The Elusive Tiger

Did you know that rats, mice, crows and fruit bats are the only four animals that can be legally hunted in India?

In a country where at least one tiger is found dead every ten days, the above statistic seems most meaningless.

It may not directly matter to you and me but the fact is that it should matter. Almost half the world’s wild tiger population is present in India. But. Tiger numbers in the country are dwindling. Very fast. The animal is beautiful and majestic. But this is not why it needs to be protected and conserved. There are hard facts and data that show the danger they are in. And therefore need to be saved.

Between 2000 and 2010, body parts of 474 tigers were seized.

The Tiger Task Force of 2005 spoke about tiger habitats and the need to rethink conservation in India. Given that tigers are territorial beings, the debate on whether locals should be relocated from near tiger habitats, or continue to live within the reserve area, continues.

In a country where management is a massive crisis, in every area you can think of, forest management of course isn’t really up there. We don’t have a forest management strategy. Forests are not wilderness areas. They are habitats of people. There are millions who depend on forests for their livelihood. It’s the survival base of the poorest. Given all of this, the tiger of course is in double jeopardy.

Data says that in the core areas of tiger reserves there 19,000 families spread across 273 villages in the country. In tiger reserves in general, there are 66,000 families in 1500 villages. In three decades till 2005, only 80 villages have been relocated from tiger reserves. People are dependent on forests for sustenance. And this has only put more pressure on forests. And the irony of all this is that as per the 2005 census, half our tigers and other wildlife were found outside 20 reserves.

Tourism – Good or Bad?

So when we talk about tiger conservation, why are we talking about humans first? Well, the reality is that we are the ones endangering the species by the minute.

Tourists at a tiger sigting spot at the Corbett Tiger Reserve, Nainital, Uttarakhand.

While those tribals and locals have almost always lived there, there is a bigger problem that’s affecting our tiger population. And that is tourism. How many of us, during vacations to national parks, have piled up on the tour guide/forest guard to sight a tiger in the wild? And these holiday resorts cash in on the lure of the tiger. Forests have become a product, says Swati Sheshadrie, Programme Coordinator, Equation. (Equations is a Bangalore-based research, campaign and advocacy organisation)

“Tourism is primarily a private industry”, explains Swati. Even as one goes to these resorts/hotels, it isn’t about enjoying the quiet calm of the jungle. Loud music and bon fires are quite common. Some even get married here. Destination weddings!

On a recent visit to the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Nainital district, I saw the line of resorts on the road leading up to the reserve itself. This has been a massive cause for concern for a while now. Tigers have been affected by this sudden influx of people and have been finding it difficult to cross to the other side which is the Ramnagar forest. The resorts stand in between Corbett and Ramnagar with the Kosi running alongside.

Swati says that the owners of most of the tourist establishments are in fact not from that region. They buy land and the original land owners end up working on that hotel/lodge as drivers, gardeners and so on. Clothes of the tourists are washed in nearby rivers, polluting the water. Vegetables are not bought locally either.

The Jungle Lodges and Resorts vehicles are the only ones used in forests in Karnataka.

So should we stop tourism altogether? Swati says no. She explains that it’s about increasing the forest in the buffer areas, thereby reducing pressure on the core. She gives the example of the government-run Jungle Lodges in Kabini in Karnataka. This lodge has a limited facility and follows regulations meticulously. I visited this place last year and found it to be quite well-run. The only disappointing factor would be the lack of takers when the films on wildlife are screened. Swati says that in Karnataka all vehicles going into the forests in any resort belong to the Jungle lodges.

Swati says that regulation is required and that instead of evicting local communities, they can be used as watch dogs. Tourism can be used as a tool to transform. Otherwise, it will only do more bad than good.

Alternatives to relocation

Conservation is a collective responsibility. Coming back to the conflict between humans and tigers, there are divided views on relocation of locals. Ghazala Shahabuddin, an Associate Professor at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, sees relocation as a failure. She says that the rehabilitation process is not just about money but should be a hand-holding process.

Chandigarh-based activist Madhu Sarin says that relocation violates the Forest Rights Act. She says that one cannot conclude that the rights of the tigers are superior to the rights of the tribals.

Most of the locals in and around tiger reserves in fact don’t have any land of their own. They live on revenue land. This has put the administration in a dilemma.

But Ghazala also offers alternatives to relocation. Eco tourism. Jeep rides. Small scale farming. Employment opportunities. Ghazala says that there can be an MoU with locals and negotiations can be made to reach a middle path. The problem however, she explains, is that nothing has been tried yet.

People versus wildlife

Tourists need to be responsible and play the role of watch-dogs

Ravi Chellam, Director of Research and Conservation at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust’s Bangalore unit, says that there is a huge gap between intention of the law and hot it is being implemented. He feels that it isn’t about people versus the forest department, but people versus wildlife.

Whenever a tiger kills cattle, the locals generally immediately poison the cattle which in turn kills the tiger. The World Wildlife Fund India has now started compensating families immediately after the cattle dies so as to prevent them from poisoning the cattle. This of course is misused by several.

And then there is wildlife crime. Poachers have become smarter by the day. Even camera traps are stolen these days. This year, till June 10th, 48 tigers were found dead in the country. In 2011, 56 tigers died including 9 that were confirmed cases of poaching. In 2010, 52 tigers died including 24 confirmed poaching cases. The numbers are only going up.

Today all tiger deaths are assumed to be caused by poaching unless proven otherwise.

On a recent visit to the Corbett Tiger Reserve, which has over 200 tigers, I spotted none. Probably symbolic of the fact that tigers are fast disappearing.


Vaishnavi Vittal was selected for and attended the Centre for Science and Environment Fellowship Media Briefing Workshop on ‘Tigers, tiger habitats and their conservation in India’, held in New Delhi and Nanital in June 2012