Five decades ago, a count of tigers in India revealed that their numbers had plummeted from tens of thousands to about 1,800 as they fell prey to recreational hunting or lost habitat to a growing population pressing into forests.
That prompted India to launch one of the world’s most ambitious conservation projects. In April 1973, the tiger was declared the country’s national animal and protected areas were set up to conserve a species that lies at the top of the food chain. Hunting had been outlawed months earlier.
In its 50 years, Project Tiger has seen many ups and downs. But the nearly 3,000 tigers that now roam India’s forests show the mighty cat has been saved from extinction, although conservationists warn that it still counts as an endangered species.
“I rate it as one of the finest examples in the annals of conservation globally. It is not matched anywhere in the magnitude, scale and effort,” said Rajesh Gopal, secretary-general of the Global Tiger Forum.
“But we are still very much in project mode because the treasure you are guarding is unlocked and mobile and there is always a new challenge to overcome,” he told VOA.
Over the years, the number of sanctuaries has grown from nine to 54 and India is now home to 70% of the world’s tigers, which have disappeared from all except 13 countries in South and Southeast Asia.
The battle was not easy. More than 30 years after the project was launched, a census in 2006 rang alarm bells when it indicated that the tiger population had declined to 1,411. The wake-up call led authorities to refocus strategies to save the species.
A major threat to tigers was the rampant poaching of the predator as rising affluence in China and East Asian countries fueled growing demand for tiger parts used in traditional Chinese medicine.
But increased surveillance and better technology paid dividends in checking the thriving illegal trade in tigers and, while poaching has not ended, it no longer poses a significant threat, according to wildlife experts.
They say, though, that the challenges over the next 50 years could be greater than those of the past half century. The most pressing is the risk to tiger habitats from the ever-growing demand for land and resources in a rapidly developing country.
“There is the enormous pressure of the economic transformation of India – the building of highways, roads and mines that are cutting off access to what once used to be wildlife corridors along which tigers moved unhindered between forest landscapes in search of territory,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, professor of environmental studies and history at Ashoka University in Haryana.
“This also raises a biological challenge – the danger of inbreeding of tiger populations as some of these reserves get cut off from one another,” he said.
While tiger habitats have been secured, coexistence of the world’s second-largest population in a densely packed country of 1.4 billion with the world’s largest tiger population is not easy. Even though hundreds of villages have been relocated from sanctuaries to make space for the tigers, many parks are adjacent to human settlements into which tigers sometimes stray, resulting in increasing incidents of human-tiger conflict.
“A third of the tigers are still living outside protected areas and their prey often becomes livestock due to dwindling prey species due to hunting in the forests,” Rangarajan said.
“There have been many incidents of tiger attacks on humans and also the reverse, that is the killing of tigers by villagers in retaliation. This needs serious redressal.”
Some conservationists also question whether the single-minded focus on tigers needs to be broadened and say the tiger should be seen as a symbol of sustainable development.
“When we launched the project, the vision was that the tiger was a means to an end, to utilize it as an iconic flagship species to save something much more valuable than the tiger itself – the diverse habitat of which the tiger is an integral part but not its only representative,” said M.K. Ranjitsinh, who was the country’s first wildlife preservation director and was associated with Project Tiger.
“The project has been a success, but the focus is now too species-centric. We judge a wildlife reserve by the number of tigers it holds instead of seeing whether the entire ecosystem, the other species and flora and fauna in the park, are also flourishing,” Ranjitsinh said.
Experts say that in coming decades, the focus should be on stabilizing the tiger population rather than increasing numbers.
“The tiger reserves are already reaching their carrying capacity. If we try to increase the tiger population beyond a point, we will land in a situation where we will be grappling with other problems such as more incidents of tiger-human conflict,” said Gopal, who headed Project Tiger for several years. “We don’t want the tiger to gain a pest value. We have to balance the needs of the tiger with that of more than a billion people.”
India will reveal the results of the latest tiger census during a three-day event starting April 9 to commemorate 50 years of the project.
Regardless of the numbers, though, conservationists say India is now indisputably the world’s greatest tiger stronghold.