The world has seen the population of individual wild tigers dwindle from 100,000 in 1913 to just about 3,200 now. Classified into six species, a majority of these surviving cats belong to the specie panthera tigris tigris, more popularly known as the Bengal tiger, that are found in India. Here too, their population, estimated to be between 20,000-40,000 at the turn of the 20th century, reduced to fewer than 2,000 by the 1970s, mostly due to hunting and poaching. It has now inched to 2,226, making India home to 70% of the world’s total tiger population.
The tiger’s road to recovery in India has not been without tragic consequences. Poaching and habitat loss are threats the tigers and their protectors face on a day-to-day basis. The perils of development, too, as this piece in The New York Times states:
INDIA’S tigers are in danger. In the year since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government has laid siege to the country’s environmental laws, threatening to undo recent conservation successes that have increased tiger numbers. India is the planet’s last stronghold for tigers, home to almost three-quarters of the 3,200 that remain in the wild across Asia.
Tigers have survived and prospered here because of increased protection and government efforts to relocate villages outside reserves, giving the big cats more space. A recent government census counted 2,226, a 30 percent increase in four years, and though researchers questioned the survey’s methods, there’s no question that tiger numbers are up.
But the Modi government’s aggressive focus on development threatens both the cats’ future and the nation’s environment. India is razing forests and flooding them with dams, giving the go-ahead for new mines and pushing rapid industrialization. The 2015 budget cut funding for the environment ministry by 25 percent and support for tiger protection by 15 percent.
India has a strong environmental legacy, with exemplary wildlife laws going back more than 40 years. The Constitution requires every citizen “to protect and improve the natural environment.” In 2010, India signed an international agreement pledging to do “everything possible to effectively manage, preserve, protect, and enhance habitats” of tigers.
India has done an incredible job creating 48 tiger reserves, but many are small green islands. Cats and other species can’t survive long-term without the few tenuous wildlife corridors that connect parks. Corridors allow tigers to establish their own territory, move, mate, hunt and escape monsoon flooding. Projects that bisect or eliminate them could spell doom for isolated populations.
Vast amounts of money and effort have been spent protecting the country’s tigers, with legions of rangers risking their lives. Safeguarding tigers has had far-reaching benefits. The forests they inhabit act as huge carbon vaults, provide buffers from flooding, clean the air and purify drinking water for millions of people.
Though tigers have increased, the land is in decline. India loses an average of 333 acres of forest daily. Two of its rivers (including the sacred Ganges) are among the world’s most polluted, and 13 of the 20 cities with the most polluted air are in India, with Delhi at No. 1.
Loosening rules under these circumstances, with the growing specter of climate change, seems unwise.