Panthera, the largest wild cat conservation organisation in the world, runs its ‘Tigers Forever’ programme in six countries, namely Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Lao PDR, India and Myanmar. The stated objective is to increase tiger numbers at key sites in these countries by 50 per cent over a 10 year period. Bittu Sahgal spoke to Joe Smith, Tiger Programme Director, Panthera, for his take on the future of tigers in India.
You were awarded a scholarship by Panthera’s Kaplan Graduate Awards (KAP). How did this prepare you for the rough and tumble of conservation in Asia?
The support I received from Panthera during my PhD. was invaluable, it allowed me to back-up my research with practical conservation interventions on the ground and ensured that I was able to work on a much larger scale than would otherwise have been possible. I spent much of my time in the human-dominated landscapes of south-central Sumatra, an area that provided often harsh but valuable experience in the challenges we face to conserve tigers amidst expanding rural populations and the demands of agricultural and industrial development.
Given what you have seen here in India do you think the tigers of Sumatra will outlast ours?
I think that both India and Sumatra will manage to hold on to wild tigers in certain areas but I suspect that many remaining populations will either be lost outright or reduced to small fragments that can only persist with intensive management. Sumatra has an advantage in that it still has extensive tracts of tiger habitat but these will need to be very well protected if they are to persist long term. In India, although you have a number of very productive tiger reserves, these source populations are often still subject to poaching and the wider landscapes are under immense development pressure. The Indian government and conservation community will need to stand firm against these threats if wild tigers are to survive in more than a few token reserves.
You studied mammalian diversity in human-dominated landscapes at London. How does the theory tie in with the reality of tiger conservation?
I was often surprised to find tigers and other large mammals in very degraded natural habitats and even agricultural areas but it is important to remember that while these animals were present during these ‘snap shot’ surveys they were in many cases just the remnants of former populations and were not actually likely to persist in the longer term. From a tiger conservation perspective, we need to better understand how we can allow tigers to at the very least move through these human-dominated areas. Although these landscapes will not support significant breeding populations, it is essential that a proportion of dispersing individuals are able to move between protected source populations in the wider landscape.
You are working on a programme for Panthera called ‘Tigers Forever’ whose stated objective is to increase tiger populations in key source sites by as much as 50 per cent. Is this realistic?
Absolutely. This target was set specifically because it was deemed feasible by some of the world’s top tiger conservationists. The tiger conservation community at large would do well to adhere to similarly realistic and stringent targets. The ‘Tigers Forever’ programme is ongoing in several tiger sites throughout Asia but those involved are also working hard to disseminate the lessons learned to as many new sites as possible.
by Bittu Sahgal, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXI No. 2, April 2011.