India’s tigers are on the comeback trail. After half a century of successful conservation efforts by the national government’s Project Tiger, the next 50 years will test whether tigers can coexist with people in the ever-evolving Anthropocene.
On the 50th anniversary of Project Tiger on 1 April, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announced that there are now 3,167 wild tigers in the country – a number that is increasing by 6 percent each year.
But amid the successes, there are concerns that a growing tiger population could intensify human–wildlife conflict. Experts say two factors will be key to the survival of tigers in the long term: careful land use planning and negotiations.
“The Indian government has shown it’s very much dedicated to conserving the ‘national pride’ that is Indian tigers, spending millions of dollars on the project,” says Ayan Sadhu, a research scientist at the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA’s) WII Tiger Cell.
“We do have a huge population in India. The growing population and lack of connectivity between forest lands will be a major challenge for the next 50 years of Project Tiger.”
Back from the brink of extinction
In 1947, there were an estimated 40,000 tigers in India. But by 1972, the first-ever tiger census revealed that number had shrunk to a mere 1,827. In just 25 years, poaching, sport hunting, prey depletion and habitat loss had all but eliminated the big cats.
Project Tiger was officially launched in 1973 by then prime minister Indira Gandhi to give these apex predators a fighting chance at survival. Starting with nine reserves (18,278 square kilometers), the initiative now comprises 53 reserves covering more than 75,000 square kilometers, or about 2 percent of India’s total area.
Despite their recent recovery, these small tiger populations remain vulnerable to extinction through habitat loss and poaching for traditional Chinese medicine. Scientists like Sadhu and Shikha Bisht, another research scientist at the WII Tiger Cell, work with the NTCA to monitor tiger populations with radio collars, camera traps and environmental surveys.
Using a mobile app called M-STrIPES, forest guards also monitor tiger sites twice each day, recording pug marks (footprints) and scat. They are also trained to identify illegal activities.
Not only do these efforts protect tigers, but they also help conserve entire ecosystems because tigers require large areas of healthy, biodiverse forests. These traits make them an ‘umbrella species’ under which many other plants and animals can flourish, including wild dogs, leopards, hyenas, honey badgers and elephants.
“Tigers are ecological indicators,” says Sadhu. “You make a home for the elephants when you conserve the tigers.”
A growing tiger population has also led to more frequent conflicts with humans, however. Tigers don’t usually attack people directly: instead, they often prey on cattle or other livestock from rural farmers who let their cows graze in the forests.
These cows make easy prey as they are domesticated and may not recognize the threat posed by tigers until it’s too late. Often, they don’t defend themselves or call out to warn farmers when a tiger is nearby, as a wild animal might, says Sadhu.
These large, easy meals, combined with a lack of wild prey in some forested areas, encourages tigers to venture into human-inhabited areas. Although the government compensates farmers for every cow killed by a tiger, the cost of verifying claims may be prohibitive, among other factors. Farmers may still kill or poison offending tigers to prevent future losses.
To prevent cattle lifting, conservation efforts may be geared towards prey augmentation – increasing the amount of prey animals in forested areas – so that tigers don’t feel the need to steal domesticated cattle. Once these ‘empty forests’ are restocked with prey, it will be easier to encourage tigers to leave human settlements alone.
The overpopulation of tigers inside reserves is another factor pushing tigers to move out and into human settlements in search of new territories. It is difficult to monitor these tigers as there are no camera traps or forest guards outside the reserves, Bisht explains. Once they leave a forest, tigers in transit may pose threats to people and be killed before they find another reserve.
While people in rural areas have lived alongside tigers for thousands of years, cultural tolerance is eroding, Sadhu notes. Many people, especially in impoverished areas, are seeking new economic opportunities and better lives for themselves through infrastructure, businesses, and services like schools and hospitals. These projects all compete for scarce land resources – and solving potential conflicts will require compassionate negotiation and careful land use planning.
A few contributing solutions include:
Project Tiger is establishing more buffer zones between human settlements and core tiger conservation areas. These buffer zones would be open for some human use but wouldn’t brush up against actual settlements or cattle herds. For example, crop plantations surrounding forest areas can provide economic benefits while also discouraging tigers from crossing any further into human-populated areas.
Buffers would also reduce the risk of direct attacks on humans, which most often happens when villagers living near forests are working in crouched positions, making them easy targets. This could be tackled by reducing human settlements next to forest areas, Sadhu believes. “But again, it’s a question of where the land for buffers will come from and how they will be managed,” he says.
Mixed-use forest corridors
In addition to buffers, partially forested ‘corridors’ that connect one reserve to another are essential to allow tigers to transit safely across the country, making their populations viable for thousands of years to come.
“Once you have a growing population within a small, protected area, it is natural they will start to go outside to look for new territory,” says Sadhu. “That’s where the corridors can help.”
These corridors don’t require the same level of protection as forest reserves and can be exposed to mixed use between humans and tigers. “As long as even one tiger can cross safely between reserves, the corridor is functional,” Sadhu explains.
However, more stringent laws and enforcement measures will be needed to manage these corridors to ensure the laws aren’t viewed as a ‘paper tiger’ with no real power, Bisht adds.
Dialogue, relocation and compensation
In the meantime, much-needed dialogue is ongoing between forest and forest-adjacent communities and the NTCA, says Bisht. “We need to be sensitizing communities living near protected areas, building trust with them and listening to their problems,” she stresses.
The national government has also offered compensation payments to encourage voluntary resettlement from forest villages to areas with modern facilities, according to Sadhu. There is also interest in these schemes in many rural areas where some residents may agree to move closer to schools, jobs and healthcare, for example. The challenge is ensuring that the relocation process is transparent and fair to the families involved.
“The federal government needs to take a stand, or all our natural lands will perish,” he says. “We need protected areas, but in an amicable manner.”
“It shouldn’t be ‘you can’t touch a leaf in this forest.’ We need to work on bridging the conservation gap to allow humans to maintain their traditional connection with nature.”