There has been a high level of international concern over the fate of the tiger in the Indian subcontinent for many years. The worries over the reported decline in tiger populations even in areas where they enjoy formal protection under law have heightened since the finding that the charismatic species has been wiped out entirely in some reserves, such as Sariska. Conservationists like Valmik Thapar have reported major losses in tiger populations in Ranthambore and local extinctions in Dampa, Namdapha and Palpurkuno.

As a not-for-profit initiative campaigning to protect the last remaining biodiversity everywhere, and engaged in advocacy with particular reference to the Anamalais, DiscoverWild shares the national concern on the future of the tiger.

Here, we discuss the presence of the tiger in the Western Ghats, from an ecological and conservation perspective.

Perhaps the most important role of the Panther tigris tigris in these internationally renowned "hotspot" montane forests of India is that of an umbrella species whose relative abundance is an indicator of the overall health of the ecosystem.

The Western Ghats and adjoining habitats have always hosted tiger populations, although their density in all regions may not compare with other types of habitat in the subcontinent.

Based on a study of the Western Ghats and other potential tiger conservation areas worldwide, Eric D.Wikramanayake and others proposed in 1999, that four Tiger Conservation Units (TCU) of varying levels of significance were feasible in these Ghats.

A TCU is defined by the authors as 'a block or cluster of blocks of existing habitats that contain or have the potential to contain, interacting populations of tigers.' A TCU need not be restricted to nor contain protected areas, but instead includes the entire landscape of natural habitats over which tigers may disperse and become established, Wikramanayake et al explain.

Such a TCU definition for moist tropical forests is found applicable to the following areas : Periyar - Kalakad - Mundanthurai; Dandeli - Bandipur; Parambikulam; Pablakhali. Of these, the first two sets of areas in the Ghats come under TCU I category, the highest ranked, based on such parameters as habitat integrity, poaching pressure and population status of the species.

DiscoverWild has included Parambikulam in Kerala in its ambit of activity in the Anamalais, as a protected area that is contiguous.

It is significant that the TCUs identified by Wikramanayake and others extend to some adjoining areas of Tamil Nadu. The authors describe these as the Cauvery and Tamil Nadu Dry Forest regions and they lie east of the Ghats. As conservationists are aware, there has been slow progress in delineating new conservation areas with a focus on the tiger in the Ghats, although some reports suggested in 2005 that the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary in the Anamalais would become part of Project Tiger of the Indian government, which has a total of 28 reserves covering an area of 37,761 sq.km (Report of the Tiger Task Force, 2005).

At present, there are four sites in the Western Ghats that come under Project Tiger. The PT areas in the Ghats are Bhadra (1998), Bandipur (1973), Periyar (1978) and Kalakkad-Mundanthurai (1988).

It is now widely recognised that research into the health of the forests and the conservation of tigers was not pursued with scientific rigour in most places. While some protected areas have yielded insights, these have been disproportionately small, given the critical importance of habitats in India to the long-term survival of tigers as a species.

Among the PAs in which long-term monitoring of tigers has been carried out with a scientific base is Nagarhole in Karnataka. Presenting their findings in the book "Riding the Tiger" (Ed by John Seidensticker et al, Cambridge University Press, 1999) scientists K.Ullas Karanth, Mel Sunquist and forester K.M.Chinnappa say this is one of the unique habitats in the Ghats, noted for its intact assemblage of seven large ungulate species (muntjac, chital, sambar, chousingha, gaur, wild pig and elephant) and three large predatory carnivores (tiger, leopard and dhole).

Nagarhole, with predominantly moist deciduous forests in high rainfall regions and dry deciduous forests in lower reaches, holds many lessons for the conservation of tiger populations in similar forests that face high levels of pressures from human activity.

An important finding is that active conservation intervention is necessary in the form of cessation of human pressures - the removal of biomass from forests, hunting, often encouraged by traditional practices, degradation of grasslands and swamps and clear-felling of forest - a stop to all this contributes to the recovery of tiger populations. Such a revival of tiger numbers is possible because the prey base returns to healthy levels.

It is important, therefore, to learn from the Nagarhole experience and strengthen schemes that provide for improved biomass and livelihood opportunities for tribals in areas that fall outside protected areas. This would leave inviolate forests for tigers to breed.

This is a feasible goal and the only sensible one. Too few forests are left that can support viable tiger populations. Only two to four per cent of the land area in the country remains under relatively good forest cover. The Western Ghats, which include the Anamalais and Parambikulam, form part of this hotspot of biodiversity and the heart of some of the nation's great rivers. DiscoverWild will endeavour to protect this priceless part of the country.