This week India began its country-wide tiger census, which is held once every four years. Over seven days, experts will be tracking tigers to see if numbers have increased from the official figure of 1,706 as reported by the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
Though hopes are high that tiger numbers have increased, the reality is that poaching is on the increase. The Wildlife Protection Society of India reported that the poaching of tigers in 2013 is at a seven-year high. As the year comes to a close, 39 deaths due to poaching have been recorded in India (and while the total number of tiger deaths is less than the 76 for 2013, versus 89 last year, the increase in poaching is alarming).India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests has said that proximity of human settlement with tiger habitats is a major reason for poaching. There are about 762 villages with 48,549 families in the core/critical tiger habitats across the country (and, I would add, in my non-expert opinion, that high demand from China and other Asian nations is probably the major reason).
A research study published last month in the journal PLOS ONE found that human settlements and intervention are negatively impacting tiger movements. Many tigers are found in small, protected parks in India, and their survival depends on improving and increasing the connectivity between these areas via tiger corridors. Tigers can go 650 kilometers between protected areas, so creating wildlife corridors are just as important as having tiger reserves.
These isolated protected areas are too small to even hold demographically viable populations of tigers. The report’s authors stated that adult tigers live in areas that are less than 7 percent of their historical range.
Having just been in Kanha National Park, in central India, and seeing the number of villages and people surrounding it, I was unsurprised to hear of the impact of humans on tigers. The reality in India and many other places is that there are simply a lot of people and dwindling wild lands.But that’s the situation in which we have to work. And it’s important that local people are vested in protecting nature.
Valmik Thapar, a tiger conservationist, said in a recent interview that India should look to Africa for the best innovative wildlife tourism model to conserve wildlife. “We should learn from Africa. Their wildlife policies allow locals to manage a large part of the land for wildlife. We don’t even match up to the ‘A’ of Africa when it comes to preserving and conserving our wildlife.”
The pressure from the illegal trade in animals is enormous, and add to that human encroachment, habitat loss, development, and economic globalization and it will take all hands on deck to save tigers. Even the best conservation models in Africa are struggling in the face of rampant poaching of elephants and rhinos.
It is in the world’s interest to help protect the remaining tigers in what little habitat remains for them. Cracking down on poaching (especially international syndicates) and an all-out education program (see this example in China) in countries that consume trafficked animal parts must be top priorities.