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Tiger Conservation in India and 50 Years of Project Tiger

Tiger Conservation in India and 50 Years of Project Tiger

On 1st April 2023, we completed 50 years of Project Tiger in India, one of the biggest conservation projects on big mammals. Though tiger conservation was institutionalized on 1st April 1973 through Project Tiger in India but being a country of rich biological diversity we have a much older conservation history not only for tigers but other flora and fauna which directly and indirectly benefits tiger conservation.

 

Tiger Conservation in Ancient India

The strength, agility, fearsome and elusiveness of tiger is revered by mankind in almost all cultures. Being a major predator in India, tiger enjoys highest degree of respect and protection among all wild animals in India. This respect and protection is reflected in our historical records and cultural beliefs. The first historical representation of tigers was found in various seals of Indus valley civilization. The seals showing a tiger standing under a tree with a man sitting on that tree, a man fighting with two tigers on both sides, and Pashupatinath (The lord of animals) with Tiger, rhino, elephant and buffalo.

These seals depicted the influence of tiger as a big beast on the life of inhabitant of Indus Valley Civilization. Later during ancient period there was several mention of wildlife conservation in literature. In Kautilya’s Arthshashtra, it was suggested the need to develop Abhayaranya, a modern day sanctuary where flora and fauna are preserved. It also mentioned Vyala Vana (Tiger Forest) These sanctuary are fully protected and any breach of rules will leads to heavy penalties including capital punishment to the offenders. Ancient Hindu literature like, Vedas, Puranas, Upnishads, Ramayana and Shrimad Bhagvad Gita, shows the sensitivity towards the nature and wildlife. Shanti Mantra in Yajurveda talks about peace everywhere, including forests, which means a protected ecosystem with all its component safe.

 

Tigers in Mythology and Religious Belief

Tiger is also associated with religious beliefs in India. In the Hindu religion Tiger is associated with Goddess Durga which represents power, also Bonbibi is worshiped in the Sundarbans of both Bangladesh and India rides tiger and save the inhabitant from Dakkhinrai a demon who is a lord of tigers and attack in form of tigers. In state of Maharashtra and Goa people worship Big Cat (Tiger and Leopard) as Waghoba and believe that these big cats protect them. Mishmi Tribes in Arunachal Pradesh consider Tiger as their brother. Tribal communities in central India also consider them as god.

Santhals and Kisans in Odisha believe the tiger as the king of the forest and worship them as Bagheshwar.  The Garo tribe of Meghalaya believes tigers protect them. Irula tribe of Tamil Nadu worship tigers as protectors from evil spirits. The concept of sacred groves helped to conserve areas rich in biodiversity. These beliefs helps the tigers to survive even close to dense human habitation and human-dominated landscape from ancient to modern times.

 

Tiger Conservation in the Medieval Period

The conservation and respect enjoyed by tigers faded when sports hunting for enjoyment started in India. With the advent of Mughals, organized big game hunting was started in India. During Medieval period Mughal and Hindu kings slaughtered wildlife on a massive scale. A noted naturalist Jahangir in first 12 years of his reign have killed over 17,000 animals which includes 86 tigers and lions. Bush meat was a major part of the kitchen of Mughal, Rajput and other warrior class during the same period. It was said that Akbar the great have kept one thousand trained Cheetah to hunt antelopes. These hunting traditions had an impact on tiger population by declining their prey species and habitat destruction.

During Mughal period the wildlife has declined due to lack of legal control on hunting, but on the other hand Mughals were great naturalist and they observed and described the animals and birds with scientific accuracy. Babur was a great nature lover and he was concerned for preserving the flora and fauna. In Baburnama he has given description of nature, specially flora and fauna.  Jahangir was also a great naturalist and he was known for his description of animals and birds more scientifically in his memoir.

 

British India and Tiger Conservation

Before the British rule in India, wildlife was still abundant but within few years of the commencement of their rule they decreed special reward for killing the tiger. State organized Trophy hunting with Indian Maharajas and Nawabs was a regular feature of British India. Clearance of forests to make more farmland was done on large scale to grow cash crops. Large scale hunting to please British officers has pushed many species at the brink of extinction.

 

tiger conservation and hunting by britisher in India

 

British were also great naturalist and they documented and surveyed many forests and wilderness area. They documented different forest types, innovated scientific method to study animals, recorded natural history of many animals, surveyed and listed flora and fauna and started many institutions and organizations for scientific training and to study the natural history.

 

Post-Independence

Post-independence era was not better than pre independence, rampant hunting and large scale slaughter of wild animals was continued due to lack of any strict wildlife laws. According to an estimate by British Naturalist E P Gee that at the turn of 20th Century there were around 40,000 tiger roam in India, but situation get worsened by late 60s. Industrialization and growing food demand of increasing population, big chunks of forests were cleared to make farmland which ultimately led to Man-Animal Conflict in the form of cattle lifting by big cats. Poisoning of carcass of livestock killed by tigers was a regular event which resulted in to death of tigers and sometime with their cubs. Demand for tiger skin and other body parts was very high which led to more poisoning of tigers.

 

Vanishing Tigers

The first thing which drew the attention of our then Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi to the plight of tigers was a letter sent by Mr. Alvin P. Adams, a well-known airline executive and a big game hunter from New York, he wrote:

“Having visited India and it neighboring boundaries of Nepal and Bhuta on ten different hunting trips, I have been deeply alarmed at the rapidly depleting big game population. Even this past month hunting in the best Indian Block, although I saw certain signs – I never saw a tiger. This is the second consecutive year this has happened.

I have been convinced for some time that the cause of this condition lies in the apparently uncontrolled slaughtering by the natives of these magnificent tigers and leopards. The purpose is to sell to local dealers who are currently paying from $ 200 for a tiger skin $ 150 for tiger skin….

The usual method employed is poisoning… “

In 1969 the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Natural Resources) held its general assembly in Delhi. In the assembly more than 300 wildlife conservationists from all over the world has participated. A presentation in the assembly ‘Vanishing Tigers” by Kailash Sankhala, Rajasthan Cadre IFS officer showed that only 2,500 tigers left in the wild in India. Mr. Sankhala then director of Delhi Zoo was also awarded the prestigious Jawahar Lal Nehru Fellowship by the Jawahar Lal Nehru Fund for his project ‘The Controversial Tiger: A study of Ecology, Behavior and Status’ he was the second conservationist to receive this fellowship. Utilising his tenure in Delhi zoo he studied tigers closely in captivity which he used for this project. Two days after the IUCN session started, Indira Gandhi wrote to Karan Singh, drawing his attention to a report by the curator of the BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) J.C. Daniel which suggested only 1,531 tigers were left in the country, much less than the estimate by Sankhala. She wanted to know what steps states had taken to regulate the tiger killing for skin trade.

The IUCN assembly called for a moratorium on tiger killing and acting on this appeal Indian Board for wildlife has initiated action for protection and asked the states to ban tiger hunting for five years.  But this step was not enough to convince international community. In 1972 Guy Mountfort, an influential trustee of Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has urged Indira Gandhi to save the species from extinction. Worried on the hunting trend of tigers in the country, a group of expert was formed chaired by Karan Singh which in its report have suggested that tigers will be extinct soon if hunting and poisoning is not stopped. In the same year wildlife protection act was enacted which prohibits the hunting of tigers and other endangered species, but it was not enough to protect the tigers. Something big to save the tigers was required, which led to the start of Project Tiger in India.

 

The Project Tiger in India

With the support from newly founded WWF India and IUCN, the Indian government launched Project Tiger on 1st April 1973 with Mr. Kailash Sankhala as the first director. The formal launch was done in forest rest house of Dhikala in Corbett National Park. Initially 9 protected areas were selected to cover under this project. The protected areas selected by task force were:

  1. Corbett, Uttar Pradesh (Now in Uttarakhand): Foothills of Himalaya, with Sal as predominant species.
  2. Kanha, Madhya Pradesh: Central Indian Highlands, Sal and Miscellaneous forests.
  3. Bandipur, Karnataka: Miscellaneous forests of Western Ghats.
  4. Palamau, Bihar (Now in Jharkhand): eastern peninsular region, with Sal and Bamboo forests.
  5. Manas, Assam: Eastern Himalayan foothills with evergreen and semi evergreen forests and swamp grassland.
  6. Melghat, Maharashtra: Southern offshoot of Satpura, deciduous forests dominated by teak and bamboo
  7. Similipal, Odisha: Mahanadi Basin with moist miscellaneous forests.
  8. Ranthambhore, Rajasthan: Junction of Aravalli and Vindhyan, dry deciduous and open forests.
  9. Sundarbans, West Bengal: Mangrove forests of Sundarbans Delta.

Initially Project Tiger was conceived for six years only, from April 1973 to March 1979, its objective was “to ensure the maintenance of a viable population of the tiger in India and to preserve, for all times, such areas as part of our national heritage for the benefit, education and enjoyment of future generations”.

By early eighties six more tiger reserves were added which includes, Periyar in Kerala, Sariska in Rajasthan, Buxa in West Bengal, Indravati in Madhya Pradesh (Now in Chhattisgarh), Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagarjunsagar – Srisailam in Andhra Pradesh.

 

bengal tiger in india during project tiger
Photo by our guest Raimund Bulczak

 

In 1983 a task force on Public Support for Wildlife Conservation chaired by Madhavrao Scindia was constituted by the Indian Board for Wildlife to recommend ways and means of eliciting public support for conservation. The focus of the task force was dependence of local communities on forests. The task force demanded better development and more funds for the villages located near the reserves, it also have suggested to provide more employment opportunities for the youth from villages. The report also said that failure to undertake such measures, would affect the success of management of tiger reserves for long term.

1990 was a turning point in tiger conservation in India, by now we had 19 tiger reserves, encompassing 29,716 km² with a population 1,327 tigers (1989 Tiger Census). In 1993 Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has given a critical review of project tiger “All in all, Project Tiger faces a new set of problems. Project Tiger saved the Tiger from extinction in the nick of time but over 20 years it is clear that expanding human population, a new way of life based on alien models and the resultant effect on natural resources has created fresh problems that indicate danger for the tiger. Militancy and poaching only add fuel to the fire. This is a serious and critical moment in the history of tiger conservation.”

A parliamentary committee on Science, Technology, Environment and Forests was formed in 1994 which recommended an evaluation of the program to make it more meaningful and result oriented, it is necessary because the objective of Project Tiger have not been achieved and tiger population in the country have registered decline.

Following the recommendation of the committee another high powered committee was formed, headed by J J Dutta, former Principal Chief Conservator of forests of Madhya Pradesh. This committee submitted the report and discussed about the villages inside the reserves, the report suggested removal of the villages as an ideal situation for the reserves. It also suggested that effort must go beyond this issue to identify the wildlife corridors and management of forests outside the reserves.

At the same time WWF-India also have released their action plan to save the tigers in two reports, The Tiger Call and Tiger Conservation Strategy and Action Plan. The reports discussed the need to involve local communities in the conservation and measures to improve anti-poaching enforcement network. There were reports published by UK based The Tiger Trust and Environmental Investigation Agency, both have discussed the issue of poaching and strong political will but neither have discussed about the role of local communities.

By 2005 we had a network of 28 Tiger Reserves which covers roughly 5.6 percent of the recorded forest areas and over 1 percent of country’s geographical area. The total tiger population recorded in 2001-2002 census is 3,642 half of them lives outside the reserve.

 

The Extinction and comeback: Sariska Tiger Reserve

Year 2004 saw a major setback to the conservation effort for Tigers in India. From November 16 to December 12th a team of Diploma trainees of the 26th PG Diploma Batch from Wildlife Institute of India was on their field visit to Sariska Tiger Reserve. They have done population estimation exercise for the herbivore and carnivore, but to their dismay they have not found a single sign of a tiger. This means that all tigers are vanished from the reserve. The news was made public on January 23 and by March 2005 Wildlife Institute of India in its interim report has confirmed the local extinction of tigers from Sariska Tiger Reserve.

The task to investigate this case was given to Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) by honorable Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. CBI has reported that since July 2002 poachers had been killing the tigers and the last six tigers were killed in summer-monsoon of 2004. The report pointed to the involvement of local villagers and a well-established network of middleman trading in tiger parts with notorious poacher Sansar Chand at its center. Action has been taken on those responsible and Sansar Chand was sent to Jail where he died due to Cancer.

Reintroduction of the tigers was only option left to repopulate the reserve with tigers. WII was given the task and it was decided the tigers will be relocated from Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve (RTR), being in same state, same landscape and similar habitat RTR was the best choice to repopulate the reserve. Five tigers were trans-located from Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve to Sariska between 2008 and 2010. The reintroduction of tigers had a shock when one male tiger was found dead, and it was due to poisoning of carcass. The patrolling was strengthen to control illegal entry in forest and regular monitoring of tigers through various means was put in place. Because of the effort of the forest department and conservationists now Sariska have 26 tigers.

 

tiger conservation in sariska national park
Photo by Sharad Vats

 

The Extinction and comeback: Panna Tiger Reserve

The nation was recovering from Sariska debacle and then in 2008, another tiger reserve has lost all of its tigers to poaching. Panna Tiger Reserve, the first tiger reserve in Bundelkhand region of central India and one of the best representative forests of Vindhyan hill ranges has been declared as devoid of tigers. Panna was declared as a national park in 1981 and later tiger reserve in 1994. Ken River enters the reserve from southern side and passes through it through for almost 55 Kms. It is also considered as the northern most limit of natural teak distribution in India. Due to its topography it has different types of habitat which includes five types of forests, grasslands, savannah and riverine habitat. This resulted a great diversity in floral and faunal elements.

The revelation has created a public furore, and the blame was on the forest officials. All senior officers were transferred and an enquiry was set up. Appointment of new and able field director helped the reserve to recover its tiger population. In June 2009 a decision was taken to reintroduce two tigress in Panna from Bandhavgarh and Kanha Tiger Reserves. This decision was taken keeping in mind a lone male tiger spotted roaming in Panna. It was believed that these two tigresses will met with him, but unfortunately this male tiger also disappeared. Then it was decided to bring a male tiger from Pench Tiger reserve.  This task was initiated by the field director Mr. Shreenivasa Murthy.  Three tigers in total were reintroduced in Panna, T1 (female) from Bandhavgarh, T2 (female) from Kanha and T3 (male)   from Pench.

After ten days of re-introduction T3 was strayed off and found headed towards the direction of Pench TR. An army of 70 forests guards and four elephants were behind him. It was a tough task and tracking him in human dominated areas was only done by spraying an extensive area with tigress urine. This incident was first documented natural history event where a tiger displayed his homing instinct.

In April 2010 T1 delivered his first litter followed by T2 in October of same year. By the end of the year 2010, there were eight tiger cubs in the reserve. Next in series two five year old male and female orphaned cubs were brought in Panna from Kanha TR.

In 2013 consecutive death of few females due to intra-specific fights and natural cause led to a setback to reintroduction project. Then in 2014 another tigress from Pench was introduced in Panna. According to current census there are around 83 tigers in Panna TR.

 

Project Tiger & NTCA *

Project Tiger in India is an ongoing Centrally Sponsored Scheme of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change providing central assistance to the tiger States for tiger conservation in designated tiger reserves. The ADG (Project Tiger) and his officers also service the NTCA.

After Sariska and Panna case the tiger task force have suggested to create an authority to decentralize decision making, this authority can be given the powers to coordinate the work of tiger reserves and oversee the implementation. Following the recommendation of task force the government have constituted the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) with its head office in Delhi headed by an Indian Forest Services officer of Additional Director General rank as Member Secretary of NTCA.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is a statutory body under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change constituted under enabling provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, as amended in 2006, for strengthening tiger conservation, as per powers and functions assigned to it under the said Act. The Regional Offices of the NTCA have been recently established at Bengaluru, Guwahati and Nagpur, each headed by an IGF and assisted by an AIG. The states covered under the regional offices are:

  1. Bengaluru: Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Telengana.
  2. Guwahati: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Mizoram and West Bengal
  3. Nagpur: Chhattisgrah, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra

Apart from that there is a position of Inspector General of forests at headquarter and he also look after Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan states. He is assisted by officers at the rank of DIG and AIG in various departments.

*to know more please visit https://ntca.gov.in/

 

Census of the Tiger

Knowing the number of individuals and population trend of a species is critical for their management and conservation. The world’s first tiger census was conducted in Palamu forest in year 1932 by pugmark method. Since then Pugmark method was only considered as the method to count tigers till 2006. In pugmark method it is believed that all individual tigers have different pugmark. Though it is quite easy for a field biologist to differentiate between male and female pugmarks but differentiating the individuals is a tough and challenging task, the pugmark impression of a same tiger could be different depends upon substratum, like soil, mud, sand etc. so chances of error are very high.  First ever all India tiger census by pugmark method was conducted in 1972 which revealed the figure of 1,827 tigers.

The Camera Trap Method: After the debacle of Sariska and Panna, it was felt that a foolproof method should be applied in tiger census to know the more accurate numbers. To fulfill that objective the NTCA in collaboration with the state forest departments, the Wildlife Institute of India and conservation partners conducts a nationwide assessment for the “ Status of Tigers, Co-predators, Prey and their Habitat” once in every four years. This assessment is based on scientific method which is approved by the Tiger Task Force. The first assessment was done based on this methodology was in year 2006 and subsequently in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022.

The methodology includes counting of tigers by using camera trap. This is based on the fact that all tigers have different stripe pattern like our finger prints. Automatic Cameras based on heat sensor are placed in an identified grid on dust road on both sides. The camera takes picture once an animal passes in front of the camera. All these pictures are then matched with each other by using a software. This Software helps to identify individuals by their unique stripe patterns which gives us a figure of minimum individuals which further using statistical software and indirect sign data gives a statistical figure of tiger population in that particular area with minimum and maximum limit. Apart from camera trap the filed biologist collect data of habitat quality, prey species and other co-predators of tiger, all these by employing scientific methods.

The first census have revealed 1411 adult individuals in all over India. In 2018 the census entered the Guinness Book of World Record for conducting “the largest camera trap wildlife survey”. The census covered 1, 21,337 square kilometer area with camera traps in 26,838 locations. The estimated number of individuals counted was 2,967 more than double from the first census.

 

Tiger census in India 2023 Latest
https://twitter.com/IndianExpress/status/1644997527345807360

 

The 2022 Census of Bengal Tiger in India

The result and summary report of 2022 census was out on 1st April, on the day of 50 years of project tiger. The census has estimated a minimum 3,167 tigers India. The whole exercise has involved total 6, 41,449 km. foot survey, 6,41,102 total man days, 32,588 total camera count, 97,399 total photographs of tigers, 3080 total number of camera trapped tigers. The tiger occupancy has increased from 1758 cells of 100 km² in 2018 to 1792 in 2022.

The total no. of camera trapped tigers in different landscape are:

Landscape Camera Trapped Tigers
Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains Landscape 804
Central Indian Highlands and Eastern Ghats Landscape 1,161
Western Ghats Landscape 824
North Eastern Hills & Brahmaputra Plains Landscape 194
Sunderbans Landscape 100
Total in India 3,080

 

Conclusion

The tiger has a unique position not only in a forest ecosystem in India but it has a great respect in our society also. It is associated with our religious belief which is the base for great tolerance among the local community for tigers and other big fauna. The public support and political will have shown the world that how a big predator can be saved even in a human dominated landscape. Being the second most populous country in the world, it is our commitment towards the conservation of our flora and fauna which makes India a safe country for our natural heritage. We have more than 70% tiger population in India which is a remarkable achievement.

To achieve the magical figure of 10,000 tigers, as many scientists believe that India can hold is possible only with great dedication, public support, political will and commitment by us. We should always be thankful to the foot soldiers of our jungles, who beat tough weather condition, tough terrain with limited resources monitor our precious natural heritage day and night. We have set an example for our next generation and we hope that they will continue this legacy.

 

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