In 2019, Narendra Modi very famously celebrated the growth of the tiger population in India. In just four years, an endangered species— one expected to be extinct in a few years— had grown by 33 per cent.
The striped animal is nothing less than the bedrock of India’s spirit, courage, focus and inspiration. The existence of the national animal and the Indian government’s ability to preserve it is a pertinent factor in evaluating any government’s success. We, as a country, might not vehemently care about animal welfare but the tiger is an exception. The practice of poaching, hunting, habitat destruction and prey depletion led to a dearth of tigers in India in the 1970s. This was a mammoth of a crisis. Project Tiger, a tiger conservation programme, was launched as a constructive effort. With this, human interference in tiger reserves was shot down, hunting grounds were converted to tiger reserves, illegal trading of animals was banned and the phenomenal growth in tiger population (circa 2019) was accomplished.
However, the story of Project Tiger is too pretty and heroic to be realistic. With such political relevance, could it be that tiger conservation is as easy as it is made out to be?
Traditionally, a male Bengal tiger needs a home range of approximately 60-150 square kilometres. A female Bengal tiger requires about 20-60 square kilometres. Coupled with the fact that tigers value privacy and isolation, preserving tigers becomes very tricky. A cub cannot share the same reserve as the parents. Once a cub grows old enough, it roams to find a new territory to live and hunt. For a cub to get a new reserve, either old tigers have to be removed or the cub marks a territory outside the reserve.
However, reserves are limited in India and based in the outskirts or within rural areas. They are also smaller than what tigers are accustomed to. Cubs eventually have to move out of the reserve and therefore, only 70-85 per cent of India’s tigers are inside the reserves. There have been captures of tigers walking on the same path as livelihood and people.
This leads to the death of a few tigers. Biologically, tigers are prowlers. These empty spaces spanning kilometres can only be found in forests. However, with modern inventions, there arise modern problems. Tigers are huge fans of highways. The traffic, the lights or the blaring of horns does little to frighten a tiger. Certain reserves are over a highway where at least 6000 vehicles race down every day and end up injuring or killing preserved tigers.
The census is conducted incompetently as well. The tiger census is carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). It involves elusive tactics and a lot of strategic guesswork. One of the methods involves collecting sightings of tiger tracks, human disturbance or any prey by forest guards. Wildlife experts have pointed out that these tiger track sightings are manipulated by forest guards, who are under pressure to report positive tiger growth. Few experts have even pointed out that tiger growth is only being reported in the census because there is an improvement in apparatus and not the number of tigers.
All the problems listed till now are humans: highways, constructed by humans; reserves, out of space because of growing infrastructure; and the census, manipulated to snag political superiority. The villain in the tiger conservation story is not so surprisingly, us: the human species. It is a conflict between greed and habitat yet different from the narrative we are familiar with. Tigers’ existence is not threatened by poaching or hunting anymore. Consumer capitalism will be the bane of the tiger’s existence as well.
How can an animal that is biologically wired to prowl, stroll and explore co-exist with humans, who value infrastructure and industrialization, important elements to economic growth? Both of these goals are important to us but when asked to choose, we would choose ourselves. The possibility of a better future will have us forgetting about an animal that we claim to view with pride and reverence. Humans are endeared by tigers. When a tiger gave birth to a cub, villagers came on tractors and motorbikes to see the newborn. Humans also endear infrastructure and modernity. Modernity kills tigers but we still prefer our growth over the other. Just because the tiger has a political relevance and promises tourism to our country doesn’t imply that we are willing to prioritise its growth over ours. Are we to blame for wanting a better life?
No. Neither are the young children rejoicing over the first cement building in their village, just kilometres away from the reserve.