A wild Bengal tiger in India. Photo by Morgan Erickson-Davis.
A hundred years ago, there were thirteen times as many tigers in the world as there are today, ranging from Turkey across the Eurasian continent to the eastern coast of Russia. The 13 countries that contain the world’s last tigers today – a mere, 2,500 mature individuals – are challenged with increasing protected tiger habitat to prevent crowding and inbreeding, while facing extreme funding and space constraints. One state in India, however, has found a cost-effective way to give tigers more room.
Karnataka is the seventh-largest Indian state by area, occupying 5.8 percent of India’s total landmass. It has a population of about 61 million people and also more than 400 tigers at last count. There are 22 protected areas in the state, all designated during the mid 1970s, most of which are now unconnected due to large infrastructure and population booms in recent years.
Through extended negotiations and deft planning, scientists and conservationists in the region have now expanded the protected area network in Karnataka from 3.8 to 5.2 percent of the state’s geographical area. Rather than appropriate new land for the establishment of new national parks – a difficult and often unsuccessful process – the team, led by Sanjay Gubbi of the State Board of Wildlife, achieved a remarkable expansion of 2,400 square kilometers (926 square miles) by reclassifying existing reserve or multiple-use forests, and appending them to the protected area network.
According to Gubbi’s study published in March 2015 in the Journal Oryx, reserve, state or minor forests, which have multiple uses and are already owned by the Forest Department, can be designated relatively uncomplicatedly as protected areas under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
Malai Mahadeshwara Wildlife Sanctuary, which became Karnataka’s 23rd protected area in the recent expansion. Photo courtesy of Iorapro
Gubbi and colleagues initially identified 4,767 square kilometers (1,840 square miles) of these special forests outside and abutting the current protected area network. Data from the Karnataka State Remote Sensing Applications Center, which has digitized all of Karnataka’s forests, was used to examine these areas on small spatial scales. Gubbi’s team looked for small critical corridors between protected areas to connect them, as well as large standalone tracts of forest that would support self-sustaining populations of tigers given improvements in protection, in addition to connecting existing national parks.
This analysis of suitability and connectivity resulted in the identification of 2,597 square kilometers (1,002 square miles) for reclassification within the protected area system. These additions produced four contiguous protected area complexes that include the expanded versions of the 22 original protected areas, as well as one entirely new protected area. When protected areas are connected to each other, they can decrease the ratio of the perimeter of the region to its area, which was observed in this expansion.
The planning of these expansions took 33 months, between November 2011 and July 2014, and involved 13 meetings with local populations.
Network of protected areas, and protected area complexes in the Western Ghats in southern India. Image courtesy of Gubbi et al. Click to enlarge.
“Initially a proposal is mooted either by a conservation scientist or the state forest department,” explained Sanjay Gubbi in an interview with mongabay.com. “Then the state forest department sends it to the field level officers for their opinion. The proposal is then placed in front of the State Board for Wildlife, which is chaired by the Chief Minister of the state. Once the approval of the state board is obtained the government issues the notification.”
Kaushik Mukherjee, the Chief Secretary of Karnataka and an author on the paper, emphasized the improvement both in the quality and sustainability of protection in the future that this expansion affords.
“This task was quite difficult and very surprisingly, almost all the opposition came from within the forest department itself rather than political interference,” said Chief Secretary Mukherjee in an interview with mongabay.com. “Yes we have shown a way for conservation and this is no empty boast. The fact that Karnataka harbours a 400+ tiger population (the largest in the country and 25% of the country’s total) speaks volumes for our simple low-cost approach.”
The four conservation complexes that have been expanded are Bhimgad-Anshi by 12.1 percent, Sharavathi-Kudremukha by 25.5 percent, Shettihalli-Bhadra by 38.5 percent, and Bannerghatta-Nagarhole by 34 percent. The overall protected area network grew by 28.5 percent or 2,385.6 square kilometers; since the publication of this paper, the outstanding notification of the Shettihalli-Bhadra complex has also been completed. Many of these complexes are contiguous with forests in the neighboring states of Goa, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
“I think Karnataka is unique in this sense. I am not aware of any other state [that] is doing [this] at this large scale,” Gubbi told mongabay.com.
The cost of global tiger protection
Tiger Conservation Landscapes (TCLs) are large blocks of contiguous areas of suitable tiger habitat in which tiger presence has been confirmed within the last decade and that can support a minimum of five adults. Areas of high human influence are necessarily considered unsuitable, but tigers are generalists and can surprisingly survive unobtrusively in fairly disturbed habitats. However, they require a large area to breed, disperse and maintain natural territories; only 21 percent of all TCLs are within protected areas.
A 2010 study by Joe Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society and other top large cat conservationists identified 42 sites with more than 25 breeding female tigers, and termed these “source sites” or sites with the ability to repopulate the 1.5 million square kilometers of tiger habitat that remains available. Their detailed analysis calculated that it would cost $82 million a year to protect all 42 source sites ($930 per square kilometer).
India’s Western Ghats show multiple TCLs. One of in these is categorized as a Tx2 TCL, which means that it could double the wild tiger population by 2020 through effective management. It straddles the states of Karnataka (outlined in light green) and Kerala to the south. However, its forests are impacted by human encroachment, with data from Global Forest Watch showing more than half of Karnataka’s 25,000-hectare, 2001-2013 tree cover loss occurred in its Tx2 TCL.
The researchers also showed that, globally, about $47 million ($500 per square kilometer) was being committed to tiger-conservation by range-state governments, international donors and NGOs. However, the bulk of government commitment is being spent in India, which when excluded leaves an overall shortfall in spending of $35 million a year for all source sites.
To put things in perspective, Americans spent 211 times this amount – USD 7.4 billion – on Halloween costumes and related purchases in 2014 alone.
India’s Western Ghats is a biodiversity hotspot – as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and scientists estimate the mountainous region is home to around 1,800 species found nowhere else in the world – many of which are threatened. Protection of tiger habitat not only helps tigers, but also boosts protection for other wildlife species, such as Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and lion-tailed macaques (Macaca silenus), both listed as Endangered by the IUCN.
“The areas now designated as protected areas not only support wildlife but are vital watersheds and include the complex hydrological regimes of 16 rivers,” the authors write.
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