From HT Archives: The project that brought the tiger back from brink | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

From HT Archives: The project that brought the tiger back from brink

ByJayashree Nandi, New Delhi
Apr 06, 2024 05:52 AM IST

India's Project Tiger, launched in 1973 with a budget of ₹4 crore, aimed to protect the tiger population. Today, India has over 3,000 tigers.

India’s ambitious journey to conserve the tiger, the apex predator and a symbol of India’s rich natural and cultural heritage, started on April 1, 1973 with the launch of the Project Tiger.

The project was launched from the Corbett National Park. (HT Archive)
The project was launched from the Corbett National Park. (HT Archive)

Several experts have said over the years that the tiger would have been extinct if not for the project that sought to protect both the animal and its large habitat in India.

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Launched by then tourism and civil aviation minister Karan Singh at Corbett National Park, the scheme had a budget of 4 crore at the time, and was designed to provide nine viable and safe reserves in the country to nurture and raise the dwindling population of 1,800 tigers in India.

Today there are 3,167 tigers, up from 2,967 in 2018 according to Tiger Population Estimation figures released by the Union environment ministry last year. India has more than 70% of the world’s wild tigers, and the population is increasing at an annual rate of 6%.

Between 1979 and 2002, there were between 3,000 and 4,300 tigers according to data with the environment ministry but the numbers started slipping again after that.

Aptly, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who conceived Project Tiger wrote that the plan was “a comment on our long neglect of the environment as well as …most welcome concern for saving one of nature’s most magnificent endowments”, according to the Indira Gandhi, a Life in Nature by senior Congress leader and former environment minister, Jairam Ramesh.

The project aimed to ensure the complete protection of the species in nine reserves selected for various scientific, economic, aesthetic, cultural and ecological reasons. The reserves were Manas (Assam), Palamau (Bihar), Simlipal (Orissa), Corbett (Uttar Pradesh), Melghat (Maharashtra), Bandipur (Mysore), and Sundarbans (West Bengal).

The project laid down that there would be no commercial exploitation of the habitat in these reserves for the next six years and anti-poaching operations would be strengthened.

Dr Karan Singh said at the time that in each reserve there would be a well-preserved inner core where no felling of trees, grazing of cattle, or movement of people. Indira Gandhi, in her message, also said the tiger could not be preserved in isolation — its habitat, threatened by human intrusion, commercial forestry, and cattle-grazing must first be made inviolate. “Forestry practices, designed to squeeze the last rupee out of our jungles, must be radically reoriented at least within our national parks and sanctuaries, and pre-eminently in the tiger reserves... is it beyond our political will and administrative ingenuity to set aside about one or two per cent of our forests in their pristine glory for this purpose?” she asked.

The area covered by the project has grown in leaps and bounds since. The initial coverage of the Project Tiger included the nine tiger reserves mentioned above spread over 18,278 sq km. Today there are 53 tiger reserves covering more than 75,000 sq km (approximately 2.4% of the country’s geographical area) of tiger habitat under the project. “These tiger reserves are repositories for biodiversity conservation in the country ensuring regional water security and carbon sequestration thereby contributing in accomplishing India’s climate change mitigation targets,” the environment ministry said in a note last year.

The project attracted the active support of the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and the World Wild Life Fund, which raised $1 million for this project in the 1970s.

“In the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Conference of 1969 which was inaugurated by the then PM, Mrs Indira Gandhi a grave concern was raised by many of us. I also attended that conference on behalf of the MP government. Many of us raised the matter of Tiger, that it was gravely threatened. The conservation community pledged a million dollars to start something called Operation Tiger which was renamed Project Tiger. The million dollars which was collected by the Wildlife Fund for Nature and others was paid in instalments to the government and subsequently in 1972 it was resolved to start Project Tiger,” reminisced MK Ranjitsinh, former bureaucrat and one of the main architects of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, in an interview with HT last year.

“One of the main criteria was whether under the umbrella of Project Tiger we could save other critically endangered species. The tiger we used as the flagship species and we hoped under the ramifications of Project Tiger we would save diverse habitat, the endangered species and that criteria was very useful. It was not a blind thing of tiger but to use the tiger to save something more valuable — habitat of the tiger. I don’t judge Project Tiger by only the number of tigers. I think that has caused certain deficiencies. Every field director regards tiger numbers as a matter of survival…you had absurd figures in some places…Tiger is not the be all and end all of the project but definitely the front-runner. It’s a failure that people go to reserves only to ogle at tigers. This was not the vision,” Ranjitsinh added.

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