Almost fifty years on from the launch of Project Tiger, India’s first major wildlife conservation program, we have come a long way in protecting not just the tiger, but also its habitat.
But there is still a lot of work that continues to be done, to protect the tiger and other key species such as the Asiatic Elephant, the Snow Leopard, the Indian Rhino, and the Barasingha, to name a few.
The two biggest challenges we face in India today are loss of habitat and the inclusion (or lack thereof) of local communities in the conservation exercise.
As the pace of infrastructure development races on, we often ignore and destroy critical corridors and territories, by building highways, railways and even airports in and around our ecosystems.
With climate change looming over us as well, preserving these habitats is not only important for the animals — it’s equally important for the survival of human beings because these ecosystems are natural watersheds, the lungs that combat air pollution, and the barriers against natural disasters like floods and cyclonic storms. Several species also play an enormous role in maintaining the biodiversity of our forests, pollination, and maintaining an ecological balance.
Whether it’s the Kanha-Pench corridor for a highway, or the Ken-Betwa river link project that will lead to over 10,000 hectares of Panna National Park getting submerged.
These are battles being fought across the country by conservationists with varying degrees of success.
Community development and habitat conservation go hand in hand. In several parts of Assam and Kerala, entire villages have been relocated to move them out of a migration corridor for elephants, and thereby not only safeguard the animals but also the life and livelihoods of these people. But the human-animal conflict goes far beyond simply relocating a community outside the boundaries of a national park.
Their livelihoods and employment need to be secured, and the property that has been lost in conservation efforts needs to be compensated.
Even after a village has been relocated outside the boundaries of the national park, it’s not unusual for elephants or hyaenas, or even predators like leopards and tigers to destroy fields or kill livestock. As a result, the community sees the animal as a threat and kills it.
For tribes like the Naga or the Pardhi, hunting was an intrinsic part of their culture and heritage.
It takes a huge education effort to turn these hunters into trackers and conservationists, and sustainable tourism efforts go a long way in making them realize that the very animals that they kill, can also sustain livelihoods in the long run. Snow Leopards in Ladakh are an excellent case in point, where an animal that was once seen as a menace, has now become the mascot of a livelihood not only for the current generation, but for their children as well.
If we examine the tiger numbers in popular parks like Ranthambore, Bandhavgarh, Kanha, and Nagarhole, we have actually seen the populations grow over several years.
Sustainable tourism has proved to be a lucrative source of income for those who live in and around the parks, and therefore they are invested in ensuring that the tiger, and the other members of its habitat, remain unharmed. Technology plays a role as well. Mobile phones and social media help to disseminate reports of poaching as well as the movements of the animals, faster and in a more efficient manner.
Electronic communication also makes the park authorities and the forest department far more accountable than before. It’s not so easy to destroy forest land without someone taking note and protesting about it.
Tourism is a positive game-changer, but it needs to be managed well.
From well-demarcated game-drive routes, multiple zones, guidelines on appropriate behaviour and safety practices in the jungle, training for naturalists and guides, eliminating of non-biodegradable products and waste, there is definitely room for improvement in park management, to take the sustainable tourism experience to the next level.
We are glad to see an increasing number of lodges and operators encouraging eco-friendly tourism initiatives such as electric vehicles, boats, and coracles on waterbodies, and walks and bike rides in buffer zones.
Education is a key aspect of our conservation journey and our endeavour at Encounters Asia is to create an ongoing curriculum around the importance of protecting wildlife and the natural habitat, for successive generations.
We believe that if the children of today are invested in protect the environment, they also safeguard their future on this planet.