• India
  • Apr 10

Explainer - 50 years of Project Tiger

Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the latest tiger numbers at a mega event organised in Mysuru to mark the completion of 50 years of ‘Project Tiger’.

According to the data, the tiger population in the country increased from 2,967 in 2018 to 3,167 in 2022.

The tiger population has gone up in the Shivalik Hills-Gangetic Plains landscape, central India and the Sundarbans, but their numbers have dwindled in the Western Ghats and the Northeast-Brahmaputra Plains due to habitat loss, fragmentation and poaching over the years.

The country is home to more than 70 per cent of the world’s wild tiger population.

Project Tiger

• In 1973, the Project Tiger was established with the objective of utilising the tiger’s functional role and charisma to garner public support and resources for preserving representative ecosystems. 

• Project Tiger is an ongoing centrally sponsored scheme of the ministry of environment, forests and climate change providing central assistance to the tiger states for tiger conservation in designated tiger reserves.

• Since its inception, the project has expanded from nine tiger reserves covering 18,278 square kilometres (sqkm) to 53 reserves in 18 tiger range states covering 75,796 sqkm, which account for 2.3 per cent of India’s land area.

• The tiger reserves are constituted on a core/buffer strategy. The core areas have the legal status of a national park or a sanctuary, whereas the buffer or peripheral areas are a mix of forest and non-forest land, managed as a multiple use area.

• Most tiger reserves and protected areas in India are existing as small islands in a vast sea of ecologically unsustainable land use, and many tiger populations are confined to small protected areas. Although some habitat corridors exist that allow tiger movement between them, most of these habitats are not protected areas, continue to deteriorate further due to unsustainable human use and developmental projects, and thereby are not conducive to animal movement.

• Project Tiger aims to foster an exclusive tiger agenda in the core areas of tiger reserves, with an inclusive people oriented agenda in the buffer.

• The conservation of tigers in India can be divided into two phases. The first phase starting in the 1970s, involved the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act and the establishment of protected areas that helped conserve tigers and tropical forest ecosystems.

• However, in the 1980s, the trade in tiger parts began to decimate the population, leading to a shocking revelation of local extinction of Tigers in the Sariska Tiger Reserve in 2005 and thus began the second phase. 

• The second phase began in 2005-06, with the government adopting a landscape-level approach and implementing strict monitoring for tiger conservation. 

• This resulted in an increase in the tiger population from 1,411 in 2006 to 3,167 in 2022.

• The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is a statutory body of the ministry, with an overarching supervisory / coordination role, performing functions as provided in the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. 

Challenges for tiger conservation

• Despite efforts to conserve tigers, there are still several challenges that need to be addressed. 

• One of the major challenges is aligning the aspirations of large-scale economic development while safeguarding forests and their wildlife and mitigating human-tiger conflict. 

• Other silent and surmounting threats are climate change-related impacts on habitats and the loss of the quality of forests over time. 

• Out of the approximately 400,000 sqkm of forests in tiger states, only one-third are in relatively healthier condition. 

• Another significant challenge is the illegal wildlife trade. Even though poaching is illegal, the demand for tiger products remains high, and poachers continue to kill tigers for profit. 

• To combat this, the Indian government has implemented strict laws and increased surveillance to prevent poaching and illegal trade.

• To ensure the long-term survival of tigers in India, a multi-faceted approach is needed, including protecting and expanding tiger habitats, preserving population connectivity, minimising human-tiger conflicts, and combating threats like habitat loss, poaching, and illegal trade. 

• It is important to restore habitats, increase ungulate populations, and plan reintroduction of tigers in low density areas to tackle conflict issues. 

• The involvement of various stakeholders, such as governments, NGOs, local communities, and businesses, is crucial. 

• Strategies like increased patrolling, monitoring, and law enforcement, focus on “Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures (OECM)” along with promoting eco-tourism and sustainable livelihoods for local communities, can help achieve this goal. 

Five major landscapes

As tigers inhabit diverse habitats across a vast geographical expanse in India, the tiger-bearing habitats have been categorised into five major landscapes based on biogeography and interconnectivity of the habitats: 

1) Shivalik Hills-Gangetic Plains

2) Central India and Eastern Ghats

3) Western Ghats

4) North Eastern Hills and Brahmaputra Flood Plains

5) The Sundarbans. 

• Each landscape is analysed as a separate unit, since environmental and habitat covariates differ in their relationship with tiger abundance in each of the landscapes. 

• Additionally, landscapes are an ecologically holistic entity because they function as a biological unit wherein tiger populations can share common individuals, a common gene pool, and can potentially disperse between populations. 

• Given the current focus of landscape scale management philosophy currently being adapted, and that tiger movement between landscapes is rare in modern times, this division makes ecological sense, especially for management inferences and implementation.

1) Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains

• The Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains landscape in India spans across several states and includes five important tiger reserves and several other protected areas. 

• The Terai region of India holds a significant position for the conservation of tigers, as it hosts several key tiger reserves, including Corbett, Rajaji, Pilibhit, Dudhwa, and Valmiki. 

• These protected areas are the only representatives of the rich biodiversity of the Bhabar and Terai regions of the country.

• Unfortunately, this region has undergone considerable change due to anthropogenic activities. Another important facet of this landscape is that those tiger reserves located in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are linked through the forests of Nepal, making cross-border cooperation critical to preserve this invaluable natural heritage of both India and Nepal. 

• Terai region is part of one of the 200 globally important eco-regions for its intact large mammal assemblages. 

• The landscape is characterised by three geological zones — the Shivaliks, the Bhabar tract, and the Terai plains. 

• The Bhabar tract is characterised by seasonal streams and the Terai plains are composed of the floodplains of river Ganga. The area supports highly endangered wildlife like Barasingha, one-horned rhinoceros, Bengal florican, Hispid hare, and Hog deer.

• The tiger population in the Forest Divisions of the Shivalik hills and Gangetic plains landscape has recorded substantial increase with a total of 804 unique tigers being photographed, which is higher than the estimated population of 646 in 2018. 

• The photographic evidence of tigers in new areas in Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh provide hope of range expansion. 

• To ensure their long-term survival, it is necessary to supplement and repopulate the Shivalik Forest Division of Uttar Pradesh and increase protection for tigers in Suhelwa, and pay special attention to the genetically divergent population of Valmiki.

2) Central Indian Highlands and Eastern Ghats Landscape

• The landscape of Central India and the Eastern Ghats includes the semi-arid areas of Rajasthan, the central Indian plateau, and portions of the Eastern Ghats in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Odisha. 

• The Aravalli Range borders the northwest, the Satpura Range borders the south, the Chota Nagpur plateau borders the northeast, and the Odisha hills border the southeast. 

• The Sahyadri Mountains in the north connect the Western Ghats and the Central Highlands. The Eastern Ghats had historic continuity with Central India forests, but this is now almost lost. 

• The Central India landscape is a vast network of protected areas, with around half (25) of the total notified tiger reserves in India and numerous other protected areas that contain extensive tiger occupied forests

• The region also has the highest level of conflict between tigers and humans, requiring appropriate policies to be developed.

• The Central Indian landscape has witnessed an increase in tiger population, with 1,161 unique tigers being photographed as compared to an estimated population of 1,033 in 2018.

• Tigers have occupied new areas in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. However, it is crucial to record that the local tiger population has become extinct in several areas.

3) Western Ghats Landscape

• The Western Ghats is a continuous range of hills that runs parallel to the Arabian Sea coast for about 1,600 km, covering an area of about 140,000 sqkm. 

• It spans six states in India and contains 12 tiger reserves, 20 national parks, and 68 wildlife sanctuaries. 

• The Western Ghats are a biodiversity hotspot and home to many endemic plant and animal species. 

• The region faces several conservation issues due to human activities, including habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, illegal wildlife trade, human-wildlife conflict, and invasive species.

• Majority of the tiger populations remain stable and some have declined.

• The Nilgiri cluster (Nagarahole to BRT Hills) in the Western Ghats landscape is the largest tiger population in the world, and has contributed significantly to colonisation of tigers in neighbouring areas.

• As of 2018, the tiger population was estimated at 981 tigers in the region. In 2022, as many as 824 unique tigers were recorded, indicating a decline in some regions and stability in well-protected tiger reserves.

4) North East Hills and Brahmaputra Plains Landscape 

• The eastern part of India is a biodiversity hotspot, including the North Bengal dooars, flood plains of Brahmaputra, and North Eastern hill ranges, spread across nine states. 

• To provide suitable habitats for tigers and other wildlife several Tiger Reserves have been established in North East India, such as Kaziranga, Manas, Orang, Pakke, Nameri, Namdhapa, Kamlang, Dampa, and Buxa, of which only Kaziranga and Manas harbour substantial tiger populations. 

• Despite the establishment of these protected areas, these tiger populations continue to face threats, and efforts are needed to address these threats, including strengthening protected area management, intensifying anti-poaching measures, and tackling the underlying cause of human-wildlife conflict.

• The landscape of North Eastern Hills and Brahmaputra is secure, with 194 distinctive tigers being captured on camera traps, with an estimated 219 tigers in 2018. The tiger population of North East is genetically unique and is small in size thus requiring intensive conservation efforts.

5) Sundarbans Landscape

• The Sundarbans is the world’s largest and contiguous mangrove forest, located at the confluence of the Brahmaputra, Ganges, and Meghna rivers in India and Bangladesh. The entire landscape covers around 10,000 sqkm, with only 42 per cent of mangrove habitat being within Indian territory.

• It is home to tigers and is a globally recognised priority for tiger conservation.

• The Sundarbans tigers are recognized for their unique physical attributes, characterised by smaller size and ability to survive in the mangrove ecosystem.

• The tiger population and landscape are both threatened by biotic interference in the form of forest exploration, fishing, palm and timber extraction, and the expansion of waterways. 

• To preserve the ecological integrity of the area, cross-border collaboration and knowledge exchange between India and Bangladesh are imperative. 

• In 2018, tiger population was estimated to be 88, whereas in 2022, images of 100 tigers were captured. The population is steady, with a limited potential to extend its range.

Tiger reserves in India

1) Bandipur – Karnataka

2) Corbett – Uttarakhand

3) Kanha – Madhya Pradesh

4) Manas – Assam

5) Melghat – Maharashtra

6) Palamau – Jharkhand

7) Ranthambore – Rajasthan

8) Simlipal – Odisha

9) Sunderban – West Bengal

10) Periyar – Kerala

11) Sariska – Rajasthan

12) Buxa – West Bengal

13) Indravati – Chhattisgarh

14) Namdapha – Arunachal Pradesh

15) Nagarjuna Sagar – Andhra Pradesh

16) Dudhwa – Uttar Pradesh

17) Kalakad Mundanthurai – Tamil Nadu

18) Valmiki – Bihar

19) Pench – Madhya Pradesh

20) Tadobha Andhari –  Maharashtra

21) Bandhavgarh – Madhya Pradesh

22) Panna – Madhya Pradesh

23) Dampa – Mizoram

24) Bhadra – Karnataka

25) Pench-MH – Maharashtra

26) Pakke – Arunachal Pradesh

27) Nameri – Assam

28) Satpura – Madhya Pradesh

29) Anamalai – Tamil Nadu

30) Udanti Sitanadi – Chhattisgarh

31) Satkosia – Odisha

32) Kaziranga – Assam

33) Achanakmar – Chhattisgarh

34) Kali – Karnataka

35) Sanjay Dhubri – Madhya Pradesh

36) Mudumalai – Tamil Nadu

37) Nagarhole – Karnataka

38) Parambikulam – Kerala

39) Sahyadri – Maharashtra

40) Biligiri Ranganathaswamy Temple – Karnataka

41) Kawal – Telangana

42) Sathyamangalam – Tamil Nadu

43) Mukundara –  Rajasthan

44) Nawegaon Nagzira – Maharashtra

45) Amrabad – Telangana

46) Pilibhit – Uttar Pradesh

47) Bor – Maharashtra

48) Rajaji – Uttarakhand

49) Orang – Assam

50) Kamlang – Arunachal Pradesh

51) Srivilliputhur Megamalai – Tamil Nadu

52) Ramgarh Vishdhari Tiger Reserve - Rajasthan

53) Ranipur Tiger Reserve - Uttar Pradesh.

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