Making room for tigers in Kipling country
"I fell to the ground, bleeding profusely. I almost blacked out but Sahadev put me on his bicycle. He began shouting at the tiger cub, which had been joined by another. The tigers followed us for nearly 200 metres, growling. Fortunately, Sahadev threw my bloodstained trousers on the ground and they got distracted. He saved my life."
Kanha National Park lies in the heart of some of India's finest tiger habitat, known to many as Kipling country after Rudyard Kipling, author of the Jungle Book. Thanks to conservation efforts and a crackdown on poaching, the number of tigers in the park has more than doubled to 130 over the past 25 years. Overall, the forests of Kipling country have one of the highest densities of tigers in the world. Some 500 of the world's estimated 6,000 tigers live in this 30,000km2 area.
But Kipling's jungle is not without its problems. The human population is also growing. And the villagers are invading the tiger's habitat — grazing cattle, felling trees, and extending their farms into the heart of the forest. The increased clearing creates the real risk that the tigers will one day be confined to isolated "islands" of forest.
"This raises the spectre of inbreeding and concerns over long-term genetic viability, as well as increased conflict with people," says Tschwang Wangchuk, Tiger Programme Coordinator at WWF. "Tiger conservation within the reserves and national parks has been very successful, but we now need a new approach that works beyond these boundaries as well."
This is why WWF has started to create a number of "habitat corridors" over the past year, linking up key reserves in India so that tigers can roam more freely. The first corridor links Kanha National Park to Achankamar Wildlife Sanctuary, some 60km away.
Defining a corridor on a map is relatively easy — the hard part is implementing this on the ground. Some 28,000 people live in 55 villages along the Kanha-Achankamar corridor. A large part of these people's lives revolves around the forest, a rich resource for food, medicine, timber, firewood and pasture for cattle. If tigers are going to use these forest areas too, the villagers need to be prepared.
Together with local partners, WWF is working in seven villages closest to the corridor to help reduce people's dependency on the forest. The task of building trust and encouraging the villagers to conserve the tiger falls to Neel Gogate, a tall, serious man who has swapped the world of tiger research to coordinate the corridor project.
"The villagers' lives are a constant battle to survive. Protecting tigers, which are often seen as a threat to their livelihoods, is understandably not their top priority," he says.
Lakhmi Lal Nanda and her family are all too aware of the tiger living in the forest behind their house. The last time it came to steal a goat, a villager made the mistake of shining a torch in its face.
"The tiger jumped on him. He escaped with scratches on his forehead and shoulder," Lakhmi recounts animatedly. "The tiger is king of the forest. He is good for the forest, without him there is no forest, but for us, he is dangerous."
Neel and his small team understand the villagers' fears.
"Tigers can be the bane of their lives, trampling crops and stealing cattle," he explains. "We want to ensure that villages don't retaliate by poaching or poisoning the tigers — but for that to happen, we need to give them some incentives."
One such incentive is to provide biogas plants, which allow the villagers to use cow dung for fuel instead of wood from the forest. Progress has been good in the village of Baila, where biogas plants have been set up in the homes of the biggest cattle owners.
"We used to go to the forest for fire wood," explains Mansaram, head of a family of 15. "Sometimes our children would cut down trees. But now we cook on these stoves, fuelled by cow dung. The waste from the biogas plants also gives us better manure to spread on our crops."
The WWF-led team is also working with villagers to give them alternative livelihoods from that of the forest.
Shiva Prased, a wiry man, has a wife and three children to feed. A WWF grant has helped him become the village blacksmith, crafting tools for the villagers. "I get just enough money to support my family, twenty rupees (US$0.50) for four nails, but some months the demand is not there", he says as he squats over his open fire.
Neel has other projects up his sleeve, such as improving the quality of livestock by introducing stud bulls, offering better health care, getting children into school, and providing grain banks.
He readily admits that these schemes smack more of development than conservation work.
"But we need these as an entry point, to build relations and win the villagers trust," he explains.
It's too early to say if the project is paying off. Neel is collecting data to monitor whether tigers are using the corridor and whether villagers are collecting less wood from the forest.
Meanwhile, WWF's work with the park authorities also continues. In January this year, WWF gave Hamil and Sahadev bravery awards for their commitment to conservation.
On patrol, the men are on constant alert, sensitive to the sounds and movements in the forest that signal the tigers' presence. But as forest guards they are determined to do their duty — to carry on protecting the habitat of the jungle's most fearsome predator.
* Claire Doole is Head of Press at WWF International
WWF's work on tiger conservation
Tigers are one of nine flagship species of the WWF Species Programme. WWF has a broad programme of conservation and research activities, not only in areas where tigers live, but also in countries involved in the illegal trading of tiger products.
In its new tiger conservation strategy and action plan, WWF has identified seven focal tiger landscapes where the chances of long-term tiger conservation are best and its involvement will be most valuable. Central India (the setting of the above feature) falls in one such landscape.
In each focal landscape, WWF aims to establish and manage effective tiger conservation areas, reduce the poaching of tigers and their prey, eliminate the trade in tiger parts and products, create incentives that will encourage local communities and others to support tiger conservation, and build capacity for tiger conservation.
Current threats to tigers
Historically, the tiger ranged from Turkey eastward to the coasts of Russia and China, and from as far north as Eastern Siberia to the Indonesian island of Bali. This historical range has shrunk dramatically over the years and today the remaining tigers, numbering perhaps no more than 6,000, occur patchily across the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and the Russian Far East, with a small number still surviving in China and possibly North Korea.
In the past century, the world has lost three (Bali, Caspian and Javan tigers) of the eight tiger subspecies. The IUCN 2000 Red List of Threatened Species has classified the tiger species as endangered, with the Amur, South China, and Sumatran tiger subspecies as critically endangered. The Royal Bengal, or Indian, tiger, which lives in India was well as Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar (Burma), and Nepal, is the most numerous subspecies.
Until the 1930s, sport hunting was the main cause of declines in tiger populations. Although trophy hunting persisted as a major threat to tigers up to the early 1970s, the greatest threat between the 1940s and the late 1980s was loss of habitat due to encroachment by a burgeoning human population, logging, and oil palm and pulp plantations. In China, several thousand tigers were exterminated in the name of progress and development during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1990s, hundreds of tigers were killed to meet the demand for their bones and other parts, which are used for traditional medicines especially in China, Taiwan, and South Korea, but also in Japan and Southeast Asia. Tiger parts are also exported illegally to ethnic Asian communities all over the world, including those in Australasia, Europe, the USA, and Canada.
Compounding the threat to tigers is a growing conflict between the tiger and the interests of neighbouring communities. Revenge killing of tigers, often by poisoning or electrocution, to protect livestock is on the rise. Over-hunting of the tigers' natural prey is also emerging as a major factor causing declines in tiger populations across their range, and a factor that also contributes directly to killing cattle.