Biologist and wildlife conservationist, Latika Nath speaks to Nibedita Saha about India’s vanishing tiger population, and the need to streamline our tiger conservation programmes.
Q. Since the launch of the government-sponsored campaign “Project Tiger” in the 1970s, what progress has India made in terms of tiger conservation? And what more needs to be done in this area?
A. India made a commitment to the conservation of the tiger in the wild.
Today, we need much greater political will and support from both state and central governments to the cause. The commitment needs to be translated into a fresh scientific management plan, an improved and strict law enforcement system, a judiciary that is ruthless and quick in dealing with wildlife crime offences, a dedicated wildlife conservation service with specialised training for all their officials, promotion of ownership of natural resources with the local populations, development plans that have a bias towards environmental conservation as an important part of the plan, new tourism policies that focus on sustainable tourism and economic development of these regions, and most importantly synchronisation between the state and central governments and the various ministries of the government of India.
Q. What’s your perspective on human-tiger conflicts? Are there any specific measures the government can take in order to minimise contact between tigers and the human habitations near wildlife reserves?
A. Human-tiger conflict is a problem in many parts of the country. The government needs to implement better strategies for conflict resolution and also introduce insurances and alternative livelihood training for communities living on the fringes of protected areas. Crop loss, human injury or death and cattle loss need to be dealt with in a more sympathetic fashion and compensation schemes need to be improved.
Q. Any major challenges you have faced while working to resolve such human-wildlife conflicts?
A. Population growth, lack of crop insurances, cattle pressures, lack of political support, lack of inter-departmental cooperation, inadequate management plans, lack of well thought out town and country planning regulations, habitat loss due to development and population pressures, and a clear line between stakeholders and the government all add to the problems of human-wildlife conflict resolution.
Q. You have worked with both international and Indian organisations on climate and wildlife protection. Is there any fundamental difference between how such campaigns are carried out overseas and how they are conducted in India?
A. International agencies do not have direct access to management and conservation within protected areas in India. Indian agencies are still fighting the old-fashioned thinking in the bureaucracy—lack of political will, development pressures, political agendas that focus on short-term monetary benefit rather than long-term ecological sustainability, and of course the ever increasing pressures of one of the largest human populations on earth.
Having said that, I feel we have incredible officers and staff in the Indian Forest Services, who have dedicated their lives to wildlife conservation. With an increase in exposure to wildlife conservation science on an international scale, the Indian agencies will be able to improve their own practises. We need an increase in cooperation between national and international agencies, and more staff training, exposure to different conservation practises internationally and increased funding for our own work.
Q. What’s the current state of national tiger reserves across India?
A. All habitats are being affected by development, population pressures and climatic change. Each site needs to be assessed individually and it is not possible to answer this with one generic statement.
Q. Speaking of climatic changes, how difficult is it for tigers to adapt to such radical environmental shifts as have been experiencing?
A. Over the long term tigers will be affected by climatic change. However, when a species, like the tiger, is on the brink of extinction, more immediate—threats like poaching, habitat loss, water availability, and disease—take prominence. Only when the tiger can face these and develop a long-term survival possibility, can we assess the impact of climatic changes. One must also remember that the tiger is a highly adaptable species and exists in habitats ranging from the deserts of Rajasthan to the snow-capped peaks of Bhutan.
Q. Are any support schemes in place for communities living in close proximity of tiger reserves?
A. The government has some excellent schemes for sustainable livelihood generation around tiger reserves. The implementation of these schemes needs to be improved and the schemes themselves need to be vetted to ensure that they are appropriate for the communities being targeted and something that the local people are willing to accept and adopt.
Q. Do you think there’s a need for full-scale awareness programmes and popularisation campaigns centred on the subject of tiger conservation?
A. Project Tiger, the Aircel campaign and all the work on tiger conservation done by WWF [World Wildlife Fund] international are testimony to the fact that campaigns aimed at the masses are important. There is always scope for improvement and for more and more awareness generation.
Q. How effective has the Indian Forest Service (IFS) been in protecting the wilds, and enforcing anti-poaching laws?
A. The IFS needs funding for an increased man power, anti-poaching technology, weapons, communication devices, monitoring devices and vehicles to combat poaching. With the huge amounts of money involved in the illegal trade of wildlife parts worldwide, the problem needs to be tacked with international cooperation across political boundaries, and the expenditure on equipment and manpower to tackle wildlife crime needs to be increased. There is also a need for special courts to strictly deal with wildlife crime, ensuring quick prosecution and sentencing.