Updated: Jun 15
Was Project Tiger really as successful as it is made out to be?
By tradition, the management of wildlife resources in India has highlighted single species. Single-species conservation rose to popularity as a convenient ecologically-based approach to spatial conservation prioritisation. Ecologically, it was rooted in the notion that many species would benefit from conservation actions aimed at a single species.
Project Tiger was launched in India in the 1970s—the goal of the project was to protect the habitats of the tiger from destruction. In its initial phase, the project was taken up in nine tiger inhabitation areas, which were declared to be Project Tiger reserves. These reserves were carved out of reserved forests, sanctuaries, and national parks. Today, in addition to these nine original reserves, 44 more have been developed.
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Origins of the Project
Post-independence Indian wildlife faced an array of threats. India had the opportunity to build on the existing forest conservation framework that it had inherited from the Raj and the Princely states—it instead choose to focus on mass industrialization with ‘balancing’ being an alien subject for most policymakers.
At the turn of the 20th century, India’s tiger population was close to 40,000 according to some estimates. By the 1970s, this number was well below 2000. What really unfolded after the republic’s foundation led to such a dire situation—agriculture was expanded, the land was cleared for a growing population and a rapidly industrializing nation, and the resultant man-animal conflict was leading to further anger against these wild beasts.
For the newborn republic, tiger hunting was also a tourist activity that brought in foreign exchange. However, with data on the dramatic fall in tiger population on the tables of the nation’s top officials, there was tension. Rectification of the situation began under Indira Gandhi. First came a ban on Tiger hunting in 1970, followed by the Wildlife (Protection) Act in 1972.
Then in 1973, Project Tiger was launched—one of the biggest conservation projects ever undertaken. The government enacted laws and increased the budget for Bengal Tiger conservation as part of the Project. Nine tiger reserves were carved out, ranging from the Sundarbans to the Western & Eastern Ghats to Ranthambore.
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Project Tiger: Success or Failure?
The Indian Tiger Conservation program met with exceptional success in the first 15 years of its existence. The tiger population rose from 268 in nine reserves in 1972 to 757 in 11 reserves in 1981. The total Indian tiger population rose to 3015 by 1979, an increase of 62% in seven years. The swamp deer, elephant, rhino, and wild buffalo also thrived in the reserves, especially in the core areas. Protection and habitat development has also been successful because of this project.
Several villages with a total population of nearly 6000 people were moved from the core areas and provided with full rehabilitation facilities, including agricultural land, contoured fields, new homes, schools, and water supplies. Relocation improved the lives of the villagers, who had previously lived in a mutually damaging relationship with their environment. After the first few villages were relocated, others volunteered for priority in shifting. Cattle grazing was also completely stopped in the core areas.
These changes resulted in a rapid transformation of the protected area. The increasing success of this project created a lot of employment. A lot of revenue has also been generated by the tourism industry. With national parks exceeding and rare animals being conserved, tourists visit the place often.
Recently, however, according to media reports, tiger populations in certain reserves in the country have started declining. Project Tiger has failed to stop poaching in the Indian forests, with the Sariska debacle as one tragic example. The official census conducted in 2004 indicated that between 16 and 18 tigers lived in the reserve. But from the middle of the year, no tigers could be seen. A report produced in March 2005 by the Wildlife Institute of India confirmed that there were indeed no tigers left in Sariska Tiger Reserve.
An investigation into the effectiveness of Project Tiger concluded that the program is a failure because of insufficient training and inadequate methods. The project's methodology to generate a count of tigers through the identification of pug marks (footprints) was not foolproof and no other methodologies were explored to arrive at a more accurate measure of the tiger population. Tiger reserves were poorly managed with no assessment of tourist accommodation capacity as required by the Project Tiger Directorate. The project was also hampered by understaffing and existing staff were under-equipped and under-trained with a weak communication and intelligence network.
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Is single-species management effective?
The disadvantage of single-species management programs like Project Tiger is that it simply targets only the species of interest. Further, monitoring population changes of single species requires an extraordinary amount of effort generally far beyond what is possible with the logistic constraints faced by most resource management agencies. Despite potential drawbacks, such as focusing conservation on a single species at the cost of other, less charismatic species, work on flagship and charismatic species tells us that there is still a place for using one species to benefit many.
They provide an avenue to achieve benefits for multiple species under the overarching aim of protecting one flagship species. Flagship species attract more funding than non-flagship species and may entice funding from sources that might not otherwise contribute to conservation. Flagship species programs that connect with existing, positive, cultural associations can create emotional resonance and ownership among local communities, generating intrinsic motivation that can contribute to conservation success.
Conservation has been built on decades of single-species-focused plans and policies, but advances in conservation science and technology present opportunities to evaluate this paradigm. While flagship species conservation can—and does—maintain the presence of many other species, not all species will benefit equally. Alternative, or complementary, conservation prioritization approaches may be needed for range-limited species or those requiring specialized conservation actions to address threats to their existence.
Panwar, H. S. “What to Do When You’ve Succeeded: Project Tiger Ten Years Later.” Ambio, vol. 11, no. 6, Springer, 1982, pp. 330–37, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4312836
Bindra, Prerna. The Vanishing. Penguin Random House India, 2017, p. 90.
Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. Ministry of Law and Justice, 1972, https://legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/A1972-53_0.pdf
Runge, Claire A., et al. “Single Species Conservation as an Umbrella for Management of Landscape Threats.” PLOS ONE, edited by Bi-Song Yue, no. 1, Public Library of Science (PLoS), Jan. 2019, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0209619
Ranjitsinh, M. K. A Life with Wildlife. HarperCollins, 2017.