"We Need To Identify More Potential Tiger Habitats," Says Aditya Panda

City Scape: City Tales

Although it is evident in the report by National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) that there has been a 30% rise in the population of tigers in the country, the shocking fact is that Odisha has faced a considerable decline in the tiger count.


My City Links caught up with wildlife conservationist Aditya Panda to know more about the scenario of tigers in Odisha and the different issues surrounding them. Excerpts from the interview:


What is the population status of tigers in Odisha? The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) claims a figure but the state government disputes it. Who is correct?

Tigers in Odisha are at their most critical low. Slightly more than a decade ago, tiger presence was reported from most forest divisions of the state. Today, it is reported only from three or four pockets. There are no breeding tiger populations left in the state outside of Similipal Tiger Reserve and probably Sunabeda Wildlife Sanctuary (proposed tiger reserve). This is the tenth year since the notification of the Satkosia Tiger Reserve, and its achievement in all this period has been that before it was notified as a tiger reserve, Satkosia boasted of a breeding population of tigers and ten years after being made a tiger reserve, it has practically no tigers. In other landscapes of the state such as Ghumsar, Kalahandi, Kandhamal, Khalasuni-Badrama-Rairakhol, Keonjhar and Sundargarh where tigers once bred and thrived, they have now either vanished or exist in ones and twos as stragglers trying to survive.


The NTCA figures are considered official and based on the robust, universally accepted capture-recapture method using camera traps. These figures are arrived at after an elaborate three phase method implemented every four years (besides an annual fourth phase) that takes into account various factors such as habitat quality, anthropogenic pressures, prey animal density, carnivore signs as well as camera trap data and are not disputed by any state other than Odisha. Ever since this methodology was adopted by the NTCA after scrapping the now discredited pugmark estimation method—in which it is easy to ‘invent’ tigers— Odisha has made a habit of opposing the estimation results in a defiance of facts and has brought ridicule to itself in conservation and wildlife biology circles by conducting a ‘counter census’.


So, to answer your question, obviously, the NTCA result is a more accurate representation of the state of tigers in Odisha. Our State Wildlife Wing should accept reality and take urgent remedial actions instead of baselessly denying facts and claiming that all is well, as it has done for the last decade.

Picture Courtesy: Aditya Panda

Why is the population of tigers so low in Odisha? What are the major threats to them? What steps need to be taken to improve it?

Odisha has some of the finest, highest quality and expansive tiger habitats in India. In ways much better than many states that boast a much larger tiger population. Yet, most of our forests are empty of tigers. The reason behind this is fairly straightforward: most of our forests are empty of prey animals. The poaching of prey animals like deer, sambar and wild pigs goes on rampantly across Odisha, overlooked as being not as serious as tiger or elephant poaching. This has emptied our forests of wildlife, virtually turning them into ‘green deserts’ or the ‘empty forest syndrome’ as it is called. We have high quality wildlife habitats with no wildlife worth the mention!


Statistically, a single tiger needs roughly a prey base of 500 deer to survive. Without high densities of prey animal populations, populations of large carnivores such as tigers, leopards and wild dogs are bound to crash in a generation or so and this is what has happened across Odisha. Due to the high poaching rate of these prey animals, tiger populations have crashed over time, accelerated by the inability of breeding tigresses to successfully bring up cubs in prey starved habitats. Shortage of prey also led to cattle killing by tigers, especially in 1990s and early 2000s, which was retaliated by villagers by poisoning kills and hence killing tigers.


That apart, there are other threats such as exploitation of forests by people for grazing livestock, collecting firewood and illegal timber felling and large scale mining that is wiping out entire tracts of tiger habitat and creating new human settlements across the state’s forests and thus fragmenting tiger landscapes. Tiger landscapes are also being fragmented by rapid urbanisation and increase in linear infrastructure such as roads, highway widening, railway tracks, power lines and canals. Besides, another major threat is, of course, direct poaching of tigers for the black market in tiger parts. Drastic steps are needed to rectify this. To begin with, we need to start by ensuring that our wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves are given adequate protection with sufficient field staff, resources and wildlife oriented leadership. Human habitations from within these protected areas need to be given the choice to relocate under the generous relocation package available currently.


We need to identify more potential tiger habitats that have remained outside the protected area network and notify new sanctuaries and tiger reserves. There are quite a few existing sanctuaries such as Khalasuni Badrama, Karlpat and Kotgarh that can be brought under the Project Tiger fold without any effect on the rights of people living around them and without any new restrictions on infrastructural development in their vicinity. That apart, habitat linkages need to be preserved and shielded from the impacts of infrastructure growth and human occupation. Poaching of prey animals needs to be strictly clamped down upon in reserve forests in territorial forest divisions—these form crucial ‘sink’ habitats and habitat linkages that ‘spillover’ tigers such as young adults and ousted old animals from successful breeding populations use to transit to other landscapes or seek sanctuary in.

Picture Courtesy: Aditya Panda

In recent years, new leadership in the State Wildlife Wing, the tiger reserves and some sanctuaries has taken many praiseworthy initiatives to bring about these changes, but we have a very, very long way to go.


Why has Odisha failed despite other ‘tiger states’ reporting impressive growth in tiger numbers?

Odisha has failed while other states, including those in the same part of India, have succeeded purely because of a lack of political and bureaucratic will to conserve wildlife. Our state has thus been one of the worst implementers of the policies of the NTCA, choosing to rebel when it is taken to task for being slack instead of taking corrective measures. It is no secret that Odisha has often been seen as a difficult and uncooperative state by the NTCA, at least until the recent past.


Also, in my view, public support for wildlife conservation lacks in Odisha, even in our middle class which fails to relate as much with wildlife as compared to people in other states. The citizens of Nagpur or Pune for example will pull the heavens down if a tiger is poached in Maharashtra. They visit wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves on weekends and their state government encourages responsible safari tourism. They watch wildlife, the general public’s conservation awareness is quite high and people personally connect with their tigers and their forests. We practically have no safari tourism in our state and our ecotourism policy in fact encourages things such as picnicking, camping and trekking in wildlife habitats while discouraging driving safaris—the opposite of what other states do!


Driving quietly in a vehicle causes far less disturbance to a forest or wildlife than a man on foot. States such as Madhya Pradesh earn a significant portion of their GDP from safari tourism in their many tiger reserves. It is one of the highest employers in their state and many people from communities living around tiger reserves depend on it for livelihood. Our state probably doesn’t care as much because the treasury is filled much quicker with mining revenue. Therefore, we face an acute public apathy that fuels government apathy towards wildlife conservation.


How will a growing population of tigers affect our life and environment?

A stable, secure large carnivore population is the surest sign of a healthy ecosystem. If we achieve this, it will mean our state’s forests will become secure, with functional ecosystems full of biodiversity that will contribute to clean rivers, healthy environment, climate control, soil health, besides socioeconomic benefits for communities living around forests and the state as a whole as well. The first sign of the decline of any ecosystem is the decline of its large mammals, particularly large carnivores. The surest sign of the revival of any ecosystem is the revival of a stable, breeding, large carnivore population. Large carnivore conservation is the panacea to all biodiversity conservation concerns.


Why so much focus on tigers? What about other species? Has Project Tiger been helpful to other species?

The most holistic approach to conserve any ecosystem is to focus on the conservation of its top carnivore. As I was mentioning earlier, top carnivores are the first to go from an ecosystem in decline. A large carnivore population, by sheer virtue of its position in the food pyramid, can only thrive when every other trophic level in the ecosystem is thriving. The tiger, being the top carnivore across most of India’s prominent wilderness landscapes, is therefore the best bet for holistic conservation.


Species such as the tiger are called ‘umbrella species’ under which all other species in the ecosystem thrive. Many endangered species from the elephant to the wild dog, the leopard to Nilgiri langur or the gaur to the Barasinga have been protected, revived and stabilised when their landscapes were brought under protection in the name of the tiger.


Not just other species, we owe even our water to the tiger. A fact worth keeping in mind is that about two per cent of India’s land area falls under tiger reserves. If one includes the wildlife sanctuaries, this number increases to five per cent. Over 600 rivers and perennial streams, including all of our major rivers, either originate in or are fed by these tiger forests.