Keeping the stripes on the tiger

News of the new tiger estimation in India, the last stronghold of the great cat, has brought some relief. The numbers are up, though better methods and techniques may have helped. Paradoxically, the same survey shows a shrinkage of the habitat needed to sustain wild populations of the tiger with prey and cover intact.
In a sense the latter matters more than mere numbers. It is easy to ignore but vital to recall that stable breeding populations of a species in secure habitats are more important than absolute numbers.

It matters less that there are around 1,700 tigers and not 1,400 as of four years ago. It matters more that a fair number are in contiguous tracts where they can live, breed and hunt unimpeded.
Ecologists and scientists, policymakers and citizens alike will debate the fate of the tiger with more abandon now that the results are in. It is sobering to think of the sheer effort that governments put into attempting the reverse of what they are now trying to do. For decades under the Raj, a lot of time, effort and energy went into wiping out large wild animals.
Conflicts with carnivores were not new. Tigers, or for that matter lions or wolves, do prey on domestic livestock. Akbar hunted and killed a tigress with white tiger cubs, the first such recorded instance. Rani Durgavati of central India was renowned for tracking and hunting down tigers that ate humans.
But it was in the aftermath of the Revolt of 1857, to help pacify and control the countryside in general, and forest areas in particular, that rewards were distributed across British India. The aim was simple: to give incentives to kill as many “dangerous beasts” as possible. Proof of a kill led to cash rewards, with larger bounties for females and cubs.
Such antipathy was not new. The tiger had long been seen by the British in India as symbolic of a savage and untamed tropical nature that defied the divine order of things. Writing the same year the Company forces routed the Nawab of Bengal at Palashi (Plassey) in 1757, Edmund Burke had intoned how “the prodigious strength” of the striped cat was mainly “for purposes of rapine and destruction”.
The numbers are proof enough of the spread and earlier abundance in many areas of large wild vertebrates. Over a 50-year period ending 1925, an average of 1,600 tigers, tigresses and cubs were killed every year. It was around the time its number declined that the big cat won advocates who urged restraint on its massacre.
This was also a time of intense conflict between humans and wild animals as roughly 1,500 people a year, and a much larger number of cattle, were prey for tigers. The fatalities on either side were not evenly distributed across the empire but varied in time, place, and even season. But for long such war on the tiger was seen as making the countryside safe for human habitation.
Tigers were not shot as often as trapped, snared or poisoned. Shooting required quality weapons and here the civil and military officers, as well as the princes, chipped in. Record numbers ended up as trophies, each large beast carefully measured and weighed, with its skin often becoming a rug.
This thirst for trophies could lead elite hunters to amass great “bags”.
The record is held by the late Ramanuj Saran Singh Deo of Sarguja who shot 1,157 tigers. For good measure His Highness also “took” 2,000 leopards.
The skins were status symbols. A couplet early in the last century put it aptly, if in a sexist way. “Would you like to sin with Elinor Glynn/ on a tiger skin/ or would you rather prefer her on some other kind of fur?”
If for much of the Raj era the conquest of the tiger was an affirmation of imperium, its revival would be part of a national effort to recuperate a heritage for the nation. Despite flaws, it is easy to forget that India (like Nepal) was an early trendsetter among Asian nations.
The Soviet Union alone was ahead of the South Asians in protecting its tigers, but not so the East Asian countries or China.
Yet the tiger is not alone. Nor should or can it be. The Indian effort from 1973 on was to see it as the “apex of the ecological pyramid”.
It would be a guardian of order in the monsoon forest, a flagship that would rally attempts to protect ecosystems in situ in their entirety.
Such long history of direct conflict was accompanied by indirect contests for living space. The latter have now quickened. Mines and canals, cultivated, arable lands and townships transform the landscape.
True, they will endure in only a fraction of the entire landscape but how that fraction is set aside will test our ability to manage the land itself.
Ending the war on the tiger was easier. But can we craft a durable peace?
Keeping the stripes on the tiger may be a lot tougher than wiping it off the face of the earth.

Mahesh Rangarajan is an environmental historian

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