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Tiger conservation needs a financial stress test

How the funds for tiger conservation are invested has become a process largely devoid of ecological or economic logic

Tigers can breed rapidly if their natural habitats recover. Photo: Michael Vickers
Tigers can breed rapidly if their natural habitats recover. Photo: Michael Vickers

India has done far more for tiger recovery than any other country in the species range across Asia. The persistence of conservationists, vision of leaders like Indira Gandhi and hard work of foresters during the 1970s and 1980s, should all be credited.

But the sobering fact remains that less than 3,000 wild tigers now occur in scattered small populations within the 300,000 sq. km of remaining potential habitat. If tigers recovered and occupied this entire area, at an average density of five tigers/100 sq. km, 15,000 tigers could still roam our forests. Leaving that utopian vision aside, if just a third of this area is well-protected, a goal of 5,000 wild tigers can still be set. Because protected deciduous forests and alluvial grasslands, which form two-thirds of potential habitat, can support high densities of 10-15 tigers per 100 sq. km, the above goal is reasonable.

But the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has never set such management goals nor established rigorous metrics of progress towards them. Any business run in this manner would have lost investor confidence.

Progress in implementing this vision, which requires making more room for tigers, deserves a closer look.

Village relocation in Nagarhole has opened up new avenues for forest dwellers. Photo: Eleanor Briggs

Conservation funds in excess of Rs30,000 crore have accumulated from environmental penalties. Executing generous village relocations is now quite feasible because changing social aspirations have led to an upsurge in demand for relocation from forest-dwellers in many remote areas. Sadly, however, not even a tiny fraction of the huge corpus available is being spent to meet this need.

As important, economic analyses can show a net social saving in the form of avoided “development expenditure"—on roads, power lines, schools, hospitals and job opportunities—which would otherwise have to be delivered at high per capita cost to such remote communities.

This is not a utopian vision either. The Madhya Pradesh government, collaborating with corporate foundations, has achieved impressive success in several tiger reserves. Maharashtra too has pumped in state funds. The problem is that such projects are not based on systemic, policy-based responses. They are just the clear-headed initiatives of a handful of officials, politicians and non-governmental organizations.

Across India, the conservation-relocation scenario is patchy and stagnant. After a promising start in the late 1990s in Karnataka, beneficiary-demanded resettlement in Nagarahole, one of India’s best tiger habitats, has stalled in the face of official apathy. In the Kudremukh reserve, one of the largest blocks of rainforests in the Western Ghats, desperate families are now forced to seek relocation through courts. Karnataka is a rich state, flush with tax revenue and environmental penalty funds. But its officials and politicians appear to be satisfied with flaunting tiger recoveries achieved by their predecessors in the 1970s and 1980s, with no thought for the future. Even worse is the stagnation in the Mudumalai reserve in adjacent Tamil Nadu, despite decades of demand from desperate local communities.

Substantial funds are now flowing into tiger reserves from Central and state governments, multilateral aid, corporate and non-profit organizations. These are largely expended on needless civil works, excessive habitat manipulation, the purchase of useless gadgetry, and “eco-development", which duplicates what is already being done by other government agencies. Unsurprisingly, it has led to the creation of more posts for officials. Where and how tiger conservation funds are invested has become a process largely devoid of ecological or economic logic.

After assuming power at the Centre and several key “tiger states", the present National Democratic Alliance government has tried to trim red tape and improve economic efficiencies in planning, finance, railways, transport, and even delivery of social benefits. The philosophy is to inject new ideas and enterprise into governance.

However, the wildlife sector in general—and tiger conservation in particular—continues to present a stark contrast. With tax revenue rising, the tiger bureaucracy too has grown. More and more money pouring into ecologically unsound schemes has become the norm. Like earlier, neither objective tiger conservation goals nor rigorous metrics of success or failure are specified. Even the scientific endeavour of tiger research and monitoring has been turned into a wasteful, mediocre government monopoly.

In a governance context where even credible scientific institutions (under the department of science and technology, department of biotechnology, department of atomic energy and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) are being forced to take financial stress tests, economic inefficiencies in tiger conservation are proliferating. As a long-term observer of this scene, I believe that the tiger conservation endeavour deserves imposition of an even tougher economic stress test. I hope the NDA government will impose one: if not for the love of tigers, at least to promote economic efficiency. Tigers and people can both benefit from money that can be put to better use.

The writer is director for science, Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society.

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