US-based Wildlife Conservation Society announced a “Tigers Forever” initiative as a venture capital investment funded by nature-loving businessmen that expects biologists to provide a guaranteed return of 50% increase in tiger population in key area. The program to be led by noted scientist Alan Rabinowitz was given USD 10 million over ten years by venture capitalists of the Panthera Foundation and noted Indian tiger specialist Ullas Karanth will be the technical director.
An estimated 1,200 tigers live in India and are under
severe pressure from poachers,
who operate with impunity because of political sponsorship and corruption to
sell derivative parts to Chinese merchants who use these parts in traditional
medicine which have been shown to be more a placebo than anything. In addition,
growing population levels have increased grazing in the perimeter and even
inside forests, use of land to collect firewood, and encroachment of land for
tourism purposes. Environmental activists and scientists fear that
the proposed Tribal Rights Bill will shrink forest cover further adding to the pressure on these big cats.
However, the Government is trying to introduce measures such as
granting large autonomy to Project Tiger but these measures are not part of a cohesive plan that can protect these endangered animals.
This program plans to first target a 5,570 square kilometer are in the West Ghats that stretches from South Goa to South Kerala estimated to house 260 tigers. The premise of this project is that the Tiger population will grow if the area is protected and well stocked. The other areas targeted by this scientific experiment are the Hukawng Valley in Myanmar, Huai Kha Thaeng and Thunga Ya parks in Thailand, and in other parts of Russia, Laos, and Colombia.
“Tigers Forever” seems to be modeled after intervention programs which do not seek to supplant existing work but enhance it by working on a tangible and incentive-based methodology to persuade field-level workers in conservation to work more actively and closely in collaboration with state-run protected system. It also seems to build into it an economic model inviting tourists into these areas as studies show that the ceiling levels for higher fees is much more than present levels if tourists have a good chance of seeing wildlife. By making forests revenue generators, as done in a research project covering a rainforest reserve in Uganda, nations will protect them better and especially from illegal poaching and encroachment. Economic models built around a safe habitat around the tiger and the ecological system in the forests will not only protect the biodiversity in the forests but also generate alternate employment and incomes.
This new initiative will target long-standing weaknesses including the reduction of prey base due to excessive hunting by some communities leading to an “empty forest syndrome.” Karanth cites the example of Nagarhole in Karnataka, where 12 villages and unchecked poaching showed consistent emptying. However, the relocation of these villages and stronger anti-poaching mechanisms has shown an increase in tiger population of up to 60. Rabinowitz says that by creating financially rewarding “informant networks,” the projects will intervene to disable animal traps for sambar, spotted deer, and wild pigs. In addition, this will also identify poaching expeditions leading to successful interceptions and bounties for diligent forest rangers and field workers.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests is watching this experiment with great interest. If successful, it will be able to replicate this model in other areas to relocate tribals, cattle grazers, and other revenue seekers in a humane manner. Increasingly, narrow politicization of issues has led to a strong tussle between the rights of forest dwellers such as the tribals and conservation goals