Big cat comeback how india is restoring its tiger population – yale e360

Karanth’s willingness to report illegal logging, cattle grazing, and poaching in protected areas — and to implicate corrupt officials in the damage — has also earned him enemies. In one incident, an angry mob set a fire that destroyed his car, laboratory, and eight square miles of forest. But Karanth’s persistence has helped reestablish the tiger population in the Western Ghats and fueled his ambition to see that success extended across India and to empty tiger habitat far beyond.

Ullas Karanth: There are at least 300,000 square kilometers of the type of forest in which tigers can live, which are still not converted to agriculture and which are under state ownership, protected as state-owned forest reserves. A subset of that, maybe 10 or 15 percent, is protected as wildlife reserves.

So basically if all these 300,000 square kilometers were reasonably well protected and the prey base is brought up, we could have 10,000 to 15,000 tigers.

Karanth: I don’t see why not. It’s essentially a function of building back the prey base, because the forest cover is there. Some of the better-protected areas like Nagarahole and Bandipur national parks, where I worked, have densities of 10 to 15 tigers per 100 square kilometers. Even if we averaged only 5 tigers per 100 square kilometers in that 300,000 square kilometers, you’re talking about 15,000 tigers.

Karanth: It’s not the bush meat trade in the sense that it’s hunted and sold in large markets, the kind of thing you see in Africa and in Laos and Burma. It is more hunting for consumption and selling to a few neighbors. Some of the most extensive forests are in central India, northeast India, eastern India, where there is very heavy illegal hunting of prey animals such as deer, antelopes, and wild pig by local people. So that’s where the scope for future recovery is tremendous. Up to now, the recovery of tigers has taken place in more fragmented forests in southwestern India and in parts of central India.

Karanth: Narendra Modi’s government has an agenda for rapid economic growth, and a fundamental part of that plan is to improve infrastructure projects. So it certainly has tried to accelerate the rate at which new infrastructure projects are being put in place. But it’s not that they haven’t put money into tigers. In fact, money into tiger conservation also has gone up.

Karanth: It’s not one or two. There are dozens of cases. The problem is this: All the prime wildlife areas — tiger areas, let’s say — right now occupy 4 or 5 percent of the total national land area. So if you are putting in new highways, you can go around them. But the powerful arm of the government that’s in charge goes ahead and plans highways without giving any consideration for such options or for mitigating measures. Then the conservationists go to court and fight, because there are strong laws protecting nature, and the thing gets logjammed in court for 10 to 20 years. Then far too expensive mitigation measures are proposed. The lack of good science in all this is also a problem. I’m not saying every highway or every problem will be solved, but with innovation it is possible to avoid the courts.

Karanth: I take it as a given that poor people in India want to be lifted out of poverty. They see examples like China and other countries. To me, trying to resist that massive urge for a better life among poor people is not something practical. Urbanization and industrialization have other negative consequences, like mining and highways. But in the long run, conservationists should try to see how we can use urbanization and the economic growth process to protect nature; you lose somewhere, but where else can you gain? That is how we should do it.

If you look at it from the very macro view, when you have people moving off the land and away from occupations like livestock grazing, hunting for protein, using wood and forest products for fuel and markets, when you take these basic pressures off and concentrate people in urban areas, it does free up quite a bit of pressure on nature. It allows nature to expand. Conservationists should recognize this basic reality.

Karanth: Being truly fair, democratic, and voluntary is the key. If people really want to go, and if people get a better deal by moving out, I see nothing wrong with it. And in fact, now people are getting attracted to move by this process of urbanization and by the desire to access cell phones, highways, hospitals, schools, and other benefits, rather than remain in remote areas in the face of conflict with wildlife. We go to some of the remote areas, and you find only old people. All the young people have moved to towns and cities for different occupations. So that big pull is there, and we should take advantage of it.

Karanth: China is a very strange case. In the ’90s, they somehow identified the south China tiger as the tiger to be saved, and it was by then almost gone. So they spent a couple of decades banging their heads against a concrete wall to recover their Chinese tiger. Meanwhile, a few tigers from Russia were straggling over to northeast China, and we worked there, WCS [Wildlife Conservation Society] worked there, both in Russia and in northeast China, convincing them that this is where it would be worth making an effort. There is a resurgence of interest in nature in the younger generation and among academics, and I think it is that pressure, combined with the bad name China has got with the wildlife trade, but the result is that they have taken a serious decision to bring back tigers. And when they take a decision, they do things. They’re creating a 60,000-square-kilometer connected network of parks to bring back tigers in the northeast. From a dozen or so tigers at the start, there are certainly more than 20 to 30 there now. If they put in place what they have in mind now, the recovery is going to be quite spectacular.