In a staggering conservation success, India’s tigers have increased in number from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,226 at last count, and fingers are crossed that the 2018 All India Tiger Estimation will reveal a stable or even bigger population. But tigers depend upon quality tree cover, which is desperately hard to sustain in a country with over 1.3 billion people and a booming economy.
How best to protect India’s forests is the subject of intense debate. But all who have studied and worked on the issue agree that the forests and treed landscapes where tigers live are among the key priorities.
Protecting tigers and their habitats “secure[s] the natural capital and ecosystem services required to underpin economic expansion,” says the World Wildlife Fund. It’s also crucial for the nation’s human population: about 600 rivers arise in or are fed by tiger reserves, producing water for hundreds of millions of Indians. Corbett Tiger Reserve, the oldest in the country, purifies drinking water for Delhi, the capital and a megacity of 19 million.
There is a further vital argument that is not immediately apparent. India’s forest landscapes would fare far less well without the big cats. Forests with tigers are in better health and richer in carbon than those without. There is less illegal extraction of lumber. The forests are a mecca for tourists, which creates jobs. And the scrutiny and oversight by the government are greater.
The presence of predators also has a beneficial effect that was documented most famously in Yellowstone Park. The reintroduction of wolves there in 1995 after their eradication in the 1920s, triggered a trophic cascade that restored the park, whose ecosystem had been damaged by an unchecked elk population. By hunting the elk, the wolves allowed aspen and other vegetation to return. Erosion diminished, rivers ran clean and the park recovered.
Dino Martins, who directs Princeton University’s Mpala Research Center in Kenya, has witnessed similar positive effects of lions in that country He says the importance of predators is generalizable, an axiom of ecology. Earth’s habitats, he says, “are built around invisible rules that have come about from tens of millions of years of species co-existing,” says Martins, who studied with E.O. Wilson. “Removing key players like tigers has a ripple effect on all other species. Having them in place creates a healthier ecosystem.”
But how can tigers and, with them, their valuable landscapes be sustained? Preventing poaching and community education are two obvious ways to reduce tiger deaths, which currently occur at about two a week. But agroforestry and forested corridors that allow tigers to move safely between one reserve and another are probably the most fundamental.
Agroforestry is the deliberate integration of trees with crops and livestock. An ancient practice, it is now high on the science and development agenda. Carefully selected for their functional traits such as the ability to fix nitrogen, the trees provide shade, a more clement microclimate, greater soil fertility and ability to hold water, a refuge for pollinators and birds and insects that control pests, and other so-called “ecosystem services.”
The trees also provide a myriad of vital goods such as fuel, poles, fruit, nuts, timber and food for livestock, reducing the need for rural people to degrade forests and, in the case of India, reducing the risk that they will encounter tigers. Faced with people, tigers usually slink away; but along with leopards and lions, tigers kill an estimated 70 Indians a year.
None of this is theoretical to Lakshmi Bomachar, 26. It is her daily life. The young farmer lives near Pench Tiger reserve in Central India. The reserve is some distance from her home, and she says she is not frightened to be out at dusk—the time of day, along with dawn, when tigers hunt. But later, the veterinarian for the reserve, Akhilesh Mishra, acknowledges that the area “is loaded with tigers.”
Lakshmi is a committed member of a tree planting program. Its aim is to improve the habitat for tigers and the well-being of people in and near a corridor that runs from Pench to Kanha Tiger Reserve. Led by the Indian social enterprise organization Grow-Trees.com, it also creates jobs in nurseries and tending trees. As the light fades, she checks on a seedling she planted under the program. Patting its leaves, she says “It’s like raising a child.”
Renewing forested corridors to make them more attractive for both tigers and their prey is essential because tigers must disperse. “Even if just one or two sub-adult males manage to make it through a corridor and breed in a new area, the genetic benefit is huge,” says Jonathan Scott of BBC’s Big Cats Diary. “None of our tiger populations are large enough unless they are connected.”” says Anish Andheria, the charismatic scientist who leads the Indian NGO Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Grow-Trees.com also offers farmers like Lakshmi a selection of trees to plant around their homes and in fields to reduce their dependency on the forests themselves. India has the largest cattle population in the world, and rural folk graze their livestock within them. They also take forest products to sell and for their own subsistence.
With any luck, besides making Lakshmi safer, the practice of agroforestry will improve the productivity of her farm, make her more prosperous and relieve her of the burden of collecting fuel over long distances. “We have to wean people off forests and move to agroforestry,” says Andheria. Reeling off other benefits of agroforestry, he says hedges of trees around farms can keep away wildlife that stray out of forests, and produce fodder that can be cut and carried to cattle tethered on farms. Currently most Indian cattle roam freely, browsing and trampling regenerating trees. “Grazing is a very inefficient way of using forest. The biggest enemy of the forest is grazing and fuel wood collection.”
Every tree planted under the Grow-Trees.com program belongs to the community, a fact that has won over Lakshmi’s village, Karwahi. And the organization has proof that its model pleases tigers too. One corridor replenished with new trees is already attracting tigers back. "Foresters have found a tiger frequenting the area of our Trees for Tigers project in Rajasthan," says Grow-Trees.com founder, Pradip Shah, referring to his NGO’s work in another Indian state. There is clear evidence that tiger prey is plentiful inside reserves, and that tigers are breeding well. And the Indian government has adopted a landmark National Agroforestry Policy to incentivize farmers to plant trees on their land, which should relieve pressure on natural forest.
Nevertheless, the going remains hard. Almost daily, scientists like Andheria and veterinarians like Mishra bear the shock of bad news. Tigers are electrocuted by poachers who put out live wires to kill boar and deer. “Villagers used pesticide to kill two tigers who had killed a cow,” said a forest guard in Lakshmi’s village. And the corridors themselves are under threat.
“Corridors are thinning, and changes like widening roads adversely affect large cats’ natural instinct to disperse,” says Naveen Pandey, another veterinarian who is also Corbett Foundation’s deputy director. The result can be deadly. On December 29, “T2,” a father of over 20 cubs and the dominant male in his reserve, was killed on a road that should have been designed to allow safe passage. “The forest department’s hard work of protecting T2 for over eight years was undone by another arm of government as it ignored the need for underpasses,” tweeted Andheria. “Experts blamed lack of planning by the highway authority,” said the Times of India.
“This government is very pro-development,” explains Rahul Khot, curator of the Bombay Natural History Society. “We are seeing very fast change. Certain laws have been diluted. Before, 90 percent of landholders had to consent to a development; now it’s only 50 percent. There’s tremendous pressure.” India's growing population is expected to peak at 1.7 billion in 2060.
But broad principles exist as to how restore a tiger corridor, even if Andheria says “reviving a dead one is a helluva job.” “Use science from the beginning,” says Khot. And work with the local people. “We spent a year just to gel,” says Grow-Trees.com’s Bikrant Tiwary.
Other good practices are promoting agroforestry on farms around the corridor; rooting out invasive species, like the Central American plant Lantana camara, which suppresses other plants and creates a thorny tangle through which even tigers struggle to move; encouraging a wide range of forest trees. Madhya Pradesh has an impressive 168 species of trees. Forests stands or expanses of single species are inimical to wildlife: “Plantations of teak could well be the single biggest cause of loss of biodiversity,” says Pradip Krishen, author of a magisterial book The Jungle Trees of Central India.
“It would be very easy to say, ‘what’s the point?’ says, big-cat zoologist Jonathan Scott. But he and other advocates for tigers and sustainable development in India feel nothing of the sort. Even tough-talking Andheria is upbeat. “Despite the Herculean problems we face in India—inequity, drying rivers, raging unemployment, hostile neighbors—a large carnivore that is considered dangerous to humans is allowed to do well. While we can’t bathe in this success forever, to have wild tigers do well right into the 21st century is astounding.”