Cat News Nr 48


The Sad Story of India’s Project Tiger

There were an estimated 1,827 tigers in India in 1972. In over 30 years the government poured more than US$80 million into Project Tiger, its flagship conservation programme. Now, in 2008, there are only 1,411 tigers. How could such a disaster occur?

Project Tiger came about because the Prime Minister of the time, Indira Gandhi, was deeply interested in wildlife and forest conservation, which dominated her speech to an IUCN General Assembly in Delhi in 1969. The Assembly was horrified at the rapid decline of India’s tigers through international trophy hunting and mass export of skins to the western world. WWF Trustee Guy Mountfort created Operation Tiger to raise conservation funds. He visited Indira Gandhi and urged her to take action to conserve India’s tigers and promised US$1 million funding (the only foreign funds the central government has accepted); she took immediate action to set up a Tiger Task Force that gave birth to Project Tiger.

Project Tiger, the world’s biggest wildlife conservation programme at the time, was launched by the government on 1 April 1973 at the newly established Corbett Tiger Reserve in the Himalayan foothills. It quickly won international praise as it reported a population of 3,015 tigers in 1979 and 4,334 in 1989, using a census method of counting pugmarks. The method was beginning to be criticised as unscientific and the results were said to be exaggerated, but Project Tiger stood by it.

There was growing evidence in the late 80s that tigers were being poached to provide bones for medicine in China. A Tibetan was arrested in Delhi with nearly 300 kg of tiger bones in 1993, and more bones were found in a dump. Tibetans were reported selling bones on the streets of Beijing and Chongching. The famous Ranthambhore tiger reserve lost over half of its 44 tigers to poachers.

It was a serious crisis and the government and Project Tiger promised action. But police seizures of bones continued, and officials said they could represent only a tenth of the bones that were being smuggled out of the country. Skins were being thrown away as bones were worth far more and easier to smuggle. However, skins returned to the illegal market after the year 2000 to ornament Tibetans at public ceremonies.

Although it was clear that policing of tiger reserves was crucial and needed to be strengthened, for financial reasons the government banned recruiting of guards, who day by day patrol reserves. That resulted in a lack of staff in reserves, and today most of the remaining guards and foresters are over 50.  

Under pressure from CITES, the government agreed in 1994 to establish a Wildlife Crime Bureau, similar to its Criminal Investigation Bureau; but it did not come into being until 2007.

India’s federal constitution made it difficult for Project Tiger, with minimal staff, to manage reserves because they were mainly the responsibility of state governments, of which many are more interested in economic development than wildlife conservation.

The Auditor General, in a widespread criticism of Project Tiger in 2006, drew attention to delayed release of funds to state governments, and diversion of funds intended for conservation programmes. State governments have recently been warned that the government may stop funding them if money is not properly used.

The Indian tiger’s future

India’s tigers are found in 17 states, but only five have more than 100 tigers, and all reserves are isolated so that India’s tiger population is grossly fragmented. Many reserves have fewer than 50 tigers, and only two have more than 100. Meanwhile, the human population has doubled from 553 million in 1971 to 1.1 billion in 2001 and will continue to rise, increasing the pressure on forests for land for housing and agriculture, and for industry and mining: much of India’s rich minerals lie under forests and reserves.

A government Act that gives tribal and other forest people ownership of land where they have been living has created deep concern among conservationists. There are nearly 68 million tribals in India (about nine per cent of the population), including some 3.7 million living in the 591 protected areas, and 380,500 of those are in the 28 Project Tiger reserves. The fear is that forests, already fragmented, may suffer further by clearing of trees for agriculture, roads and utilities, and that land may be sold to developers. The government has promised to secure critical tiger habitats covering 31,000 km2, and to translocate families living there. The Bombay Natural History Society, the Wildlife Trust of India, and the Orissa Wildlife Society have filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the Act, and there are petitions pending from other organisations in high courts. Translocation of tribals from tiger reserves, which has always been difficult, may lead to lengthy court cases.

Full protection of tigers from poachers will be difficult unless reserves are fully staffed. Furthermore, there is concern that China may remove the ban on domestic trade in tigers; conservationists say that will increase poaching of wild tigers.

Can India’s tigers survive? Yes, they can. The government has already announced improvements in the protection of tigers; they must be implemented rapidly and forcibly, and it should involve India’s skilled scientists whose knowledge and abilities have been disregarded for too long. It is not just tigers; India’s forests, already depleted, are crucial to the lives of millions of people and to India’s priceless wildlife.                                                                                                                                                                                                         Peter Jackson

Evidence of Wild Tigers in Southwest China - A Preliminary Survey of the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve by L. Feng, L. Lin, L. Zhang, L. Wang, B. Wang, S. Yang, J. L. D. Smith, S. J. Luo, L. Zhang

The tiger is critically endangered throughout Asia and the likelihood of locating a viable wild tiger population in China is rapidly diminishing. Yunnan province on the borders to Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar may hold the last promise for the survival of Indochinese tigers Panthera tigris corbetti in southwest China. However, a systematic assessment of tigers has not been conducted nor has direct evidence of tiger presence been documented except for several anecdotal reports in the past decade. In this report we detail the survey efforts in the region, provide a preliminary assessment of the tiger presence and habitat quality, and offer recommendations for future conservation strategies.

Population Monitoring of Snow Leopards Using Noninvasive Genetics by J. E. Janecka, R. Jackson, Yuguang Zhang, Diqiang Li, B. Munkhtsog, V. Buckley-Beason and W. J. Murphy

Snow leopards Panthera uncia occur in rugged, high altitude regions of Central Asia, where they are endangered as a result of human induced factors including low prey densities and poaching. Information on the status of this felid is limited in many regions. We examined the feasibility of using noninvasive genetic methods to monitor snow leo­pard populations. Scats believed to be from snow leopards were collected in three separate geographic regions including northwestern India, central China, and southern Mongolia. We conducted species, sex, and individual identification using molecular methods and observed snow leopard scats in all three sites despite only brief 2-day surveys in each area.

A Threat to Small Mammals in Central Gujarat by D. J. Gavali, J. J. Lakhmapurkar and V. V. Vyas

Central Gujarat has a semi-arid climate with dry tropical deciduous forests. These forests provide habitats for small mammals such as the rusty-spotted cat Prionailurus rubiginosus, the small Indian civet Viverricula indica, the common palm civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus, the pale hedgehog Paraechinus micropus, the porcupine Hystrix indica, and the flying squirrel Petaurista petaurista. The results of a survey of cat species conducted in central Gujarat indicate that the jungle cat Felis chaus and the small Indian civet are seen more frequently than other cats. Expansion of agriculture and loss of natural forest areas are reducing the habitats of these animals. The present study indicates that collisions with vehicles and the consequent fatalities are posing a threat to jungle cats and small Indian civets.

Asiatic Cheetah Cub Recovered From a Poacher in Iran by H. Jowkar, S. Ostrowski and L. Hunter

A male Asiatic cheetah Acinonyx jubatus cub has been brought into captivity after being illegally removed from the wild by a sheep herder in Khar Touran National Park, Semnan Province, Iran.

Felids of Abbasabad Reserve, Iran by M. S. Farhadinia, H. Akbari, M. Beheshti, A. Sadeghi and M. R. Halvani

Iran has a high diversity of felids compared with other west Asian countries. A total of eight cat species, from the Persian leopard Panthera pardus saxicolor to the sand cat Felis margarita, exist in the country today, and there used to be two other species, the Caspian tiger Panthera tigris virgata and the Asiatic lion Panthera leo persica, that are now extinct. As one of the latest reserves established in the country, Abbasabad has been officially protected since 2005 as a Hunting Prohibited Area. The present survey in this area was conducted in order to study five cat species: the Asiatic cheetah Acinonyx jubatus venaticus, the Persian leopard, the caracal Caracal caracal, the sand cat and the wild cat Felis silvestris ornata.

First Evidence of Persian Leopard From Khaeez Area, Southern Iran by A. Abdoli, T. Ghadirian, A. Khaleghi Hamidi, H. Mostafavi, H. Moshiri, S. Pour‘salem and A. Ghoddousi

On 21 December 2007 one of the Stealthcam camera traps used in the carnivore survey carried out for the Atlas of Bushehr Wildlife project in the Khaeez free zone (40 km from the coast of the Persian Gulf) captured a photo of an adult male Persian leopard Panthera pardus saxicolor.

Sighting of a Manul or Pallas Cat in North Sikkim, India by P. Chanchani

A solitary manul Otocolobus manul was sighted on the Tso Lhamo Plateau of North Sikkim, at an altitude of 5,073 m on 8 September 2007 (see the cover photo of this issue of Cat News). The present sighting is the first record of this species in Sikkim, the only other sightings of the manul in India so far having been recorded in Ladakh. This sighting is also a new altitude record for the manul, being marginally higher than Fox & Dorji’s (2007) record of 5,050 m and significantly higher than the widely cited altitudinal limit of 4,800 m for this species.

Rusty-spotted Cat in Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve by S. Behera

As part of fieldwork for tiger monitoring in Nagarjunsagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve, Andhra Pradesh, a rusty-spotted cat Prionailurus rubiginosus was observed on two occasions.

The Neglected Asiatic Golden Cats of Bangladesh by M. Monirul H. Khan

The Asiatic golden cat Catopuma temmincki is one of the most elusive and least-known animals in the world and is facing the threat of extinction even before its life history is properly understood. In Bangladesh the published documents barely mention the occurrence of the golden cat in the country.

Morphometry of Leopards From Maharashtra, India by V. R. Athreya and A. V. Belsare

We have been involved in various research and capacity building projects related to human leopard Panthera pardus conflict in Maharashtra, India, since 2004. This paper provides information on the morphometry of leopards we collected between 2004 and 2006.

Occasional Jaguar Hunting for Subsistence in Colombian Chocó by S. Balaguera-Reina and J. F. Gonzalez-Maya

Jaguar Panthera onca hunting for subsistence consumption by humans has not been reported in the scientific literature. Nowak (1975) reported jaguar hunting for legal fur trade as one of the main factors for population reduction in wild jaguar populations, where historically it was directed for black-markets with large numbers shipped internationally. 

Global Warming and the Northern Expansion of the Big Cats of Asia by E. Kashkarov, P. Baranov, O. Pomortsev and I. Ishchenko

During the past 35 years we have witnessed a zoogeogra-phical phenomenon that has had no satisfactory explanation until now. The ranges of the snow leopard Uncia uncia, the Amur leopard Panthera pardus orientalis and the Amur tiger Panthera pardus altaica in Siberia have expanded to the north by more than 1,000 km. In our work we discuss this new wave of northern expansion of the big cats of Asia, based on the less known hundred-year cycle (on average 88 years) and data collected in the field, from hunters and from the literature.

Wild Cats and Climate Change by J. Seidensticker

With few examples, we see that, depending on the species of wild cat, there will be loss of critical habitats and range fragmentations, contractions, and expansion resulting from climate change. We have no choice but to learn to live with and work with these changes. I suspect most wild cats will not fare well, but we know so little about most wild cat species that making predictions is speculation. I do think we can confidently predict that the domestic cat will be just fine.

Ten Years of Ecological Research on Lions in Waza National Park, Northern Cameroon by H. de Iongh and H. Bauer

This paper covers 10 years of lion Panthera leo research in Waza National Park in North Cameroon. Population surveys resulted in a population of 50–60 lions. Research covered movements and home ranges of lions, social structure, prey availability and lion-livestock conflicts. Natural prey abundance is low and level of livestock predation high, especially during the wet season. Lions survive during the wet season on a prey buffer of livestock, while they switch to natural prey during the dry season.

2008 International Conference on Range-wide Conservation Planning for Snow Leopards: Saving the Species Across its Range by N. Williams

Over 100 snow leopard experts, enthusiasts, and government officials gathered in the outskirts of Beijing, China from March 7–11, 2008 for the first-ever International Conference on Range-wide Conservation Planning for Snow Leopards. Conference organizers included Panthera, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Snow Leopard Trust (SLT), Snow Leopard Network (SLN), and the Chinese Institute of Zoology.

Breaking down the borders! Can we see the populations behind the administration? by J. Linnell and V. Salvatori

It is safe to say that there have not been more Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx in Europe for several centuries. The last 50 years have seen the natural recovery of the Scandinavian, Baltic and Carpathian populations. The tiny Balkan population has persisted. A total of 15 reintroduction attempts have been made. The sum total of all this is that we are no longer talking about a crisis action of rescuing a species from the edge of extinction (although the Balkan population is of great conservation concern). Instead we are trying to reintegrate the large carnivore species into our landscapes and moving towards a long term, robust and flexible management system.