades of conservation efforts is needed which is currently absent in India.
    • To achieve the goal of doubling tiger populations and protecting other endangered wildlife, conservation efforts must extend beyond the current Protected Area system and involve local communities, citizens, scientists, NGOs, and businesses.

Beyond the Editorial

Other Important Measures for Tiger Conservation

  • M-STrIPES (Monitoring System for Tigers Intensive-Protection & Ecological Status): It is a monitoring system developed by the NTCA, which uses advanced technology to monitor and protect tigers and other wildlife in India’s tiger reserves.
  • International Big Cat Alliance (IBCA): Recently our Prime Minister launched the IBCA for conservation of seven big cats namely Tiger, Lion, Leopard, Snow Leopard, Cheetah, Jaguar and Puma harbouring our planet.
  • Global Tiger Recovery Programme: It is an international initiative aimed at conserving and restoring tiger populations and their habitats across their range countries. The program was launched in 2010 at the International Tiger Summit held in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is supported by the Global Tiger Forum, the World Bank, and other international organisations.
  • Tiger Census: It is a national-level survey conducted periodically to estimate the population of tigers and assess the status of their habitats in the country. The tiger census is conducted by the NTCA in collaboration with the state forest departments and other partner organisations.

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