Saving ourselves along with the tiger

Posted on 06 October 1998    
New Delhi, India: In the minds of Indians, the tiger and the forest are indivisible. Forests give sustenance and succour to tigers and the tiger brings life to the forest. It is amazing how much a forest loses in the estimation of local people when the last tiger is lost from it  and how quickly the forest itself is lost or degraded after the tiger goes.

There are plenty of examples of this significant phenomenon: the states of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, south Gujarat, western Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra provide just a few. There, the tigers declined with declining forests and the forests disintegrated even faster once the tiger disappeared. Almost 23 per cent of India's land area is designated forest  a good deal less than the 33 per cent described by our first Forest Policy  and even then satellite imagery shows that only about 12 per cent of the total is good forest. Most of this good forest, barring the few patches of alpine forest in the Himalayas, is tiger habitat.

The hill forest habitats are the watersheds of important rivers while the habitats of the plains forests and the high-grasslands  those perhaps most favoured by tigers  are the catchment and drainage areas of even larger waterways. On almost every important river which drains a tiger habitat there is a barrage supplying water or hydro-electric power, or both, and the livelihoods and well-being of millions of people depend on these projects.

One crucial side-effect of the destruction and qualitative degradation of habitats is a threat to these civil engineering projects. Any further shrinkage or spoilage of forest and high-grass cover could put their future in doubt as a result of silting and the loss of water retention capacity.

So there is a direct link between the survival of the tiger and that of the people who live in and around tiger habitats. Ironically, many such people may themselves be contributing to the despoilation of these habitats, not realizing that in the process they are placing themselves in jeopardy.

Yet there are lessons for all to see. For example, the Sundarban Tiger Reserve provides a refuge not only for the big cat but also for fish and other marine life that can breed in safety and populate adjacent waters. The fish are harvested by the local Bengalis and it is interesting to note that there has been no decline in the total catch in spite of a ban on fishing in the Reserve. It serves to prove that humankind does not need to use every available inch of land and that protecting some areas for conservation purposes is not a waste of resources.

Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly evident that the long-term survival of forests and high grasslands in the Indian subcontinent will depend largely on the establishment of protected areas. In some drier regions, effective protection is the only means of conservation, as can be seen in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Perhaps, then, the key to increasing the scope of protection is the tiger. The importance of biodiversity and the vital role of forests in the ecosystem are vague concepts in the minds of ordinary people, but the tiger is something real, something with which they can identify. The symbolism is important and in time it may help people to realize that their survival is inextricably linked with that of the tiger and the forest.

(563 words)

*M K Ranjitsinh is Director of WWF's Tiger Conservation Project based in New Delhi

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