India’s current population of tigers at 3,167 is indeed a great achievement. According to the last census report, Status of Tigers in India-2018, it stood at 2,967. At the time of its launch on April 1, 1973, Project Tiger aimed to conserve the flagship species after it suffered a steady decline.

The final detailed tiger census report is yet to be published by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. “It will hopefully be out on July 29, the Global Tiger Day where the tiger numbers based on reserves will be shared,” said Dhammshil Ganvir, deputy director of Indravati Tiger Reserve in Bijapur, Chhattisgarh.

Among the states, Madhya Pradesh is called the tiger state with 526 animals. But there are challenges too. It must be analysed how India or even Madhya Pradesh will live with more tigers if the numbers keep on increasing in future.

India is not unknown to human-animal conflicts. Human-tiger conflicts arise as tigers move to other areas for marking territory, hunt cattle and even attack humans sometimes.

It is a challenge and there is a need to see how mitigation of conflict is possible if tiger numbers rise. Leading tiger expert Ullas Karath offers a solution.

In view of the rising human-animal conflict, local officials should quickly kill man-eating tigers instead of trying to first catch and release them again, he said. In some areas like Tadoba-Andhari and Umred Pauni Karhandla (Bhandara) of Maharashtra, the conflict is high.

According to Karanth, however, there are 380,000 square kilometres of “reserved forests” in India potentially capable of harbouring tigers. If all these areas can be well protected, the country can have 10,000 or more tigers.

“It is a question of expanding the protected area coverage into more reserved forests as well as encouraging tiger tourism in areas outside the forests onto private lands,” he added. There are 53 tiger reserves in India and over the years the country has earned millions from tiger tourism.

But as many tiger areas lie close to tribal habitats, it is a key concern. Tiger conservation is possible along with tribal welfare but not in the same place at the same time, warned Karanth.

“However, in many key habitats forest dwellers are volunteering to relocate if adequate welfare facilities are created for them. This win-win solution needs urgent attention. At present Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are working seriously in this direction,” the expert pointed out.

Ganvir feels the tiger population augmentation should be based on the carrying capacity of tiger reserves to tackle conflicts.

In Achanakmar Tiger Reserve of Chhattisgarh, which had five tigers according to the 2018 report, Lamturam Baiga said his father, who passed away a few years ago, used to accompany professional hunters at one time. He helped them build machans on trees for shooting the animals.

Lamturam is a resident of Bindawal village in Chhaparwa range which is under the shadow of displacement. “If the residents have to leave this place then they should get every facility outside. Villages inside Achanakmar have been relocated earlier. But if relocation is not possible, then it should be declared a revenue village.” Bindawal is a forest village and lacks high school, road, electricity and mobile network.

Nayan Saparia, a photographer based in Lormi, 67 km from Achanakmar, said of the 25 villages in the core area six have been shifted and resettled about 20 km away. Earlier, the compensation amount was Rs 10 lakh and now it has been revised to Rs 15 lakh.

He added that after relocation villagers have been given farm lands, and some have received even more land than what they originally owned. But still there are people unwilling to leave the jungle, especially the elderly ones.

Relocation helps create new areas for wildlife, especially tigers, said Rajnish K. Singh, deputy director of Pench Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. “It has been done in tiger reserves like Satpura, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Sanjay Dubri as well as Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary.”

Churan Shrivas, a resident of Bindawal village, told the reporter that talks about relocation are ongoing in Bindawal. “What is there inside the forest devoid of every facility? If we have to move ahead in life it is difficult to do so living inside the forest.” He, however, pointed out that many people who have been resettled in Khuria are facing issues as the land is of poor quality.

The common perception is that in many places people harbour an intolerable attitude towards tigers often stemming from fear. According to a research paper published in 2021, women living inside villages in the Sariska Tiger Reserve displayed a negative attitude towards the animal.

However, it is not that tigers are always seen as enemies. The Gonds tribals of Tadoba-Andhari worship tiger statues. Nature and culture are deeply entwined in the Indian tradition. Divya Khandal, a social entrepreneur who runs Dhonk in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve of Rajasthan, spoke about the popular art in the region, the Mandana paintings, which are executed on mud walls.

“Once it was extant in the area. The paintings capture wildlife in its glory. Animals, tigers, birds and even people with tigers are common themes. This is because people here accept animals as part of their culture.”

In present times, however, social justice is eluding forest dwellers and tribals in the name of wildlife conservation, especially tiger conservation. Perhaps that is why there is a negative attitude in some regions. People suffer due to restrictions put on them inside forest areas in the name of tiger protection.

Many conservationists in India are for the tiger. Their argument is that to reduce human-animal conflict, mitigation is needed, and the only way out is relocation. As tiger numbers are on the rise more displacement may be expected in the future.

With developmental activities and human settlements, conflict is also bound to increase in landscapes where people share space with tigers. “National parks are there to conserve wildlife. But as their numbers increase animals move out and use wildlife corridors.

The forest department is mandated with protection, but once free ranging animals move out, then comes the role of other departments too. Support is needed,” said Singh.

Trains often pose a challenge. Karanth proposes engineering solutions such as more tunnels as opposed to open tracks, rigidly enforced speed limits and installation of advance warning systems about approaching trains.

To reduce human-animal conflicts, conservation reserves are also important. The Alwar forest division is planning two such areas in Tijara and Kishangarh, 90 km from the Sariska Tiger Reserve.

“The department is trying to create a corridor here so that tigers from Sariska can disperse. There is a big block called Daulatpura which has no village and is thus inviolate. The conservation proposal has been sent to the state government for approval and is aimed at increasing the tiger landscape.

“Already ST 24 roams in Daulatpura. If males come, then females will follow too. If the department does not prepare for the future, conflicts will increase,” said Alwar divisional forest officer Apoorva Krishna.

According to wildlife conservationist Saad Jung, protection policies and efforts of the Indian government have resulted in great benefits to the revival of the tiger. But if the country has to go from 3,000 to say 8,000 there is a necessity to convince all people, and not just erstwhile forest dwellers, that they will need to share space with the animals.

DEEPANWITA GITA NIYOGI is an independent writer.

All Photographs by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi