Friday, July 10, 2015

Tiger Conservation in India, The Case for Government Involvement in Species Protection.

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Tiger Conservation, Habitat loss, Poaching, Government, Project Tiger
Photo courtesy National Tiger Conservation Authority / Project Tiger, India
In my opinion one of the key success factors in conservation efforts is the role of government, as illustrated by the Tiger conservation effort in India.  "Whoa, whoa, hang on there," you say... "what are you about, complimenting the government for anything, especially something that is not self-serving? are you crazy? or worse yet a government stooge?" But I assure you I'm neither, I just believe in giving credit where credit is due.

Let me backtrack a little so I can tell you how I formed this opinion, and hopefully you'll see things my way.

When I was in India a few months ago, I saw several stories in the media about the successful resurgence of the wild tiger population, a species that was close to and is still on the brink of extinction across the world.

Here are some stats to understand how dire the situation is -
  • Over the last 100 years, the global tiger population in the wild has dropped by 97%, from close to 100,000 to a mere 3200 today. *
  • In fact of the 9 originally identified subspecies of tigers, three - Bali, Caspian and Javan - became extinct in the 20th century. **
  • India has traditionally been home to about 40% of all wild tigers, What was 40,000 a century ago dropped to an estimated 1,827 in 1973. (these numbers are disputed, some claim the number was as low as 268, suffice to say it was very low)
The primary threats to tigers are the same as those faced by other species and are all man made.
  • Habitat loss - Tigers have lost over 93% of their habitat to human development, leading to fragmentation of the species in small pockets, surrounded by human habitation. This in turn leads to way too many incidents of human-animal conflict and often their death.**
  • Poaching continues to be one of the deadliest and most challenging threats to tigers. Almost every part of the tiger - skin, bones, even blood is in high demand especially in Asian countries where they are believed to have medicinal properties.
Conserving the species is all about mitigating these threats and this is where I think having government oversight or even just active involvement is key. In 1973, the Indian Government launched "Project Tiger", which was governed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which is part of the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate change. Since its creation, Project Tiger has had some ups and downs in its achievements, but more recently, the tiger numbers have been growing steadily, with a reported count of about 2,226 in 2014

They have combated habitat loss by expanding the number of tiger reserves from 9 at inception to 47 today. Additionally they created corridors that connect the reserves and allow unrestricted movement of the animals across, a key behavior of tigers that in the past led them into great danger. This type of commitment of land is only possible with the power of the government. They have relocated human populations and seized private land where needed for the effort, something private organizations have little control over and have to fight almost unwinnable battles to get implemented in other countries or for other species in India.

While poaching continues to be a big concern, the government has also paid for and equipped a trained forest patrol staff to monitor the reserves and dissuade poachers. Again a fairly daunting task for private non profits to fund and manage, is made easy by political will.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't think that Government involvement is the cure all, nor do I think that the current level of effort put in, is either comprehensive, or optimized. But I do believe that the small wins in India shine a light on the importance of political involvement to facilitate the process. Governments of other countries, like China, Russia, and Laos are seeing the results of this initiative and reaching out to Indian authorities for advise on managing their own conservation efforts.

If governments across the world would all sign up to make wildlife and environment conservation a priority, maybe all those little shining lights of success will eventually light up the whole planet.

Sources
http://www.savetigersnow.org/problem
** http://www.panthera.org/species/tiger

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