Survival tale: How the tiger in India’s wild has earned its stripes

Be it as a target for game hunters in times bygone or as click bait for wildlife enthusiasts today, the tiger has been a tourist draw for centuries. At the centre of Indian wildlife conservation programmes, its population is now seeing an uptick in numbers.

From the prehistoric Sabre Tooth to the tiger as we know it today, the striped wonders have walked the earth for almost two million years. The Royal Bengal Tiger is the country’s national animal and, perhaps, one of its most precious species. It once inhabited many parts of the Indian subcontinent. But its numbers have dwindled, especially in the last two centuries.

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 An impressive male tiger in Ranthambhore. Image: Shutterstock/Ondrej Prosicky.

When the hunter is hunted

Tiger pelts were the spoils of many a shikaar. Indian rajas and maharajahs and high-ranking British officers were known for their hunting excesses. In fact, historians estimate that between 1875 and 1925 alone, more than 80,000 tigers and hundreds of thousands more of their natural prey were killed in massive hunts. The odds were stacked against the poor animals, who were at the mercy of noisy beaters, traps, and shotguns. By 1947, there were estimated to be only about 40,000 tigers in India.

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Maharana Bhupal Singh of Udaipur was one of the many Indian kings and nobles who prided themselves on hunting tigers.

As if that were not enough, after India gained Independence, the ensuing green revolution and industrialisation infringed on the natural habitat, with forests being cleared for fields, farms, and factories. Roads and railways cut through dense jungle, posing a risk to the animals, day and night. Rampant deforestation led to much-curtailed tiger territories, lack of prey, and an animal-human conflict that continues to this day. There was also destruction of the natural corridors that connected large forests, limiting the movement of younger tigers, who need to strike out to acquire their own territory once they attain adulthood.  

Fortunately, in 1971, the then PM Indira Gandhi, showed great foresight by banning hunting. Two years later, the conservation programme called Project Tiger came into being and the big cats got a new lease of life, with protected forests areas being demarcated as tiger reserves. The forest department has worked tirelessly since, battling low funds, poachers, and even villagers who have suffered losses of life and livestock when the rare tiger turns a maneater or looks for easy prey in the fields.

Even so, thanks to such skirmishes and illegal poaching, by 2010 their numbers had dropped to an all-time low of 3,200 worldwide and reduced to just five per cent of their historical range. A Global Tiger Recovery Programme got the 13 countries with wild tiger populations to commit to try doubling the numbers by this year, the Chinese Year of the Tiger (February 1 to January 31, 2023). This represented the last best hope for the survival of the world’s most magnificent species and the valuable landscapes in which wild tigers live.

In India, the National Tiger Conservation Authority is responsible for governing the 53 tiger reserves set up under Project Tiger. It’s been heartening to see the tiger population in India steadily increasing, from only 1,411 in 2006 to 1,706 in 2010 to 2,226 in 2014 and finally 2,967 in the last census in 2018. Today, with the tiger numbers up, the tiger conservation programme seems to be a success story despite the poaching and encroaching on forest land. A tiger in the wild is undeniably majestic and beautiful. But the fact that India is the country with the largest population of wild tigers in the world (of around 3,900 tigers left in the wild, 70 per cent are in India), makes saving the tiger extra important. The tiger is the apex predator of our country’s wilderness, and the fact remains that if you save the tiger, you also save the rest of the jungle.

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The growing tiger population is heartening. A tigress and her cubs are blissfully unaware of how they’ve been saved from the jaws of extinction. Image: Shutterstock/Anuradha Marwah.

Forests might just be more valuable to tourism boards, companies and administrations in their natural state. Bittu Sahgal, one of India’s most highly regarded environmental activists and founder of the Sanctuary Nature Foundation and Kids for Tigers, points out, “Our tiger reserves feed pure, fresh water into over 600 small and large rivers. They replenish our aquifers. They sequester and store carbon. They help fertilise soils when monsoon waters carry nutrients to farms.  The list is long, and we must recognise that our natural ecosystems are infrastructures that have given birth to and supported civilisations on the Indian subcontinent for eons. They are NOT impediments to development as many planners, politicians and businessmen would have us believe.”

According to him, “The best way for private and public sector corporations to help nature conservation would be for them to desist from inflicting more damaging on natural India than they have already done. There are, nevertheless, ways in which the corporate sector can play a positive role today, but these would largely involve supplementing, not replacing, the role of government and of local communities.”

Tiger tourism: Roar or uproar?

Conservation apart, the tiger is also a big draw for tourism, both domestic and inbound. The increase in tiger reserve numbers, tourism budgets and this higher predilection towards wildlife-centred vacations, spells hope for the beleaguered beast. But should ‘tiger tourism’ even exist?

A symbol of a thriving eco-system and, increasingly, of a robust economy. Even as far back as a decade ago, a non-profit organisation had conducted a study that concluded that one big cat in a much-frequented tiger reserve could be estimated to be worth about USD 750,000 per year in tourism revenues! With wildlife or nature tourism said to be increasing 25 per cent annually, one could say that the tiger is a high-performing asset.

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A symbol of a thriving eco-system and, increasingly, of a robust economy. Image: Shutterstock/PhotocechCZ.

In fact, a study published by the Centre for Ecological Services Management (CESM) and the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM) in collaboration with the Government of India’s NTCA attempted to estimate the valuation of 10 of the 53 tiger reserves in India. Its findings revealed that for every rupee invested in managing a tiger reserve, the returns came to about Rs 2,500.

And, yes, awareness has been created and a wildlife safari is now not limited to the select few as it was even three decades ago. Social media and travel publications have sold the idea of a jungle vacay to everyone. Post-pandemic, the demand to explore more secluded and serene destinations has risen and national parks are welcoming more and more visitors.

But the question now arises, how do the parks handle the growing number of tourists? In most, entry is limited to a fixed number of safari vehicles. But with more and more resorts opening up on the periphery of the parks and their buffer zones, the influx of first-time safari enthusiasts is high. And despite stringent rules and rigorous training, the drivers and forest guides do give in to the guests’ demands to ‘spot a tiger’. This leads to the tigers being chased relentlessly and surrounded by several vehicles spilling over with eager tourists. The whirring and clicking of cameras and the unabashed yelling of the inexperienced visitors is deafening in the forest.

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Fledgling wildlife enthusiasts often miss the woods for the tigers! Image: Shutterstock/Sourabh Bharti.

Sahgal says, “I believe wildlife tourism in India has lost its way. It is far too tiger-centric. Instead of offering nature-experiences, NTCA and lodge owners keep relying on tiger numbers and sightings. The incredible diversity of ecosystems in India has far more to offer visitors that the ‘peep-shows’ that tend to be passed off as wildlife experiences.”

His practical, on-ground antidote to this malaise is for guides to be groomed with the right mindset. “They need to be given orientation and training to understand that dodgy practices will not serve them well in the long run. They must be encouraged to formally meet with protection staff and tourism professionals to understand that the purpose of protecting the forest is not to ‘entertain’ tourists, but to protect the natural wealth that draws tourists to destinations,” Sahgal says.

MK Ranjitsinh, who has been involved in conservation for more than 40 years, said in an interview with Rajat Ghai in Down to Earth when he launched his book ‘A Life with Wildlife: From Princely India to the Present, and India’s conservation challenges’, in 2017, “Today, public interest is centred around mega species — like the tiger, the rhino in Assam and the elephant in southern states. A visit to a national park should be to have communion with nature. But that does not happen. We go only to see large animals. We go to ogle at them. There is no communion with nature.”

Despite efforts to get rid of incorrect tourism practices, has anything really changed for the better of late? Elephant-back tiger ‘shows’ in central Indian parks that harassed the big cats on a daily basis years ago are now passé. But more recent scenes that occur daily across many of the popular parks are just as alarming: scores of polluting vehicles converging on a tiger and relentlessly pursuing them as ill-behaved tourists shouting, heckling, clicking flash photos and urging their drivers to go closer and closer to the animal for that perfect selfie. Or the instance of a forest guide throwing pebbles at a sleeping tiger for a photo-op in Sariska, Rajasthan!

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Tiger and tourists in close proximity in Tadoba, Maharashtra. Image: Shutterstock/sanjayda.

There have been many such incidents where the incursion of tourists has proven harmful or exploitative to the denizens of the forest. But then most people, even ‘pro-tiger’ conservationists, believe that completely shutting out tourists from the wildlife sanctuaries may not be the answer. They have questioned what would happen within the part of the parks that remain isolated from scrutiny with forest departments strapped for funds and manpower to police these sections adequately. Would poachers run amok? And would funds to the forest department decrease as a result, eventually resulting in them being worse off?

Some years ago, the debate not only raged amongst conservationists and tourism companies and authorities but was also pondered on by the judiciary. In 2012, the Supreme Court, in reaction to a petition against the ugly side of ‘tiger tourism’, decided to implement a clause of the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act, which prohibits tourism in India’s tiger breeding areas. After initially banning tourists from the core areas altogether, it later found middle ground and imposed new regulations, defining critical core zones, and permitting tourists to enter only about 20 per cent of those areas.

Brand Tiger

The added impetus has made people place more value on maintaining and administering even the existing wildlife reserves better. A FICCI report on Inbound Tourism in India, in association with Yes Bank, adopted a novel approach by regarding tiger reserves as ‘destination brands’ and conducted a pilot exercise for six tiger reserves — Corbett, Ranthambhore, Kanha, Periyar, Sundarbans and Kaziranga — in the form of an online survey that gauged ‘consumer perception’ across many parameters. The survey findings indicated that visitors to tiger reserves seek natural beauty and not just tigers; that Corbett, Ranthambhore and Kanha ranked high in brand awareness; whereas the Sundarbans and Kanha were perceived to be unique destinations compared to the others. The overall brand equity gauged was highest for Kanha, followed by Ranthambhore and then Corbett.

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Reflecting on their future? Striped siblings at Kabini. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

And then there are those who believe that the country can sustain many more tigers. K Ullas Karanth, director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru, estimates the potential carrying capacity for tigers in India at 10,000 to 15,000. Karanth believes that if we are satisfied with just 1,000 more tigers after 50 years of assiduous tiger recovery efforts, it’s a serious management problem. Apparently, huge amounts of money are being repeatedly directed on the same 25,000-30,000 sq kms, where tigers are already at saturation densities. Experts like him have recommended the exploration and development of other forest areas as tiger reserves and finding ways to protect prey animals from human hunters. Such measures could expand the scope for tiger conservation in India.  

And about time too. With only about five per cent of the world’s original tiger population since the beginning of the 20th century surviving today, India is one of the last bastions where the war for this wonderful creature’s sustained survival will be fought.

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