My first encounter with a wild tiger was pure drama.
I was on safari in India’s Nagarhole National Park and only a few minutes into our game drive, the forest erupted into bedlam. A gigantic Gaur – the Indian bison – crossed the track and went berserk, bellowing, stamping its hooves and thrashing bushes with its great horns. A peacock was shrieking, monkeys in the treetops were in a frenzy and the staccato alarm calls of deer rose all around us.
And suddenly there it was: burning bright, just like in the poem. The tiger slipped effortlessly through the dry season undergrowth as everybody sharing my adventure held their breaths in a spellbound silence.
But safari over, I felt the pangs of a loss. How much longer before this majestic creature is extinct?
Tigers still range from the mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans to the snows of the high Himalayas (one was recorded at over 4,000 meters in Bhutan) but their decline has been catastrophic. There were roughly 100,000 tigers in 1900. Poached for traditional medicine, hunted for sport and hounded by the destruction of their habitats this number has tumbled to just 3,200 in 2014.
Last month, for the first time in decades, tigers featured in some good news.
The Indian government announced an increase in wild tiger numbers from 1,706 in 2010 to 2,226 – a 30 per cent bounce back. This is a remarkable turn-around. It is also profound testimony to the fact that tiger conservation is possible in a fast growing economy and that tigers can coexist even in one of the world’s most densely populated countries with over 17 per cent of the world’s population.
These astonishing results didn’t come out of nowhere. India invests its resources and efforts in tiger conservation. Since the start of Project Tiger in 1973, the government, in collaboration with numerous conservation partners, has increased the number of tiger reserves from 9 to 47 covering 2 per cent of this vast nation. There are always debates on the census methodology among the scientific community. However India is one of the very few countries which has a structured official system for regularly estimating tiger population.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority was established in 2005 as a statutory body of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. India is the only country that has such an official body, mandated to ensure the nuts and bolts of tiger recovery: regular population surveys, habitat and population monitoring, law enforcement etc.
In Corbett National Park, the government has even installed the E-eye - thermal and infrared cameras in zones that see a lot of poaching. The cameras capture images of objects weighing more than 20 kilogrammes and generates alerts to park authorities and Delhi. If movements that fit a pattern are detected, a special force is deployed immediately to the area.
But, tiger conservation is not just about protecting the species.
India is taking a landscape approach.
To protect a tiger one needs to set aside areas strictly for nature protection, surrounded by a buffer zone with limited human influence. Areas are set aside for intensive agriculture, industrial use and other production activities so that the landscape as a whole with different zones can work for people and for nature. This is complemented by strong law enforcement to prevent poaching which by itself can decimate tiger populations.
Tigers bring tourism and, if done well with community development as a goal, it brings significant income for poor communities. I paid a lot to see my tiger! So did all the Indian tourists in my safari car.
People travel half the globe for a chance to see tigers. They can create economic opportunities be it employment or tourism related service provisions such as guiding, accommodation provision, village tours, market for local crafts and produce or simply buying snacks and drinks, batteries, clothes, this and that, at shops. This in turn can build strong buy-in for tiger conservation among local communities.
Further to the remarkable news of the population increase, the Indian government has launched a new report titled Economic Value of Six Tiger Reserves. The result: a total value of India’s 6 tiger reserves = US$24 billion!
The experts looked at tiger ‘extras’ while calculating the economic value of these six tiger reserves and took into account the monetary estimates of a range of ecosystem services including water provisioning, gene-pool protection, carbon storage and sequestration among other tangible and intangible benefits. Potential of employment generation and tourism had also been factored in while conducting the valuation exercise.
At UNDP, we currently support projects covering the major tiger landscapes in 8 of the 13 tiger range countries. India’s focused approach to tiger conservation – systematic creation of tiger reserves and application of landscape approach, increased patrolling and monitoring in the field, tried and tested technical knowhow - can offer important lessons and strategies for other tiger range countries.