Bringing home the tigerBangalore, South India: The southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is making strenuous efforts to increase its tiger population from the current level of about 70 animals. The first tiger reserve in the state, sponsored by a World Bank scheme at the Mundanthurai-Kalkad wildlife sanctuary, will soon be followed by a second reserve at the Indira Gandhi wildlife sanctuary and national park.
The Gandhi sanctuary reserve is of particular importance because it will allow the tiger population to be strengthened though increased genetic mixing. The sanctuary - the largest protected area in the state, covering more than 95,860 hectares - adjoins the dense forests of Kerala, where tigers roam, and the chances of mixing seem high.
Tamil Nadu has 23 protected areas in all - five national parks and 18 wildlife sancturies - occupying 2,480 square kilometres and about 13 per cent of its forested area. The Mundanthurai-Kalkad tiger reserve is a UNESCO natural heritage site and one of the 18 ecological hotspot areas of the world. Mudumalai national park, near the forests of Wyanad in Kerala, the Bandipur sanctuary in Karnataka, and the forests of Pollachi are all either evergreen or semi-evergreen, and important tiger habitats in the south.
Efforts to increase the tiger population in the wild are greatly helped by Tamil Nadu's excellent prey base of spotted deer, wild boar, bison and many other animals. A study by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department reveals that the availability of prey for tigers in the wild and in reserves is ten times greater than that required for a healthy tiger population.
The Mudumalai national park has the largest concentration of prey base in Tamil Nadu, leading many wildlife biologists to the conclusion that by improving the health of the forest ecosystem, it will be possible to increase the tiger population. They point out that, over the last five years, the tiger population in the state has in fact been steadily growing.
There have been no cases of poaching or of tigers straying into human settlements and being poisoned in Tamil Nadu, Kerala or Karnataka. However wildlife biologists in Tamil Nadu point out that theirs is not a "tiger state" like Madhya Pradesh in Central India, which has excellent forest cover, sprawling reserves and parks with rich and diverse flora and fauna. The parks and reserves of Tamil Nadu are smaller and poorer in diversity, with forest cover making up just 17 per cent of state's area - lower than the Indian average.
In addition, there is conspicuous fragmentation of forest stretches as a result of human encroachment, cattle-grazing, forest fires, hydro-electric projects, mining activites and the installation of aerospace facilities. Since the 1970s, clear and selective felling in the forests has been stopped, but the activities of timber producers and forest fires have adversely affected the ecological health of the forests.
Although Tamil Nadu is rich in ecologically diverse and biologically productive mangrove forests, no tigers have been sighted in these important parts of the coastal ecosystem. Wildlife biologists believe that the mangrove swamps of Sunderbans in West Bengal and Bangladesh form the only such region in the world to harbour a population of big cats.
For its part, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department - with the participation of non-governmental organizations and local communities - is making vigorous efforts to respond to the needs and aspirations of the people who live in the stretches of forest. Many wildlife officials and forest guards have already paid with their lives for protecting the wild wealth of the state.
The Forest Department is finding merit in the statement of the founder of Project Tiger, the late Kailash Sankhla, who once called the relationship with local people the weak spot in the tiger programme. Mahesh Rangarajan, a leading Indian environmental historian, observed that indifference is the attitude that most affects the plight of tigers and is an important barrier to the success of conservation efforts.
Preserving tigers is essential to enable us to know how nature works, and perhaps to providing the key to retaining gene pools of potentiallly useful plants and animal species. The challenge for the Forest Department is how to protect tigers - whose ideal habitat is undisturbed, dense forest - without offending the communities who depend on the same forests for their survival.
Many of those working in wildlife conservation in Tamil Nadu are calling for the establishment of "green courts" to deal with cases of poaching and illegal timber felling. At present, they say, most offenders are freed because of lack of evidence. What is more, forest security staff are sometimes on the receiving end of legal action simply for doing their duty honestly.
A proper legal framework, with clear penalties for offenders, could resolve the conflicts that arise - and the creation of such green courts across India could go a long way towards rebuilding to tiger population.
* Radhakrishna Rao is a writer based in Bangalore, India