BY ASAVARI KULKARNI
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
These lines from Williams Blake’s famous poem aptly capture the essence of fearsome and charismatic tiger or Panthera tigres. Regarded as the spirit of the Indian jungle, the tiger is an apex predator, at the top ecological pyramid with no predators of its own.
Project Tiger was launched in the year 1973 in India, and since then untiring efforts have been on to conserve this significant species, which also happens to be our national animal.
And no wonder the results have been seen after 50 years. India now boasts of having 75 per cent of the world’s tiger population!
On April 10, 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the 5th census report of wild tigers in India.
According to the report, the number of tigers has increased by 6.7 per cent, which is an addition of 200 tigers to the total population in India.
This census covered forested habitats in 20 states of India. Camera traps were set up at 32,588 locations. The current tiger population is 3,167, up from 2967 in 2018.
This is indeed great news for wildlife conservationists and environmentalists, who are tirelessly working to maintain a healthy ecological environment in India, however, we may be prematurely patting ourselves on the back.
The report says that while the tiger population has increased in other areas, the occupancy in the Western Ghats has declined, which is a matter of concern.
It is observed that significant declines were observed in the Wayanad landscape, the Biligiriranga Hills and near the Goa and Karnataka borders.
The number of tigers has declined to 824 from 981 estimated in the year 2018. It came as a wake-up call for the authorities, conservationists and wildlife experts. All fingers were pointed towards Goa and border areas.
The chief minister raised concerns about this and assured that all efforts will be taken to improve the situation. Opposition leaders slammed the government for not declaring a tiger reserve. Experts raised concerns about the declining figures and so forth.
It is easy to slam the government for failure. It goes without saying that we should be vigilant and concerned about such a sensitive issue.
Nevertheless, we must ensure that we are analysing such reports properly and not just superficially glancing through them.
All said and done, the important question is, where are all the tigers gone? Why is the number drastically dwindling, and why it is more in the Western Ghats?
It is a well-established fact that habitat destruction and reduction in the number of prey are the major reasons for the decline in the tiger population.
But, we must understand that the census is done within a given time frame and not the year around.
The tiger reserves are selected forest areas for the conservation of the tiger population of that particular state. Plenty of funds have been allocated for this purpose.
Conservation efforts here are more than that of non-designated areas. There is special staff, plentiful amenities to check the tiger population, etc.
All these efforts certainly help in maintaining the population quite well than in those areas which are not designated as tiger reserves.
There are, nonetheless, other reasons for this decline, which should be a matter of concern. The point I am trying to make here is that just because a report is declared and we know some numbers, we should not rush to conclusions.
First and foremost, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), which conducts the estimation, has not released a state or tiger reserve-wise estimation.
What has been given is a state-specific insight into the overall report. So, the decline in the tiger population is in the entire Western Ghats region and not only in the state of Goa.
Secondly, when we talk about Goa and the Dandeli region, it is a stretch of wildlife sanctuaries spread across the Western Ghats region of Goa, Maharashtra and Karnataka.
The tiger requires a vast region of land for its survival. It may be from 45 ha to even 100 ha of land. So, it does not restrict itself to one state. If one goes through the reports of tiger sightings in Goa, this number changes every time.
The census of 2010 reported the presence of 5 tigers in the forests of Goa. Hence NTCA described the Goa stretch as an important tiger corridor between Anshi and Dandeli tiger reserves and the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve. Since then, the presence of the tiger population has shown ups and downs in numbers.
In 2014, the state had 5 tigers, which decreased to three in the year 2018. Subsequently in 2019 again it increased to five tigers. A sad episode of the killing of one tigress and her three cubs took place in Goa in the year 2020.
But in the following year 2021, the highest number of tiger sightings, that is 20, was reported by the forest department.
In the months from June to August 2022, again 6 tiger sightings were reported by the forest department, thereby confirming the abundant presence of this magnificent species.
Conservationists have long been demanding the declaration of the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary as a tiger reserve. Interestingly, one retired forest officer said that designating a tiger reserve is not an easy task, given the restricted land availability, limited funds and a weak political will.
People living in the forests should be taken into confidence. Forest rights settlement has still not been completed after Mhadei and Netravali were declared wildlife sanctuaries in the year 1999.
One minister went on record, saying the tigers sighted are not residential but have come from outside the state.
With the paucity of knowledge on the subject, how can we expect the declaration of the tiger reserve in Goa? With the hinterlands opened to tourists, homestays and farms mushrooming in these areas, will the locals accept another legal obligation in their areas? The answer is no.
Tigers have been held in high esteem by the people of Goa. This is evinced in the presence of shrines dedicated to tigers in many places in Goa and villages with names like Vaghurme, Vaghure and so on.
However, the increasing human-centric development, rampant habitat destruction, and fragmentation have forced this species to migrate to safer places.
No doubt, the report is a wake-up call for all of us residing in the Western Ghats region.
We do need to take positive steps towards the conservation of this important species. But let’s take concrete action and not merely play with some numbers on paper.
Tigers are indicators of a healthy ecosystem, and a healthy ecosystem is needed for our survival. Better late than never.