If you are an active Facebooker, Stripey the Cub and other members of his clan must have popped up on your home page time and again, with numerous appeals for help. There are heart-wrenching pictures of big cats in plight, as well as vows from several organisations (both government and non-government) who pledge measures to stop the dreaded extinction that seems to be looming large. Even if you are a true-blue couch potato and not hooked to social media, you could not have missed Stripey, the scared and orphaned tiger cub looking into your eyes from the telly. Surely, that made him the pet of every Indian household and gave an edge to the otherwise neglected ‘Save Our Tiger’ campaign.
Stripey’s plight, flashed across print, telly, billboards and social media, must have made things better. I was genuinely touched when Big B (read Amitabh Bachchan), along with a reputed media house, managed to generate Rs 5 crore with their 12-hour telethon. Then an NGO declared on Facebook that they would run for the ‘cause’ outside the famed Corbett National Park. Although I failed to see how it would benefit the big cats or their human neighbours, the euphoria of supporting the cause quite overtook me and millions others.
Therefore, when the latest tiger count released in March this year showed a 12 per cent rise in the cat population – a leap to 1,706 from that abysmal 1,411, it was time for some mutual back-patting. Yet, all is not as it seems once you study the figures published by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Experts (unofficially) call it a crap exercise and quite a few state governments have already asked for a re-evaluation, as the new number game seems to have affected them adversely.
For instance, the Madhya Pradesh government has rejected the latest tiger tally as the state has lost its top position to Karnataka. The state is now home to only 257 tigers, as against the 300 recorded during the previous count. Then again, the UP forest department states that the current census has left out the Bijnore forests (221 sq km) which is home to a small tiger population. The numbers coming in for Maharashtra and Orissa are equally debatable. In fact, conservationists in Orissa claim that the tiger population in the state is close to 61 while the census has estimated it at around 32.
Similar conflicts abound for the simple reason that the census is just an ‘estimate’ instead of the ‘total’ count. In simple terms, it relies on both numbers and the spatial distribution across a few sites only, instead of taking into count entire stretches belonging to different tiger reserves. Next, these estimates are extrapolated to larger areas to arrive at all-India tiger numbers. According to a media report, around 100 cameras had been used this time to cover 120 sq km of the Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam tiger reserve in Andhra Pradesh and only seven tigers could be identified in that area. Based on these seven tigers over 120 sq km, the estimate extrapolated a figure not only for the 3,568 sq km reserve but the entire Western Ghats of the state.
Such methods are grossly inaccurate, to say nothing of the malfunctioning camera traps (nearly two-third of the 500 used this time) and the consequent procedural delay during the survey. But even if we have clear faith in the numbers, there is another grave point that cannot be ignored. Since tigers are territorial animals, rising numbers may soon require an increase in their territory. Yet, the tiger habitat across India has shrunk dangerously – from 93,600 sq km in the 2006 count to 72,800 sq km today. Loss of occupancy is a serious issue as the big cats are compelled to move closer to human localities that may result into a fierce human-predator conflict. Worse still, this shrinking of space may be the very reason behind the rising tiger density in certain areas.
Of course, authorities claim that it has all happened outside the protected area (PA), but the writing is very much on the wall. Even a high-profile tiger reserve like the Corbett National Park (in Uttaranchal) could not prevent tiger deaths by poisoning, apparently to ward off attacks on the livestock raised by the villagers residing in the core area. In fact, between 2005 and 2008, at least 20 tigers have been poisoned to death and 10 died in accidents in India. In 2009, 66 tiger deaths have been officially reported.
The Sunderbans in West Bengal is another troubled area where the rising incidents of straying have resulted into numerous tragedies. Since mangrove land doesn’t support a good prey base, tigers here depend more on human prey for their survival. Unfortunately, no attempt had been made to rehabilitate those residing in the fringe areas (mostly fishermen, honey-collectors and woodcutters) or include them in project work. “People kill them in self-defence or poach them to earn a little extra money,” says Bishnu Mondol, a villager working with an NGO. Consequently, the tiger base in southern Bengal is dwindling fast. The current census has estimated the tiger density in the Sunderbans at around 4.3 per 100 sq km, keeping the lower limit at 64 and the upper limit at 90.
So, we are back to square one – are our tigers really safe? Do we have the funds and long-term, viable plans to make this campaign a success? Can we sensitise and integrate the locals at every step, and make them a part of the ‘cause’ without putting their life and livelihood at stake? Are we ready to tear off the smoke screen and face the reality without flinching? Even if that reality cannot be measured by feel-good doses of Facebook?