The immense interest in the tiger and ignorance of most other species makes conservation in India highly “tiger-driven”. While the species co-existing with tigers still benefit from the arrangement, those living outside suffer the worst fate. A new approach is needed to save India’s ecosystems holistically, one that includes protecting species residing outside the realm of the tiger.
No animal, perhaps, can make humans dance to its whims like a wild tiger can. The tiger is the most coveted sight on a wildlife safari in India. People can wait hours on end in the scorching sun or the drenching rain just to catch a glimpse of this magnificent predator, designed to perfection by nature to be the lord of a tiger-bearing forest. Such allure of the tiger has benefitted not only the conservation of the species (increasing its numbers from 1,411 in 2006 to 3,167 in 2022 in India) but also all others under its umbrella, those fortunate enough to share its habitat. Yet, India is a vast land, and outside its 53 tiger reserves, covering around 2.3% of India’s land area, large ecosystems remain poorly protected or unattended and vulnerable to adversities of all kinds. These are India’s grasslands, wetlands, rivers, coastal waters, and more. Species found here are deprived of the strict protection and grand attention which is granted to the tiger and are exposed to innumerable threats paving the way for their extinction.
It is clear that a new approach is needed to save India’s ecosystems holistically, one that includes protecting species residing outside the realm of the tiger. And only a change in our minds and hearts can welcome the adoption of such an approach, a change whereby we start enjoying all life forms around us and acknowledge their importance in our lives.
Why The Rich Gets Richer – Who Is Responsible?
Only recently, I visited the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh to observe the elegant barasinghas of the protected area. The recovery of the hard-ground barasingha of Kanha, a grassland specialist, and an endemic Indian species, is one of the underrated success stories of conservation in India. Numbering only around 66 in 1970 due to overhunting and habitat loss, today, these animals number over 1,000. Thanks to the incredible work done by the forest department of Kanha over the years to revive the barasingha population.
However, throughout my four safaris at the park, I found it very difficult to convince the guides and the drivers of the Maruti Gypsy to concentrate on barasingha watching rather than tracking tigers. And it is not just their fault. Over the years, their reward system has been programmed for tiger sightings. As most tourists and tour companies concentrate only on spotting tigers, these guides and drivers also have learned to direct all their efforts into offering tiger sightings to their guests to generate smiles, praises, and generous tips from them And not just in Kanha, in most tiger-bearing parks in India, sighting other species comes as a byproduct of tiger sighting. Thus, tigers become associated with revenue generation through wildlife tourism for the local communities, the government, and the tourism industry, making them all the more important.
This immense interest in the tiger and ignorance of most other species makes conservation in India highly “tiger-driven“. While the species co-existing with tigers still benefit from the arrangement, those living outside suffer the worst fate. For example, in the 2015-16 annual budget, the 49 tiger reserves existing at that time received were assigned a total budget of Rs 168 crore, while the rest of the protected areas (about 677) received only Rs 70 crore. This massive disparity in budget allocation clearly exhibits the low priority given to species conservation outside tiger reserves.
Hence, while tiger numbers grow, many ecosystems outside the tiger reserves fail, bringing down the number of species inhabiting such ecosystems. And we are all responsible for this conservation bias.
Who Bears The Consequences?
Today, several species living outside the tiger-bearing habitats are highly threatened, like the critically endangered gharial, great Indian bustard, lesser florican, the Kashmir stag or hangul, the Dattatreya Night Frog, Nicobar pit viper, and others. These species inhabiting the ecosystems are just as vital to our well-being as tiger-bearing forests. Their loss indicates the degraded health of such ecosystems, and it is not just these species but also we humans who bear the consequences of such failing ecosystems.
For example, the gharial, a crocodilian species that was once widely distributed across river systems of northern India, today numbers only around 200, found in only small stretches of some rivers. Its highly threatened conservation status exhibits the poor health of our riverine ecosystems due to high levels of pollution, sand mining activities, and other anthropogenic impacts. These rivers support millions of humans living along the riverine plains and deltas, and the poor health of these rivers is a direct threat to these human lives and livelihoods. Despite such threats, little attention is given to protect these riverine ecosystems in India.
Similarly, grassland ecosystems remain highly ignored, as evident by the rapid loss of grassland species like the Great Indian bustard. This large-sized bird that was once widely distributed across grasslands in India is today confined to only small pockets in some states as agricultural fields and human settlements have largely replaced the grassland habitats that serve as their home. Grasslands, often designated as “wastelands” (a term first used in India during the British Raj) in India, are important carbon sinks, helping sequestrate carbon and mitigate the effects of climate change. Grasslands also serve as grazing grounds for livestock and support grassland-specific flora and fauna. However, India is losing its grasslands at a rapid pace, with 31% of the grassland area in the country lost in just a decade between 2005 and 2015. Given the rapid loss of grassland ecosystems in India and the little heed paid to such loss by policymakers, a section of conservationists are now hopeful that the cheetah reintroduction project in India will possibly help restore India’s grasslands, given that the cheetah is a big cat, a charismatic species that prefer open grasslands as its habitat.
What Can We Do?
The conservation bias in India is primarily dependent on popular choice – the people of the country have learned to take pride in their national animal, advocating for its protection in unison. The same approach must be adopted for all other wildlife as well. Here are some pointers regarding the new approach that we can keep in mind and practice to usher in the right kind of change:
- Travel for nature as a whole, not just tigers: Focus on the ecosystem as a whole while on safaris in protected areas. Encourage your guide to show and explain to you the flora and fauna of the forest, the exciting animal behavior of different species, landscapes, rivers, lakes, etc. Reserve photography tours that promise an overall nature photography experience instead of concentrating on big cat/charismatic species photography. Go on tours focusing on lesser-known species and habitats outside the tiger reserves to gain unique and remarkable experiences. Photograph such species and destinations and spread awareness about the same by sharing them on social media or writing about them
- Support holistic conservation goals: Encourage and support (through donations or volunteering) the work of individuals and organizations working on conserving lesser-known species and ecosystems outside the protected area network.
- Spread awareness: Read and learn about India’s lesser-known species and diverse ecosystems and share interesting facts about them with your friends and family. Write editorial letters, sign petitions, and share social media posts about protecting lesser-known species and ignored ecosystems.
By giving space in our hearts and minds to all species and ecosystems, we can usher in a new era of conservation whereby every species is given the conservation attention it deserves, ensuring that ecosystems across India are protected well so that the country is well-prepared to combat the scourges of climate change and other threats to the environment. Only a holistic approach of conserving India’s biodiversity can ensure stability and a bright future for the people of India.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are of the author solely. TheRise.co.in neither endorses nor is responsible for them. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.
About the author
Dr. Oishimaya Sen Nag is a wildlife conservation writer and editor at World Atlas, Canada. She has written several articles on issues related to wildlife conservation and interviewed renowned wildlife conservationists, wildlife biologists, and forest department officials working to protect wildlife across the world.