Home Magazines Cover Story Quo Vadis Panthera Tigris? – Part 2

Quo Vadis Panthera Tigris? – Part 2

Quo Vadis Panthera Tigris? – Part 2

On World Environment Day 2007, India would do well to ponder the fate of the tiger and recognise that it is in fact a mirror image of the fate of the Indian subcontinent. As a nation, we have fallen from grace. Where we once led the world in the arena of nature conservation, we now stand accused of letting down not merely the tiger, but virtually all wildlife. In Part 1 of this article, Bittu Sahgal and Jennifer Scarlott traced the descent of Project Tiger. They continue their analysis here, concluding with a list of five essential steps that must be taken to ensure the tiger's future in India. 

The productivity of the Tala Range often results in a baby boom for tigers. This tigress has taken her seven-month-old cubs to a waterhole in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. While patrolling their territories, tigers often use soft-mud roads where they leave telltale pugmarks that visitors invariably look out for. Photo: Sharath S.

Our elephant came to a sudden stop as we approached the concrete waterhole in the quiet forest of Dhikala, in the Corbett Tiger Reserve. We lurched forward on her back, grabbing for more secure handholds, our feet suddenly and unnervingly airborne. Our ride lifted her trunk, waving it about as she sniffed the air frantically. Then, a rumbling sound vibrating from deep inside her, the elephant began moving backwards as quickly as she could, despite the mahout’s earnest injunctions that she stand her ground. “Tiger,” we whispered simultaneously, craning for a good view in the dim light under the trees. The mahout succeeded in moving the reluctant elephant toward the waterhole. Just as we came within arm’s length, the dark, bedraggled form of a thoroughly soaked tigress reached the top step of the waterhole, her head appearing first, the limp ruff on both sides of her face streaming with water, followed by her wet shoulders, legs, great paws. Mirroring our elephant’s look of surprised panic, she quickly disappeared into the underbrush, an arc of silvery drops flying from her spiked tail. Trumpeting, the frightened elephant refused her mahout’s commands to follow the tiger. Relieved not to have disturbed her even more, we silently thanked the elephant for her good sense, happy to follow the big cat with our thoughts alone as she made her way deeper into the forest, unhindered.

Google Tiger

Imagine that a tool called ‘Google Tiger’ has been recording the lives of tigers since the cats first roamed the early forests. Imagine, again, that Google Tiger is the technological brainchild of some alien race that has been curious about the lives of Earth’s striped cats for millennia. The aliens use their technology to watch, record and document the movements and activities of each of India’s tigers, and the threats confronting them. From the moment of each tiger’s birth, Google Tiger tracks the life of that cat, feeding data to alien tiger statisticians who chart the actuarial ups and downs of each animal, calculating its life expectancy, and the moment and manner of its death. The satellites, cameras and computers of Google Tiger watch dispassionately as each cub faces the challenges that nature inevitably throws in its path: the struggles to survive the early months, learning from its mother all it must know to survive, successfully navigating the dangerous time when it must leave its parent and establish its own territory, and learning to hunt large animals that could kill with one well-placed kick or slash of horns.

As Google Tiger follows Panthera tigris through time, it witnesses and calmly records all of the threats posed to tigers by man as well as nature: encounters with poachers’ guns, traps and electrical wires; feeding on the poisoned carcasses of villagers’ livestock; centuries of shikar; collection of the big cats from the wild for zoos, circuses, museums and entertainment both live and recorded; the breeding of captive tigers for slaughter, and the eventual consumption of their parts; the movement of tiger pelt from animal to hidden shipment to adornment on wall, floor, human body; the captivity of ‘pet’ tigers. Google Tiger watches unflinchingly as the tiger’s home is destroyed – by clear cutting of trees, mining, dams, replacement of living forests with dead monocultures, nuclear power plants, roads and buildings. And always, Google Tiger records the steady encroachment of Homo sapiens unwilling to share land with the tiger. Finally, Google Tiger begins to witness a new threat, whose global scale is enormous. The first tigers to be affected by this threat live in a mangrove forest so large that it sprawls from one country to another. In this oceanic forest, the tide is rising, and as it rises, the tigers die. The still largely impenetrable mangrove swamps and forests of the Sundarbans (‘beautiful forest’ in Bengali) are home to one of the largest contiguous populations of tigers (perhaps around 200-350, the cats are almost impossible to reliably count in this habitat), in the world. Remote and tangled as this vast region of tides and trees is, this delta, stretching between India and Bangladesh and watered by the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, has been whittled away over centuries as people have claimed land for agriculture and timber for building and fuel. But, while much is gone, much still abides, including the iconic tiger and the prey species – deer and wild pig – on which it sustains itself. All is not well, however, in this the largest of the world’s estuarine forests, this magical region of crocodile, shark, tiger and eagle. Despite legal protection, the Sundarbans is threatened by massive tourism projects, tidal power production, large ship channels, oil wells, a nuclear power plant and, of course, that ultimate threat – climate change.

Ecosystem services

What does this great forest do for people? For centuries, the Sundarbans has served as an enormous sponge-like buffer against the often savage storms and tidal surges of the Bay of Bengal. It is a refuge to countless and, in many cases, rare species of flora and fauna. It is an astonishingly productive marine nursery. And it is a green cathedral for nature-starved humanity. Now, in an era of climate change, the Sundarbans offers the greatest service of all in its storage of carbon. Along with the remnants of what were once unbroken forests, this mangrove forest provides the key to India’s agriculture, food and economic security. Elsewhere throughout the world, tiger-and-wildlife-inhabited forests perform these same vital, unsung climate control services.

The science, and now even the financial benefits, of the role of forests in reducing greenhouse gas emissions are incontrovertible. Compromising the health of forests such as the Sundarbans would release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Preserving them would ensure that they would continue to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and sequester or “lock it up,” as all forests do. How does this work? Through photosynthesis, trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide (the most dangerous greenhouse gas), from the atmosphere, and then release the oxygen after storing the carbon as wood and leaves. This is ‘carbon storage’. Trees are about 20 per cent carbon by weight, and they and the overall biomass of forests act as a ‘carbon sink’. The organic matter in forest soils, such as the humus produced when dead plant material decomposes, also acts as a carbon store. Coal and oil are part of the planet’s biomass – when we burn them, we release their carbon stores, when we don’t, they continue to retain their carbon.

According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the world’s forests and forest soils store more than one trillion tons of carbon, twice the amount in the atmosphere. On the other side of the coin, destruction of forests releases almost 7.5 gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. The FAO urges not only reduction in deforestation, but afforestation (new plantings) and reforestation (replanting of deforested areas). A vital caveat is that simply replacing biodiverse forests with monocultures – a common (mal)practice of World Bank forestry projects – is far less effective in stemming climate change (and protecting local wildlife and human populations) than protecting forests in the first place, or allowing biodiverse forests to re-grow.

A supreme predator, Panthera tigris has a clear evolutionary history of about two million years. Today, the world’s tiger population occupies just seven per cent of its historical range. India probably has no more than 1,300-1,500 tigers. Human encroachment and habitat destruction, combined with poaching and gross political neglect, have served a death warrant on India’s national animal. Photo: P.S. Lahiri.

The economics of climate change

In 2006, a study on the Economics of Climate Change was commissioned by the U. K. Treasury. Led by Sir Nicholas Stern, Head of the Government Economic Service, it suggested that reducing deforestation offers a major opportunity to reduce emissions at a relatively low cost. The study found that in the eight countries responsible for 70 per cent of emissions from land use, just 1.5 acres of forest land could be worth as much as $2,500 to 3,200 in terms of carbon storage at a carbon price of $35 to $50. This same land would provide a return of just $2 for pastoral use, $1,000 for soy and palm oil conversion and a one-time return of $236-1,035 for timber sales. Of course, the valuation of other ecosystem services such as soil conservation, food production and flood and drought control should drive the value of forest lands much higher.

The study’s researchers found that for an average price of $27.25 per ton of carbon dioxide in the emissions exchange market, “deforestation can potentially be virtually eliminated.” The study concludes that there is a significant potential for reduced deforestation to mitigate the costs of cutting greenhouse emissions. As for the wood we need for our daily living, timber, like any other food or cash crop, can easily be grown on farms set aside for the purpose.

As great a role as the Sundarbans has to play in combating climate change, its vulnerability to its effects are just as great. It has been estimated that rising sea levels have already flooded 7,500 hectares in the Sundarbans. Two islands – Lohachara and Suparibhanga – have been submerged, a third – Ghoramara – is two-thirds submerged, and a dozen more are under threat. Along with the threat to the forest itself, are the attendant risks to the tiger and all of the other wild animals that rely on its protection. Even if we are thoughtful enough to protect this mangrove wonderland from all of the other threats we pose to it, we will have failed the Sundarbans and its tigers if we allow climate change to progress unchallenged. Caught between inhospitable agricultural and urban areas to the north, east and west, and the rising seas to the south, tigers and other wildlife will literally have nowhere to run. Millions of humans living in the 24 Parganas District, of course, will probably end up as urban refugees in Kolkata.

A different kind of threat to tigers, but an extremely dangerous one, comes from China. China is considering lifting its 1993 ban on the trade and consumption of tiger parts by legalising privately-run ‘tiger farms’ that house nearly 5,000 big cats. Investors want to legally sell products like tiger-bone wine and tiger meat. The 14th  CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) conference rejected the proposal, but China believes it can flout world opinion. Three tiger-range countries, India, Nepal and Bhutan, were joined by the United States and other parties, in asking China to phase out tiger farms. China has said that it would not lift the ban without listening to scientific opinion from around the world. Though it now has that opinion, Beijing has yet to announce its final decision. Until it does, a death sentence hangs heavily over the tiger.

The decline of Panthera tigris

Meanwhile, the world’s tiger population now occupies just seven per cent of its historical range. Tiger numbers in central India – which conservationists hoped would rise, are plummeting. Organisations like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Smithsonian Conservation and Research Centre, WWF and others now agree, and add that “range collapse” is occurring across much of the tiger’s remaining habitat.

After years of blind denial by government officials – during which effective steps that could have been taken were not – the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) issued population figures for tigers in central India, based on results from 16 of India’s 28 tiger reserves and their surrounding areas, which forced the country to accept the tiger crisis. 

Though a new ‘national total’ is not yet being officially quoted, inferences can be drawn from information made available to Sanctuary. This information, a result of careful monitoring of tiger populations across India for two years, confirms that human encroachment and habitat destruction have led to a 60 per cent drop in tiger numbers. Y.V. Jhala from WII announced, “The tiger reserves are doing much better than we expected, but the outside areas have lost most of their tigers.”

The Tiger Task Force, led by inexperienced individuals, misled the Prime Minister’s Office into believing that ‘the people’ would protect tigers and that human-tiger co-existence should be India’s new tiger strategy. This advice proved to be dangerously off-target. Inside tiger reserves, where people are largely absent, the cat has survived. Outside, where ‘the people’ dominate the landscape, tigers have virtually vanished.

But state governments still refuse to shift from denial mode. And when tiger experts and conservationists serving on government wildlife boards raise their concerns, the standard response is to replace them with individuals willing to be more ‘cooperative’. A conspiracy of silence, a ‘tiger cover-up’, has thus effectively been in place for over a decade in India.

India has been at this precipice before and pulled back from the brink. Each time we reach this point, however, it will arguably be more difficult to save the tiger and all that it represents, in terms of India’s environmental and ultimately, its political/economic well-being. The tiger truly is a lynchpin or flagship species, not just for other species and ecosystems, as biologists have convincingly argued, but for India itself.

Because this animal needs the things that it does in abundance – forests, water, prey species, extensive habitat – and because India has currently embarked on a programme of such reckless industrialisation as to threaten nearly all of its still sizable natural holdings, saving the tiger will, we argue, of necessity, ultimately mean saving India’s people.

Studies have shown that rising temperatures cause disease outbreaks capable of wiping out frog populations. Temperature plays an important role in nature – from the gender of the offspring of these mating frogs (genus Rhacophorous) to ensuring their survival and well being. In an era of climate change, the disappearance of indicator species such as frogs serves as an early warning for other segments of ecosystems. Photo: Sachin Rai.

The point we emphasised in our previous article on the state of the tiger in India today, was that India has failed the tiger. The point we wish to emphasise here, is that the tiger CAN still be saved. But this time we must recognise that it is not this species alone that is endangered, as precious as this single species is universally acknowledged to be, but our own survival as well. Let’s look at the steps, admittedly large ones, which must be taken to protect the cat from the threat of extinction, this time not just temporarily, but permanently.

Saving the tiger – a five-step formula

1) Rescind the Forest Rights Act. 

The Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, will strip India’s Protected Areas (PAs) of the little protection they have in transferring more than 60 per cent of India’s forests into the hands of just 8.2 per cent of its population. This massive land transfer, rather than righting old wrongs committed against adivasis and forest dwellers, will further degrade and impoverish them because rich landlords and mafias lie impatiently in wait to take such lands away. The forests, wildlife, rivers and catchment areas poised to fall victim to an enormous tug-of-war among parties eager to make a short-term profit, will be destroyed or changed beyond recognition. No one has calculated the carbon footprint of this ill-conceived legislation. Frankly, if the Forest Rights Act is allowed to stand, India might as well encourage China to lift its trade ban on tiger products, invite poachers into PAs and purposefully ignore the threat of climate change. The tiger will be as good as dead, with the government that claims it as its national animal selling its home out from under its feet.

2) Make inviolability of Protected Areas a top governmental priority.

India currently has 90 national parks and 501 sanctuaries. Together, these PAs account for just 22 per cent of the country’s forested area, and just 4.7 per cent of its land area. Although the walls of the Indian Consulate’s visa office in New York City proudly display beautiful photographs of India’s national animal, any tourist who visits the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve and many other reserves throughout India, will discover that the forest guards who risk their lives to defend its tigers live in abject poverty with little real support. They must brave the elements with inadequate clothing and inappropriate shoes (Indian corporates often provide guards with sweaters because the government fails or refuses to do so). Even weapons with which to protect themselves or enforce anti-poaching laws are unavailable, let alone binoculars, field guides, or other items that would enable guards to execute their jobs with efficiency and dignity. Yet, these people, many of whom have had near-fatal encounters with poachers and local graziers, continue to serve out of a selfless sense of duty to the wild lands and wildlife they are sworn to protect. Both central and state governments must be forced to allocate the resources necessary to bring the operation and staffing of Protected Areas up to the highest standards.

3) Address the problem of habitat fragmentation. 

The science of island biogeography is no longer new. It is well established that animals living on islands, or in habitats that are so small and fragmented as to mimic island conditions, are far more vulnerable to local extinction than species that live in contiguous, undisturbed habitat. With that understanding, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), has worked to establish the world’s largest Protected Area for tigers in northern Myanmar, and is in the process of piecing together a contiguous habitat for jaguars that he hopes one day will stretch from Mexico to Argentina.

India’s tiger habitat now resembles a frayed, patchwork quilt – the situation is about to become far worse with the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. Because tigers do not recognise human-imposed boundaries, perhaps a significant proportion of India’s tigers wander outside of its Protected Areas (though as the WII recently reported, these tigers have been badly hit and are quickly vanishing). Because most of India’s PAs are too small to sustain viable populations of tigers, India must adopt a two-pronged approach. The government must provide better protection to its existing PAs, and take the advice of experts from its own WII, who emphasise that effective tiger conservation will be a reality only if reserves are connected to one another so that tigers have larger populations and areas to hunt and breed. Such ‘corridors’, of course, would need twice the protection of core habitats, as tigers would perforce have to negotiate survival with humans on a daily basis here. The most effective way to reverse wilderness losses would be to facilitate (physically, financially and socially) the outward migration of forest dwellers to habitations in less ecologically-sensitive areas. Degraded forests would regenerate. And, even as humans are able to improve the quality of their own lives, wild animals would be more secure.

Tigers need large forest swatches, water and abundant prey. India’s tiger habitats currently resemble a patchwork quilt and the situation promises to worsen with the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. The tigers’ long-term survival can only be guaranteed if key reserves are connected to one another to provide wildlife with an ‘escape hatch’ in case of serious trouble. Photo: Jagdeep Rajput.

4) Address climate change.

India must address climate change at all levels – central and state governments, corporates and individuals. We must adopt a “we are all in this together” approach, rather than wait for evidence that other governments are taking steps to correct their own contributions to the problem. Studies show that India is likely to be hit particularly hard and early by climate change. Since India prides itself on its market-based democracy, perhaps a rethinking of the role and functioning of ‘markets’ might allow them to help lead the way. For this effort to be sustained, both government and the corporate sector must adopt a new paradigm in economic thinking that encompasses the environmental consequences of growth as an index of economic growth. A ‘sustainable development index’ or ‘green index’ must be calculated that takes into account the erosion of ecological capital and the enormous annual costs of pollution. With an economic growth rate of eight to 10 per cent, and just six per cent of India’s power generation coming from renewable sources, India will soon take third place behind China and the U.S. as the world’s most prolific emitters of greenhouse gases. All indications suggest that India’s greenhouse gas emissions could increase to 3,000 million tonnes by 2020, twice the emission level in 2000. Not something any Indian should be proud of.

An important obstacle to halting forest loss is that our economic system fails to capture the values of carbon storage, water purification, biodiversity and other ‘ecosystem services’ provided by forests. We must address the fact that financial incentives to destructively log or clear forests are stronger than those to restore, conserve and use them sustainably. The government must create financial incentive structures to encourage carbon storage. It has been estimated that electricity consumption in India could be reduced by 25 per cent with greater efficiency in manufacturing processes, homes and offices and by using better irrigation pumps. Let India be at the cutting edge of economic and environmental thought and practice.

5) Get serious about poaching.

Poaching of tigers and their prey species is rampant in India.  In combination with the threats posed by habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation and climate change, the situation is already beyond critical. The Wildlife Crime Bureau must be an effective body, strengthened and staffed with professionals from top to bottom. We need strong anti-poaching units on the frontlines, with open communication lines with trusted local community members, who could provide both information and field strength. In the case of hunting tribes, rehabilitation and measures to provide alternative livelihoods away from tiger habitats would be a vital step forward.

The solutions outlined above can only be achieved if partnerships are forged between nature and people. These partnerships must be forged in a way that encourages all parties to feel they have a genuine, lasting stake in the survival of the tiger. Every child, woman and man must feel such an investment in the tiger’s survival, individually and collectively. Their livelihoods must be connected to the return of biodiversity and the regeneration of natural ecosystems, not based on the exploitation of minerals, timber and forest produce, which will ultimately spell the end of wildlife. Without concerted committment from government, both central and state and from those who live in the proximity of tiger habitats, we will fail India’s tigers, finally and permanently.

Our committment must be based on the soundest wildlife science – it has been science and the dedicated work of Indian and non-Indian wildlife biologists that have clearly shown what is needed to preserve this animal. Without the lifelong efforts of the likes of Ullas Karanth and George Schaller to wed science to conservation, the tiger might already have passed into oblivion.

We believe that the famed biologist Edward O. Wilson has his finger on the right pulse when he urges that humans need a deep conjoining, a deep re-joining with nature. We are, by nature, ‘biophilic.’ Humans have, suggests Wilson, an “innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes,” and “to the degree that we come to understand other organisms, we will place greater value on them, and on ourselves.” Neither anthropomorphism nor romantic idealism, ‘biophilia’ is merely a description of humanity as it has existed since earliest times, in, and of, nature. It follows, simply and logically, that as biophilic creatures, when we destroy life around us, we at least threaten our happiness and possibly our survival.

Forests are vital carbon sinks that store atmospheric CO2. Global forest loss releases almost 7.5 gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. Protecting natural ecosystems is probably the easiest carbon source to cut back on. Protecting wild ecosystems also delivers several side benefits to humans, including biodiversity conservation, hydrological services and oxygen supply. Photo: Sandesh Kandur.

For its part, the tiger does what it can to survive. Given undisturbed forest, water and prey species, the big cat breeds well. This is an animal in its evolutionary prime, highly adaptable. Where the tiger thrives, we know that nature is alive and well. If our politicians lack the wisdom and foresight to know the value of this animal and its deep connection to our own future, then we must replace them with ones who do. We ourselves will act, from the sure knowledge that the degradation of the tiger and its home – the biota – and the diminishment of our own lives, are one and the same.

The best tiger ‘habitat’ resides in the human heart. Here, we must find space for them.

By Bittu Sahgal and Jennifer Scarlott

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVII. No. 4., August 2007


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