Wildlife conservation refers to measures that ensure the protection, sustenance and survival of wild species of flora and fauna in their natural habitat. The need for conservation emerges from the unfortunate truth that many species of both- plants and animals, are currently threatened by hunting and poaching, overexploitation for food and other derivatives, habitat fragmentation and loss, climate change and pollution etc. For example, charismatic animals like elephants, tigers and leopards are ruthlessly hunted for their body parts whereas endangered animals like the great Indian bustards and purple frogs are dying out due to loss of habitat. Very often, (as is the case in all the examples mentioned here), many animals are faced with a combination of one or more threats A lot of people will tell you that since we, as human beings are widely responsible for much of the destruction and degradation of the environment, it is therefore our responsibility to now take steps to protect what is left of it. However, the importance of wildlife conservation goes beyond this moral imperative. In any ecosystem, every animal and plant, no matter how small or large, has a role to play. Therefore, the destruction of even a single link in that chain can lead to the destruction of the entire ecosystem. Therefore, if we as humans are to ensure our survival, then we must ensure allow the species that inhabit the earth alongside us, their rightful space.
The tiger (Panthera tigris), is without doubt, among the world’s most beautiful and charismatic mammals. However, it’s worth is not merely skin-deep. It occupies a place of reverence in Indian culture and mythology. The tiniest of temples in India have shrines to the tiger; it serves as the mount of the Mother Goddess Durga in Hindu mythology; it is the keeper of the swamps in Bengali folklore and thus, no man dare enter its realm. Much of this reverence reveals an inherent understanding of the tiger’s indispensable role in Nature’s scheme of things and can therefore, be explained in an ecological context whereinthe tiger performs critical ecological roles, as an ‘umbrella’ species as well as a ‘keystone’ species.
An umbrella species is one that occupies a large area and hence, by virtue of its habitat being protected, the safety of other species that occupy the same space is thus looked after. . Therefore, by securing the fate of tigers and their habitat from ecological damage and human pressures, other animals within that habitat also enjoy the same levels of protection. Now some of these animals like parakeets, painted storks, rat snakes, spotted deer, nilgai, mongoose, and jackals may be found across India’s forests and in large numbers. But there are others like barasingha in Kanha and Kaziranga Tiger Reserves, estuarine crocodiles in Sundarbans Tiger Reserve and Indian pangolins in Tiger Reserves located south of the Himalayas which are in grave danger and although they may be protected under various wildlife laws, their conservation status is given an added fillip because the area they happen to inhabit is secure.
Tigers are also considered a “keystone species” which means that they perform certain important ecological functions which help in maintaining the balance within the ecosystem. Their removal can upset this balance and damage the structure and functioning of the ecosystem, which can have negative implications on the biodiversity as a whole. Tigers, being apex predators, feed on animals that are lower down in the food chain with herbivores such as deer and antelope forming a vital component of their meals. Therefore, they keep a check on the herbivore population which, if otherwise allowed to proliferate, may cause irreparable damage to the vegetative cover. This vegetative cover-whether in the form of grass, trees, scrub vegetation etc.- acts as a carbon sink and also binds the soil with its roots thus preventing soil erosion. Forests enable absorption of rainwater run-off and thus serve as catchment areas of many of India’s rivers and are also important sources of groundwater. In those areas, where communities coexist along tigers, the latter’s presence prevents people from venturing into the forest to harvest certain products or allowing their cattle to graze within, thus ensuring the vitality and health of the jungle.
As per the results of the official tiger census in 2014, India is home to 2226 tigers which belong to the subspecies, Panthera tigris tigris or the Bengal Tiger. However, while this paragon of power has been padding softly through a billion hearts, it is in grave danger across its range. Earlier,,tigers were routinely killed for sport until the Indian government instituted a blanket ban on hunting in 1972. However, tigers in India continue to be poached. Although there is no domestic demand for tiger parts within India, the skin, bones, flesh and other body parts are trafficked illegally to China and other parts of South East Asia for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), despite the lack of proof of its efficacy. Apart from poaching, tigers are also affected by increasingly fragmented habitats, poor prey base, habitat loss due to deforestation and indiscriminate conversion of forest land for agricultural and industrial use and human-wildlife conflict.
India has done much to protect tigers. Tigers are listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which bans hunting and killing of tigers, as well as the possession of trophies or parts. Under this law, anyone convicted of killing a tiger or found to be possession of trophies or parts is eligible to a prison sentence of a minimum of three years which can extend to seven years as well as a monetary fine of INR. 50,0000 to INR. 2,00,000. Subsequent convictions for further offences attract prison terms of a minimum of seven years as well as a fine of at least INR. 5,00,000 which can extend up to INR. 50,00,000.
India is also a signatory to the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), which is an international treaty that regulates the trade in wild animals and their parts. Tigers are listed on Appendix I of the CITES, which means that trade in in tigers and their parts is banned across the world. Therefore, while the WPA, 1972 has been instrumental in curbing instances of poaching and wildlife crime in India, it has been further strengthened by CITES legislation which has been instrumental in preventing countries like China from legalising the trade in tiger parts.
In India, tiger conservation comes under the aegis of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a statutory body under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change(MoEFCC). The NTCA is entrusted with the management of tiger reserves across India and is responsible for implementing conservation-related undertakings and activities that come within the purview of Project Tiger, which was announced in 1973. Under this programme, areas that were deemed suitable tiger habitat would be given the status of Tiger Reserves. Initially, nine tracts of suitable tiger habitat were designated as tiger reserves. These reserves were intended to function as breeding grounds for tigers, from where surplus individuals would migrate to suitable, adjacent areas. Meanwhile, the strict protection measures within these areas boosted wildlife conservation and resulted in the resurgence of many species, as well. Today, India has 47 tiger reserves, which are managed by the State Forest Departments, under the direction of the NTCA.
In order for conservation to be successful, it requires the coordinated efforts of various entities, who are stakeholders in the conservation process. Some of these include:
• The Government of India
• State Forest Departments
• Local/rural communities
• Wildlife conservation organizations
• Urban Populace
• Tourism Industry
Tiger conservation requires a series of coordinated concerted efforts by all stakeholders at various levels. They can be categorised as direct and indirect efforts:
• Ensure the strict enforcement of laws such as the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, Environment (Protection) Act, 2006 and Forest Right Act (2006).
• Monitor tiger habitats through vehicular and foot patrols to keep a check on poaching, illegal tree-felling and other activities that are illegal and detrimental to conservation.
• Monitor and maintain habitats by constructing fire-lines to contain forest fires, removal of noxious weeds and invasive species of plants, construction and maintenance of waterholes and water bodies during the dry season.
• Conduct and manage voluntary relocation of villages from regions that have been scientifically identified as critical tiger habitat.
• Enlist the use of established and proven scientific techniques to monitor predator and prey numbers through regular census studies, studying tigers and their behaviour using radio collars, DNA profiling and camera traps.
• Maintain a dedicated and trusted network of informants to provide information on poaching and other wildlife crime.
• Understand human-wildlife conflicts and draw solutions to address or mitigate them.
• Initiate positive, meaningful engagement with communities living within and on the periphery of forested areas; provide solutions to reduce the dependence of communities on products derived from wildlife and forests.
• Provide aid and assistance to the State Forest Departments through provision of field equipment such as solar lighting, medical kits, boots, insect repellents and other gear.
• Conduct education initiatives, vocational training and soft skills programmes and similar interventions for communities residing in and around these areas. Make extra efforts towards providing alternative sources of livelihood, especially in regions where hunting is a traditional occupation.
• Encourage and promote tribal and local art, craft and culture.
• Conduct medical camps for livestock and people so as to ensure the provision of basic medical facilities to rural folk in these areas.
• Ensure that tourism and other commercial activities train and select staff from local communities, thus contributing to local economies.
• Encourage communities to grow local produce and vegetation. Those trees and plants, whose produce is of value to local communities must be planted in sizeable numbers outside protected areas thus ensuring that these communities can fulfil their needs without venturing directly into the forest.
• Aid in the construction of walled community cattle sheds where cattle can be safely tethered at night, thus reducing their susceptibility to predation by wild animals. Similarly, maintain community grazing grounds to end the practice of sending domestic cattle into the forest to graze.
These are just some of the methods which are used in tiger conservation. The application of one or more of these efforts depends on factors such as ecological and conservation status of habitat and wildlife, effects on local communities, proactive efforts of the government and concerned Forest departments as well as availability of necessary resources.
Social media, if used responsibly can serve a powerful communication tool, primarily because of its easy accessibility to a large section of the population. Social media provides people with a platform to put forth their opinions and experiences and likewise, gain access to that of others. It has the power to put a philanthropist in touch with a conservationist, a student in touch with a wildlife scientist, an eager volunteer in touch with a NGO looking for helping hands and a lawyer in touch with an environmental activist. It enables dissemination of various points of view and also facilitates meaningful engagement of thoughts and ideas between like-minded individuals. There have also been instances where it has served as an effective monitoring tool, wherein photos and videos that captured violation of forest rules have resulted in identification and punishment of the miscreants. It also has the potential to draw the support of large groups of people for a particular cause. Social media is extremely useful in drawing attention to a cause; however, it is up to us to use this attention responsibly and in a manner which does not backfire or negatively affect our goals.
Each of us is a beneficiary of a clean and healthy environment, and as such, we can all contribute to conservation in our own way. Be assured, that even the smallest effort that you make for the benefit of the planet can make a big difference to some small creature somewhere.
Yes. The tiger does have a future in our forests. The dedication and effort of the government, Forest Department and the wildlife community to save the tiger and its forests have certainly yielded fantastic results. Following the disappearance of tigers in Panna, stringent efforts by the Forest department have resulted in a resurgence in the reserve’s tiger population. However, the threats to the tiger still persist and therefore, we must continue to strengthen and boost our efforts towards conservation, so that the tiger may forever dwell in our wild lands.
Last Wilderness Foundation believes that the participation of people is imperative to any conservation paradigm, especially in a country like India where wildlife and people have co-existed and continue to do so. Therefore, the basis of our work lies in efforts towards positive interaction and engagement with rural and urban audiences to instil in them a sense of ownership and responsibility towards forests and wildlife, while understanding their perspective towards various facets of conservation.
In rural areas, we reach out to those communities that live in close proximity with wildlife and whose lifestyles are dependent on the forests, whether directly or indirectly, so as to help them address and resolve issues arising out of their interaction with wildlife., so as to reduce and/or mitigate the chances of Human-wildlife conflict.
In urban areas, we work primarily with school-going children from various age groups to introduce them to the wonders of nature and thus instil in them a sense of appreciation towards the environment. Our awareness programmes in urban areas are aimed towards inculcating in our audience a sense ownership and responsibility towards the environment.
We work alongside the State Forest Departments and assist them by providing resource and skill-enhancement measures, while also undertaking direct on-ground conservation initiatives.