GUWAHATI, Aug 21 � While the latest tiger count has estimated an increase in the big cat population in the country, including a noticeable rise in Assam, conservationists believe that long-term tiger conservation would remain a bleak proposition unless the issue of rapid loss and degradation of tiger habitat is addressed urgently.
The census recorded a staggering loss of over 20,000 sq. km of tiger habitat in just four years � from 72,800 sq. km in 2006 to 93,600 sq. km in 2010 � to encroachment and developmental activities across the country.
Conservationists view this as an extremely worrying trend which is effectively squeezing more and more tigers into small territories. Even worse could be the fact that there is hardly any contiguity between different habitats, so essential for helping the tiger populations to disperse and breed.
According to a senior forest official who wished anonymity, the healthy tiger count in Kaziranga, and to an extent in Nameri and Orang, should not make one blind to the growing destruction and fragmentation of critical tiger habitats. He also felt that the State Government needed to exhibit greater pro-activeness in ensuring that the subsequent additions to Kaziranga were settled and demarcated as early as possible.
�While there is no encroachment inside Kaziranga, the additions pending settlement due to court case are definitely prone to encroachment. Kaziranga�s thriving wildlife � including its big tiger population � urgently needs more areas, and the sooner these areas are added to the park, the better would it be for its long-term conservation goals,� he said.
Underlining the need for a pragmatic approach involving protection of habitat outside the protected areas, i.e., sanctuaries and national parks, the official said that there were reserve forests which were not just ideal wildlife territory but also provided buffer zones to protected areas besides acting as corridors between different forests and mitigating man-animal conflicts.
Dr PJ Bora of WWF-India who has been engaged in its Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Conservation Programme also feels that bringing in reserve forests � especially those with healthy wildlife populations or located in fringes of protected areas or forming animal corridors � under a protective mechanism should be a priority with the authorities.
Dr Bora said that the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong landscape was one of the few remaining contiguous belts of wildlife habitats of the State but the contiguity was being eroded by growing commercial activities and human settlements.
�Several important corridors lie in a highly degraded status but the silver lining is that we have been able to involve the local community in an afforestation drive aimed at restoring a degraded corridor and preventing further degradation of the existing corridors,� he said.
While the latest tiger census recorded a significant number of tigers outside protected areas, their number was falling at a rate much faster than their counterparts inside protected areas. In fact, the census acknowledges the rapid loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitat and corridors between protected areas as the biggest threat to the tiger�s survival.
�The prevailing situation exposes abysmal security measures in reserve forests. Our national parks and sanctuaries have some protection but reserve forests are entirely devoid of the required protection mechanism and infrastructure. This can change only if the Government takes serious note of its adverse impact on conservation,� the forest official said.
In Tamil Nadu, the Forest Department has started a drive to upgrade the protection of reserve forests outside Mudumalai. WWF-India and other NGOs, too, have been working towards conservation of reserve forests adjoining the Mudumalai-Bandipur landscape.
�A similar drive is needed to ensure that our reserve forests are better managed and protected. Unfortunately, reserve forests continue to lie at the bottom of the Government�s priority despite their importance,� the official said.
It is to be noted that Manas and Nameri tiger reserves have suffered substantial degradation over the years. It is only the smaller core areas of the two reserves, i.e., Manas National Park and Nameri National Park, that figure prominently in the conservation priorities of the Forest Department while the constituent reserve forests of the tiger reserves languish for want of attention.