Tiger zinda hai: Yes, tiger numbers are satisfyingly high in India today. But it's still complicated

Rajeshwari Ganesan
Rajeshwari GanesanJul 29, 2019 | 16:00

Tiger zinda hai: Yes, tiger numbers are satisfyingly high in India today. But it's still complicated

India has exceeded the count of 2,282 tigers promised at the 2010 St. Petersburg Declaration four years ahead of time. But what is the cost we pay for such large numbers?

The census results are out — and the tiger numbers seem to have emerged as a clear winner. In the report released by the Prime Minister today, the total count of tigers in the country is estimated to be at 2,967 — 741 tigers up from the last count of 2,226 in 2014 and an increase of over 33%.

This is indeed a feather in India’s wildlife hat and something to be very proud of.

PM Narendra Modi released the All India Tiger Estimation Report 2018 on July 29, 2019.

main_modi-releasing-_072919022358.jpgBurning Bright: PM Modi releases the All India Tiger Estimation Report 2018. (Photo: PIB/Twitter)

International Tiger Day is observed on July 29 every year as a reminder of the agreement which was signed by countries at the St Petersburg Tiger Summit in Russia in 2010.

The agreement was to raise awareness about the decline of the global tiger population and that the governments of tiger-range countries would double the animal's population by 2022.

The 13 tiger-range countries (where tigers are found naturally occurring in the wild) are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.

At the point when the agreement was signed in 2010, the population of tigers in India had hit an all-time low.

The census by the National Tiger Conservation Authority in 2006 showed that there were only 1,411 tigers alive in the wild in India. The Indian authorities had then pledged to increase the number of tigers to 2,822 by the year 2022. The numbers have been increasing continuously to 1,706 individuals reported in the 2010 census and 2,226 individuals in the 2014 census.

Releasing the report today, the Prime Minister went on to say that India has achieved the target of doubling the tiger population four years before the deadline.

"Today we reaffirm our commitment towards protecting tigers. Results of the just declared Tiger Census would make every Indian happy. Nine years ago it was decided in St. Petersburg that target of doubling tiger population will be 2022. We completed this target four years early," he said.

However, not all is well in the tiger-range countries.

For instance, the recent survey in Malaysia reported that the big cat population had a significant drop from earlier national estimates of around 250-340 individuals. “Updates presented by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks suggest that Malaysia’s national estimate could be less than 200 individual wild tigers, although the national tiger survey is still ongoing and requires further analysis. However, this reconfirms the urgent need for strong action and sustained investments,” said Dr Mark Rayan Darmaraj, WWF-Malaysia’s tiger landscape lead, in a press release.

While the news comes as a sign of jubilation for the authorities, the oft-asked question of the dwindling tiger habitats — owing to human encroachments and poorly planned projects for development — comes to the fore. Due to these, here is a constant human-tiger conflict because of which the interface between tigers and people who live alongside them has never been worse than now. 

main_royal-bengal-ti_072919023023.jpgAre they really safe? Instances of human-tiger conflict in India are shocking and disturbingly frequent. (Photo: Reuters)

Repeatedly, we kill tigers for straying into human settlements.

Take, for instance, the video that surfaced recently of a tigress surrounded by an angry mob, hitting it with relentless blows. Ironically, it was barely four days before the government proudly announced the increased tiger numbers.

Between the shrieks and yells of “maar, maar (beat it, beat it)”, there are loud thumps of the sticks striking the tigress that dared to venture into the village adjacent to the Pilbhit Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh.

The tiger died (a very painful death) in a few hours.

As ever, the conservationist and animal welfare fraternity were up in arms against the villagers.

But this is certainly not an isolated instance. In November 2018, a tigress was beaten to death and run over, again in Uttar Pradesh. This time, it was adjacent to the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve (DTR) area and the tigress had mauled a man who was reportedly inside the tiger reserve. The famous case of tigress Avni in Maharashtra had sparked nation-wide outrage and protests after she was shot dead, reportedly illegally. Before she was shot, there was a massive “Save Avni” campaign. All to naught. 

What we fail to realise in the noise though is that the attacks on tigers on the fringes of the forests come as retaliation and self-defence by the villagers living around.

In Uttar Pradesh alone, there were 63 cases of attacks on humans by tigers from 2014 to February 2019, according to The Wildlife Trust of India's conflict database. This is an average of 10.8 cases per year, marking a shocking increase in such cases recorded between 2000 and 2013 when the average was 5.6 cases of attacks on humans per year.

Considering the very poorly planned settlements for human beings along the fringes of the forests, a fractured relationship between the locals and the forest authorities and the lack of a democratic process of including villagers in drafting policies that affect them the most, it is outright unfair in several cases to incriminate the villagers for killing the tigers.

For the villagers, it is not a case of "conflict with wildlife". It is deeply disturbed coexistence. 

main_royal-bengal-ti_072919024556.jpgWas it her vs villagers? Avni was held responsible for killing several humans. (Representational Photo: Reuters)

Speaking to me, Dr Ravi Chellam, one of India’s strongest voices on conservation and its related issues, said, “Locals have a better understanding of living with wildlife because it is a question of their survival. While drafting policies, their situation needs to be accounted for.  Now, most policymaking does not involve the local population sufficiently, citing that it is a tedious and a time-consuming process. Moreover, national or state level policy scales are at a mismatch to the ground situation. No single policy will work for wildlife across the country or even across different parts of the state. Therefore, the policies should be clear and crisp, and more importantly, should have a flexible framework to ease the implementation at ground level.”

It could not have been put better. 

In my opinion, the count of 2,967 tigers in the country is not a cause of celebration. It is time to think, and re-think, about whether the country is equipped to handle the big cat population and give them a flourishing habitat, besides ensuring a peaceful coexistence with those who have to interact with wildlife every hour of their lives.

After all, quality has always mattered more than quantity.

Why should the case of tigers be any different?

Last updated: July 29, 2019 | 16:13
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