DiscoverWild reports on the talk and interaction with the public by Dr.K.Ullas Karanth, at Book Point, Orient Longman, Chennai on March 25, 2006.

Ullas KaranthOne of the foremost tiger biologists in the world today, Dr. K.Ullas Karanth thinks tigers will not become extinct if we are able to ensure at least some inviolate areas for the national animal. 

Recalling his own apprehensions forty years ago on the future of tigers and wildlife, Dr. Karanth, Director, Willdlife Conservation Society - India Program based in Bangalore, told a meeting organised by Nature Quest in Chennai on March 25, 2006, that his understanding of the tiger over the years had made him a little more optimistic now.

"I don't think tigers can be saved merely because we want to do this," he says. The available forests in the country are highly fragmented, and most of the forest have been converted for agriculture over the centuries. "There is no pristine forest in India today," he says, though there are areas with nature reasonably preserved. 

Four per cent of the land is legally designated for wildlife in the country and only one per cent is legally and effectively protected.

India has nearly 20 per cent of the world's cattle, but grossly insuffient resources to feed them. There is thus great pressure on the forests where these animals are often taken to graze. The grazing of cattle by the Maldharis in the Gir forest is a classic example. It depressed the natural prey base for the lions. When these villagers were relocated out of the lions' habitat, the herbivore prey base increased and the lions preyed on these animals rather than cattle. 

Dr. Karanth made the following points in his lecture, which was accompanied by a slide show :

  • The tiger habitat in India today extends to 300,000
  • A radio collared tiger is found to travel upto 20 km on a single night, requiring intensive monitoring of such collared animals.
  • Research shows that 23 per cent of a protected area's tigers leave or die due to natural causes. With adequately enforced protection, this does not lead to a decline in the population. Tigers have high fecundity and breed fast in optimal circumstances. 
  • Removing forest produce does as much or greater collateral damage to the habitat as logging. 
  • Badly planned micro-hydel and wind farm projects, often aided by subsidy schemes, threaten prime tiger habitat. Every such project involves intrusion in the form of roads and other pressures. 
  • Dry and moist deciduous forests are the best tiger habitat. Tropical forests also support tiger prey to a high degree.  
  • Universally, the most common prey of tigers is wild boar. In India, the tiger preys on spotted deer, barasingha, sambar, nilgai, wild buffalo and gaur, besides wild boar. 
  • The abundance of prey in tropical forests is found to be comparable to that of the African Savannah. 

On the question of whether people and tigers coexist, Dr.Karanth says it is a question that must be looked at in terms of scale. The answer, he thinks, is yes and no, depending on how such co-existence is defined. At the State-level, people and tigers can indeed coexist, because there is no conflict of territories. But co-existence is not possible in a breeding area. 

The challenge today is to arrest the mission drift in the Forest Department. In the 1970s, those working in the department took pride in their work. Today, the concept of Protected Areas is not receiving support. The operating philosophy seems to be "use it or lose it," which is an Americanism that can only do severe damage to Protected Areas. 

Meeting local needs through forests may be feasible at the current pressure levels in parts of the vast Russian Far East region, but it is impossible in the Indian context, without stripping the forest. Within five kilometres of Nagarhole, there are nearly 200,000 people and their needs cannot be met in this manner. 

Tiger protection has also suffered because traditional hunter-tribes have not been absorbed into the forest protection machinery after the passage of the Wildlife Protection Act. 

Dr.Karanth's approach to conservation is centred round close working relationships between civil society and the Forest Department. The non-governmental organisation, Wildlife First, has achieved creditable results in Nagarahole through such approaches, though he has had his share of serious problems with the department at different periods of history. 

What could be the solutions to problems in tiger conservation?
Education is a good option, but it is a continuous operation that would yield results only over time. 

For more immediate intervention, the decision-makers should be persuaded. Some of those who are devoting substantial time and energy to the cause (as in Wildlife First), engaging these decision-makers are those who do other things as well. 

There is a desperate shortage of professionally trained biologists who will raise understanding of tiger conservation. 

Further Reading:
The Way of the Tiger, by Dr. Ullas Karanth, paperback edn, Orient Longman, 2006.
Riding the Tiger - Tiger conservation in human dominated landscapes, Cambridge University Press, 1999.