Friday, January 27th, 2023 09:51:40

Save The Tiger

Updated: May 8, 2010 12:40 pm

Who says India has 1,411 tigers in the wild? A mobile networking company’s campaign ‘Save Our Tiger’ in India! But, is that true? God knows!

            Do we have 1,411 tigers in the wild as of today? That’s unlikely for the simple reason that this figure was released by the National Tiger Conservation Authority in 2008.

            Wildlife Protection Society of India reported 85 tiger deaths in 2009 and 18 deaths this year so far.

            The subspecies of Tiger that we find in India is called the Royal Bengal Tiger. The scientific name for the Royal Bengal Tiger is panthera tigris tigris. It is one of the nine subspecies that roamed the world. Now, there are five subspecies of Tiger as the other four subspecies have become extinct due to excessive hunting during the last century.

            The total population of all five subspecies of tigers in the wild is estimated at 3,000. Out of these 2,100 are believed to be Royal Bengal Tigers. The range of Royal Bengal Tigers extends beyond Indian frontiers. This subspecies is also found in Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.

            According to Worldwide Fund for Nature, India has 1,411 tigers; Bangladesh has 450; Nepal has 150; and Bhutan has 100. Going by these figures, India is home to more than two-third of the Royal Bengal Tigers and nearly half of the total tiger population of the world. In all probability, the tiger population in India might outlive tiger populations in other countries. It is therefore imperative that a foolproof mechanism for tiger conservation be put in place in India before it is too late.

            Since Project Tiger was introduced in 1973 to provide protection to tigers in India, 37 Tiger Reserves have been created across the country. But, about half of the tiger population in the Indian wild lives outside tiger reserves in other wildlife preserves and protected areas.

            The head and body of a fully grown Indian tiger measure between five and six feet. Its tail could add another three feet to its length. The weight of the Indian tiger varies from 109 to 227 kg. The females are slender and weigh much less as compared to their male counterparts. Tigers have retractable claws, padded

feet, strong jaws and canines that help them tear their prey apart and eat meat. They have powerful limbs which help them to drag preys bigger than themselves.

            Unlike lions which hunt in prides, the tiger is a lone hunter. Also, unlike the lion, the tiger does not believe in long chases. It prefers to crawl up as close to the prey as possible and then launch its attack. Their night vision is remarkable and they make excellent nocturnal hunters.

            Tigers avoid human beings except in conflict situations or when they come face to face with human beings suddenly. Some instances of man-eating have been reported when they were pushed to extreme situations. Tigers are great swimmers and they can also climb trees.

            Tigers are fiercely territorial. They protect their territory aggressively. The average territory of a tiger is approximately 25 sq km. Every tiger scent marks its territory with its urine. Violators of territory are challenged and a fight ensues to decide the victor. The vanquished has to leave the territory in question and look for other options.

            The strongest males mate with female tigers when they are in heat. The number of cubs in a litter is normally between two and four. The cubs cannot hunt during the first 18 months and many of them remain with their mothers for two or three years before they establish their own territories. They achieve sexual maturity at the age of four. Males play no role in rearing the cubs.

            The average lifespan of a tiger is 15 years. However, in the wild, it is reduced to 8 to 10 years.

            Typically, the colour of the tiger’s coat ranges from rusty-red to rusty-brown with a whitish underbelly and the area between the limbs, a white area around the face and stripes ranging from brown or gray to pure black. The form and density of stripes differ from subspecies to subspecies. The ground colour of the Siberian tiger is paler than other tiger subspecies.

            Most Tigers have more than a hundred stripes. The stripes on their body are vertical whereas those on their limbs are horizontal. The stripe pattern is unique to each tiger. Stripe patterns could be used to identify individuals in the same way as we use fingerprints to identify human beings. However, due to difficulties in identifying this distinguishing feature during fleeting moments in the field, other identification marks are preferred. The stripe pattern originates in the skin of the tiger and extends to its coat. Tigers also sport white spots behind their ears. Their coats blend beautifully with their surroundings and offer perfect camouflage to them.

            A tiger’s roar can be heard as far away as 3 km. The movement of the tiger is greeted with pin-drop silence except for the occasional alarm calls raised by rhesus monkeys, langurs, peafowls, chitals, sambhars and other sentinels of the jungle to warn other animals of the tiger’s presence.

            The tiger enjoys protection in India as the carrier of mother goddess Durga from time immemorial. The tiger was later named the national animal of India replacing the Asiatic lion to increase its protection. And, the Project Tiger is designed to provide additional protection to this magnificent cat and prevent it from becoming extinct.

            In the beginning everybody believed that the reason for depletion of tiger population was due to hunting for trophies. But, the arrest of the kingpin of illegal trade in Indian wildlife, Sansar Chand, in the 1990s blew the lid off an organised poaching racket to feed the international market. The route of his illegal trade led through our neighbouring countries all the way up to China where each and every part of the tiger was being put to some use or the other.

            Tigers are poisoned and shot as a result of human-animal conflict and poaching. They are also trapped and snared by poachers.

            In a nutshell, tigers do not face any serious threat from inter-animal confrontation because of their size and survival instincts. However, the animal that tiger dreads most is the wild dog which hunts in packs. Tigers face problems of intra-tiger conflicts during mating season and also when certain pockets get overpopulated

following excessive litters.

           Tiger-human conflicts begin when (1) human beings start encroaching upon tiger territory; (2) when forest rights of indigenous people are affected as a result of protection to tiger; or, (3) when weaker tigers are relegated to fringe areas in their fight for territory. This happens when there is dearth of territory to accommodate males in the litter when they grow up and seek out territories for themselves.

            But, the main threat to the tiger comes from poachers who feed the international market for wildlife products. There have also been stray instances in the northeast where armed insurgents had resorted to poaching to fund their activities.

            Apart from tiger skin, its bones, teeth, nails, meatin fact, all tiger parts are used as raw material for something or the other in China. Tiger bones are used in a variety of Chinese medicines including aphrodisiacs. Tiger meat is a delicacy and the soup made from its penis is highly valued as an aphrodisiac among the Chinese. Tiger nails and teeth are used as ornaments and embellishments and worn around the neck as they are believed to bestow great power on the owner.

            But, if we still have 1,411 tigers in the wild, it is indeed a matter of some satisfaction. In 1992, the chief of the Cats Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), Peter Jackson, gave 10 years for the tigers to become extinct. At least, we have proved his prediction wrong.

            If the tiger population could grow from 1,827 in 1972 to 4,334 in 1989, there is no reason why we cannot manage a repeat performance taking it up from the current population of 1,411 tigers. All it needs is political will, funding and protection from the government and support from conservationists and indigenous people residing in tiger reserves and other wildlife preserves.

            It is not as if Project Tiger has entirely been a success story. Some of the prominent adverse reports came from (1) Ranthambhore in the 1990s where poaching was rampant; (2) Sariska which lost all the 28 tigers to poachers because of administrative breakdown; (3) Pench which too seems to have lost all its tigers; (4) Corbett National Park which showed remarkable increase in tiger population too lost some tigers in the recent past; (5) Ranthambhore was again in news recently for poisoning two tiger cubs.

            Sariska started afresh with translocation of tigers from Ranthambhore last year. Dr Sunayan Sharma, the Director of Sariska Tiger Reserve is happy that he has been able to ensure the safety of these tigers so far. But, he cautions that we have to be extra careful with our tiger population in 2010 as this happens to be the year of the tiger for the Chinese.

            We can also draw some comfort from the fact that the tiger-range states in India cover almost two-third of the 28 states. Their adaptability is evident from the fact that they are comfortable in a wide variety of habitats beginning with mangrove forests of Sunderbans in West Bengal to the soaring heights of Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh to rainforests of Kerala/Tamil Nadu to Himalayan foothills of Corbett in Uttaranchal to scrublands of Sariska in Rajasthan and dry deciduous forests in the plains and hillocks of Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh. Tigers are found almost all over India except for the northern most, western most and south eastern parts of India.

            Unlike the Asiatic lion which is holed up in its last resort in the Gir forest in Gujarat, the tiger cannot be wiped out in one go because they are so spread out. A robust tiger population can be revived through concerted efforts.

            Like the tiger, the story of Project Tiger is also striped with successes and failures. Since poaching and habitat loss are the prime causes for decimation of the Indian tiger, the real success of Project Tiger will depend upon its effectiveness in conserving the habitat and preventing tigers from being converted into tiger products.

By Vincent Van Ross

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