Tiger day: The conservation of tigers and their natural habitats is crucial to maintain the health and diversity of an ecosystem.
International Tiger Day 2021: As the ongoing pandemic rages across India’s cities and villages, an ecological crisis persists to threaten the country’s wildlife habitats and forests. Rampant afforestation, shrinking animal corridors, incessant forest fires, endangered wildlife, and a depleting green cover are all signs of the dysfunctional relationship between human beings and the environment. To remind us of what we are losing out on in the name of progress, July 29 is celebrated as International Tiger Day. Grow-Trees.com is engaged with individuals, local communities, and corporations to plant millions of trees in the Tiger corridor of Madhya Pradesh and other areas. Though the organisation has planted over 8.5 million trees so far, the pandemic came as a push to expand their project manifold. About 2.6 million+ trees were planted in 2020 alone, with an aim to plant 7 million trees in 2021. In an exclusive conversation with Financial Express Online Pradip Shah, Cofounder, Grow-Trees.com talked about Tiger population in India, saving its habitat and biodiversity and more. Excerpts:
What are the biggest dangers that India’s tiger population is facing?
The All-India Tiger Estimation 2018 Report stated that the population of our country’s national animal stands at 2967. Another report by Management Effectiveness Evaluation (MEE) Of Tiger Reserves 2018 revealed that half of India’s 50 tiger reserves are threatened by linear infrastructures like roads, motorways, and railway lines. The findings of this report bring me to a very important question- Is it possible for India’s tiger population to increase while their habitats dwindle?
Less than a hundred years ago, tigers would meander through jungles and forests at leisure. However, India’s ever-increasing population, particularly since the 1940s, has contracted and splintered its former range into just a few hundred. Large-scale habitat destruction, deforestation, and decimation of prey species are some of the most distressing dangers India’s tiger population is facing today. Tigers require large territories for their survival and sustenance, however, road networks, hydel projects, and development schemes are all forcing them into a constricted habitat.
Hunting for decorative purposes, souvenirs, traditional Asian medicine, poaching, and the illegal trade of tigers have also brought their population to the brink of extinction. Instances of increasing man-tiger conflict is another reason contributing to their shrinking numbers. Wildlife corridors are often threatened by infrastructure projects and villagers residing in or near tiger reserves. This causes tigers to venture into human settlements which are followed by attacks on domestic animals, and sometimes rural communities. In retaliation, tigers are tortured and killed by infuriated villagers.
In terms of numbers, are tigers in danger of facing extinction?
Tigers are one of the most magnificent and heavily poached creatures in our country. Due to the unremitting pressure from poaching, trade, habitat loss, and retaliatory killings, the declining tiger population garnered significant attention from government bodies and media coverage. The aforementioned factors are also the leading cause of wiping out 97% of our tiger population over the last century.
According to the Tiger Estimation Report, the country’s tiger population was 2967 in 2018 (wildlife habitats). This displays a steady increase in the number of tigers as it represents a 30% rise compared to the 2014 report which pegged their population at 2226. The tiger population was estimated to be 1411 in 2006 and 1706 in 2010.
The increasing numbers should encourage us to pursue tiger conservation and habitat restoration with the same unwavering commitment. We should take pride in the fact that India is home to over 60% of the global tiger population. Ever since the launch of Project Tiger in 1973, our efforts have only strengthened. Needless to say, the numbers will continue to rise if we keep on with regular afforestation practices and increased awareness about tiger conservation.
What can be done to reduce conflicts between human populations and tigers?
Deforestation and persecution are the primary causes for the decline in the tiger population of our country. To reduce conflicts between human populations and tigers, destruction and divergence of forest land need to be prevented at all costs. Loss of habitat and fragmentation of forests is the root cause of man-animal conflicts. When we invade natural habitats for commercial purposes, we fail to realize that we’re uprooting an entire ecosystem. We seem to turn a blind eye to environmental health and the wide variety of plants and animals that will be severely affected because of these activities.
In addition to this, the rural and tribal communities also face the brunt of our insensitive approach towards the environment. When wildlife corridors are blocked, tigers stray into neighboring human settlements which results in the destruction of crops and livestock and increases the chances of conflict with the villagers. Thus, educating local communities on how to tackle such situations is also an efficient way to handle the increasing problems of man-animal conflict.
Wildlife corridors are often threatened by linear infrastructure and other anthropogenic activities. Tigers and other wildlife populations will not be jeopardized by modern development if thoughtful spatial planning is constructively used to avoid encroaching natural habitats and their linkages. The creation of no-go zones and strict consequences for the construction of infrastructure in tiger areas must be observed.
Planting a barrier of crops that repel tigers or other barrier measures can be devised to keep them away from human settlements. For instance, barriers made of wooden poles, wire mesh, and nylon have been installed to prevent tigers from entering the villages in Sunderban.
How critical are wildlife and especially tiger habitats for overall ecological balance and biodiversity?
The conservation of tigers and their natural habitats is crucial to maintain the health and diversity of an ecosystem. Being one of the most dominant predators, tigers are at the apex of the food chain and keep the population of wild ungulates in control, ensuring a healthy balance between herbivorous prey and the plants they feed on. A decline in tiger population would lead to an increase in the number of herbivores in the ecosystem which could be a potential cause of forest disintegration. A fall in the tiger population would be the precursor of the fall of an entire ecosystem.
We live in a time when problems of climate change give rise to a new environmental hazard every day. Conservation of wildlife habitats is not just important for the biodiversity of a region; it will also offer a variety of ecological services in terms of carbon storage value. Natural habitats need to be protected to ensure carbon sequestration. According to the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) approach, forests need to be actively used as carbon sinks to address climate change.
Tiger habitats overlap with globally important ecosystems. These areas that host a large variety of plant and animal species offer goods and services that a large number of people rely on. Healthy tiger habitats will help to mitigate climate change, provide water to wildlife and people, and reduce the effect of natural disasters, thereby enhancing the health of local communities.
As a result, natural habitats must be preserved not only to conserve a specific animal species but also to preserve biodiversity and the ecological benefits that come with an ecosystem as a whole.
How important is it to engage local communities in afforestation projects to expand wildlife habitats?
Forests are home to a large number of local and tribal communities for whom forests and natural resources have a material and cultural significance. From food and water to recreation and traditional beliefs, these communities have indisputable regard for forests and trees. The local communities of any particular region are well-versed with all the important factors that need to be considered during afforestation projects. These factors include site selection, species choice, site preparation, geographical conditions, and traditional practices. Valuable inputs from local communities and village institutions ensure that plantation projects are carried out in the most efficient and sustainable manner.
Engaging local communities also leads to the generation of employment and provides an extra source of income to villagers and farmers. Locals can consume the food and forest products and also sell them to earn extra revenue.
It is for the same reason that Grow-Trees.com involves local communities in every step of the plantation process. Whether it’s the upkeep of saplings and providing them adequate water or nutrition or setting up social boundaries, we ensure that the local communities are thoroughly engaged in all our plantation projects across the country. Their active involvement helps us empower rural communities while offering livelihood opportunities for a better living. This also allows us to educate them on some of the benefits of planting trees that they may be unaware of, as well as reaffirm the more common ones.
Mrs.Devi, one of the most ardent nursery workers from our afforestation project in Villupuram says that she “experienced a significant change in her family lifestyle and felt dignified to work in an organizational atmosphere. Her work is also looked up to by many others in her community. Besides working in the nursery field, she is now able to contribute to her children’s education and health and is also able to live a fulfilled life with her family.”
What tangible positive changes has Grow-Trees.com seen after planting trees in and around tiger habitats?
Ever since its inception, Grow-Trees.com has introduced several projects in 23 Indian states. The positive changes in the environment and biodiversity have constantly encouraged us to pursue our plantation projects with renewed passion and spirit every year. Each plantation site has reported a drastic improvement in the environmental condition, quality of natural habitats, and availability of water. Some of the noteworthy changes are mentioned below.
The Project-Trees for Tigers in Sariska Tiger Reserve has brought about the plantation of 400,000+ trees in hamlets located at the periphery of the reserve. Plantations in this region aim to improve the natural habitat of the tigers in Rajasthan that have been severely affected by poaching and infrastructure development.
The Forest Department stated that the tigers ST6 and T10 were spotted in the project area along with an increase in the population of peacocks and deer because of the commendable restoration of habitat. Plantation in this area also involved the revival of water bodies and helped the locals who were struggling to fetch water which was at a level of 400 feet under the ground. With the help of the plantation and the revival work, the water level now stands at barely 40 feet. This project has brought the local communities together to rejuvenate the land and wildlife by planting trees, setting up nurseries, and building and maintaining ponds. The villagers who were forced to travel miles to get usable water now have easy access to the same in their village.
The Project-Trees for Tigers in Ramtek, Maharashtra has also shown a significant improvement in the environment and the health of the local communities of the region. The locals can utilize the NTFPs like fruits, tendu leaves, twigs, and fodder for consumption and livelihood purposes. The beneficiaries are mostly women, who say the project has empowered them as well as provided them with the option to work in the vicinity of their homes. The project involves 70 households, creating 3000 workdays for the labor force, of which 70% are women. The project will discourage the villagers from participating in illegal activities like poaching by providing them with a steady source of income from the forest produce. It will deter wild animals such as wild boars, leopards, and other wild cats from straying into human settlements and destroying personal property and croplands by developing a dense buffer zone.
Tell us how afforestation drives are strategized and carried out for the maximum benefit of animal and human populations?
Considering that forests house a treasure trove of benefits for the animal and human population, there is a lot of planning and preparation that goes into devising afforestation drives. While the location is an important part of this process, soil, rainfall, climate and geography, the impact of biophysical, socio-economic, institutional, and policy management aspects also play a key role in a project’s success.
Afforestation efforts can be quite beneficial. However, at the same time, due to reasons such as poor planning, lack of technical skill, or planting with species that are not suited to their habitat, they can fail or achieve only limited success.
Thus, it is very important to ensure all facts affecting plantations, the environment, biodiversity, and human populations are taken into account to achieve the maximum benefits from plantation activities.
With the vision of restoring the ecosystem with trees, Grow-Trees.com has led multiple plantation projects across 23 states of India along with the most recent project in Uganda. The projects are classified based on the most pressing issue in a particular region. The various themes that we support are Trees for Forests and Wildlife, Trees for Himalayan Biodiversity, Trees for Rivers, Trees for Tribal Communities, and Trees for Urban Landscape. The trees we plant will augment rural incomes, provide flowers, fruit, fodder, and fuel to communities and living creatures, offer shade to nomads and their livestock, give shelter to wildlife, prevent soil erosion and flooding, improve water catchment, generate oxygen, remove pollution, reduce carbon in the atmosphere and fight climate change.Our projects are an outcome of thorough research work to address the most pressing issues in different parts of India. Almost every Indian state is battling with a distinct environmental issue; while the cosmopolitan cities are in dire need of pollution control, the rural sectors are in search of solutions for forest fires, man-animal conflict, and climate change.
Before coming up with a project, we organize several meetings with the local and tribal communities, village institutions, and forest departments to understand the most important issue in the region. The projects are then devised to suit the rural communities and the biodiversity of the area.
To achieve our targets and benefit the rural sector while doing so, we involve the villagers and farmers in the plantation activities as they are well-versed with the needs of the people and the requirement of the region. We also conduct independent audits of our plantation sites to ensure that the plantation activities are conducted in a befitting way.
What are some of the challenges faced by you during these plantation drives?
The success of plantation drives is majorly dependent on weather, pests, and continued maintenance. It is a time-consuming process and the cost to reforest is usually higher than the current land use. In addition to this, thorough research work is also required to select plant species that are best suited to a particular soil type and geographical location. Cultural heritage and species adaptability also need to be considered while conducting this activity.
Forest fires, whether they are naturally caused or human-induced pose a great challenge during plantation drives. Wildfire not just leads to the removal of trees, it also kills and displaces wildlife, disrupts the water cycle and soil fertility, and puts the life and livelihood of locals in jeopardy. A great deal of time, energy, effort, and manpower are required to make up for the unforeseen damage.
While the world was under the clasp of COVID-19, Grow-Trees.com encountered its share of challenges. Visiting our plantation sites, ensuring that the existing plantation is tended to properly, traveling amidst the pandemic, getting permissions for transportation, and arranging for adequate resources were a few challenges that we faced initially.
Our efforts eventually led to the plantation of about 2.6 million trees in 2020 alone.