Mahendra Shrestha: The heartbreaking fate of India's symbol of strength

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The Independent Online

As its national emblem, the tiger symbolises India's strength and natural beauty. And this makes the new tiger population estimate of between 1,300 and 1,500 even more heart breaking. It is also truly shocking, for it is less than half of the estimates from the 1990s.

The method used to calculate previous estimates was controversial and this resulted in a dangerous complacency regarding the need proactively to protect India's tigers, their prey and their habitats. This new figure is the outcome of a rigorous sampling procedure. It is the realistic figure today and it is one which everyone, from the Indian authorities to conservationists, needs to accept.

Saving tigers is increasingly challenging in today's India, as it seeks to juggle the livelihood of its rural population, its speedy economic growth and at the same time protect its natural assets. But it is a challenge that must be met. And there are historic precedents to suggest that real success is possible. The 1972 estimate of 1,872 tigers prompted the launch of an extensive tiger conservation effort, with strong political support. It was one of the most successful wildlife conservation efforts for the recovery of tigers and numbers recovered to 3,750 within two decades. But after that step forward, it has been many steps back and the population has declined.

Lower tiger numbers underscore the precarious situation of tigers throughout Asia, since India has always been the tiger's stronghold. The number of tigers in captivity around the world now far exceeds the population in the wild, and a recent study found that the area in the wild in which tigers are able to roam is down by 40 per cent on what it was in the 1990s.

This gloomy picture calls for tiger conservation efforts to be urgently re-evaluated, especially in light of the new demographic and economic changes seen in Asia. Economic growth in the region has enabled a large emerging middle class to afford expensive tiger parts and products and sparked a resurgence of illegal trade in tiger parts, intensifying the poaching pressure on tiger reserves in Asia.

The capacity of government institutions needs revamping to address the emerging threats. The establishment of the Wildlife Crime Bureau in India is encouraging, but regional co-operation such as ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network is essential to curb the trans-border illegal trade.

Strong and lasting commitments from governments, NGOs, development agencies and others are critical to save tiger lands. The tiger population in India includes many small populations and tigers in small and isolated reserves are always vulnerable. Habitats must be protected, embedded into the larger landscape with very little or no human intervention, so a viable tiger population can survive. Winning the support of people living in the surrounding communities is critical and so conservation efforts need to benefit local people – they need to see why they should save tigers.

There were about 100,000 tigers in Asia at the beginning of the last century and if we are to prevent the last animals from dying out in this century then we need nothing short of a miracle. But every miracle must start somewhere, and it is these initial steps that India must now take.

Mahendra Shrestha trained as a forester in India and is now the director of Save The Tiger Fund, based in Washington DC

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