Conflicted Coexistence by Author and Wildlife Photographer Sunil Gadhoke

Author Sunil Gadhoke is a Wild Life Photographer and Author of ‘Long Live the Tiger

New Delhi (India), April 26: It is a privilege to see a tiger in the wild. One of the most remarkable animals has been saved from extinction, for now. With a marginal improvement in tiger numbers over the last 5 decades, we find ourselves at a crossroad, where the relentless march of economic progress intersects with the imperative of ecological stewardship. It’s a delicate balancing act where complacency is a luxury we cannot afford.

The conflict between rapid urbanization and wildlife conservation underscores a fundamental challenge facing modern societies. Preserving biodiversity and allowing wildlife to thrive is not just an ecological concern but a crucial strategy to mitigate impacts of global warming, greenhouse emissions, and climate change. Yet, our conservation efforts face formidable obstacles as human settlements encroach upon wildlife territories, leading to frequent and often deadly instances of human-wildlife conflict.

Significantly contributing to this conflict is the proliferation of free ranging dogs, an effect exacerbated by policies such as the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules of 2001/2023. These dogs pose a threat to both wildlife and human communities. Not only do they prey upon wildlife, disrupting the delicate balance of the ecosystem, but they also serve as carriers of deadly diseases such as Canine Distemper Virus (CDV), rabies and a host of other diseases.

The unchecked growth of domestic dog populations within and around protected areas not only endangers prey species but also puts carnivores like tigers, lions and leopards at serious risk. Camera trap surveys reveal that in some reserves, more dogs are captured on film than tigers, underscoring the severity of the issue.

The interspecies transmission of diseases like CDV presents a grave risk to wildlife populations, as evidenced by devastating outbreaks in Africa and India. Dogs transmit diseases to Hyenas and jackals, common inhabitants of buffer zones that act as vectors for disease transmission, further imperiling species like tigers. The ecological ramifications of CDV are profound, threatening the stability of already vulnerable big cat populations.

Although tigers are a resilient species, human-induced threats have wiped them to localised extinction in the Sariska and Panna tiger reserve in 2004 and 2009 respectively. The lessons learned from these extinctions are hard-earned and must not be overlooked. These crises were not solely the result of threats like poaching, but rather a result of systemic failures in understanding and managing tiger ecology. It has been scientifically established from these extinctions that even small disruptions due to unnecessary tiger mortality had an extremely serious impact on the population, which never recovered afterward (Chandawat, The Rise and Fall of Emerald Tiger, 2018).

Unnatural mortality in a breeding population, specially in small isolated populations (common in India), due to the spread of a disease can potentially wipe out a population in a short period of time. As this article seeks to warn, the crisis looming on the horizon is a direct result of the NTCA notifying in 2020 the ABC Rules to apply in the forests despite empirical evidence i.e camera trap captures, loss of Gir lions and well documented impact of the threat globally. In short allowing the ABC rules to manage feral and stray dogs in and around tiger reserves could spell doom for tigers.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can confidently predict that if this menace is left unchecked, their numbers in the forest could grow many times as they have in the rest of the landscape potentially spelling doom for conservation efforts directed towards the tiger, other big cats and biodiversity as a whole. India’s laws, policy thrust, conservation strategies, biodiversity conservation programs and landscape restoration programs appear to be at serious risk of disruption from this single invasive animal menace. India will not only lose its precious heritage but will also end up a case study showcasing the failure of our conservation fabric due to bad policy.

Addressing this complex issue requires a paradigm shift in our conservation strategies. A zero-tolerance policy towards feral dogs within and around critical habitats and buffer zones is imperative. This policy should encompass a range of measures, including the suspension of Animal Birth Control rules, responsible ownership near PAs, the systematic capture and euthanization of feral dogs, increased monitoring and testing for diseases, and swift and effective remedial action when disease spread is detected. Moreover, there is an urgent need for a comprehensive review of existing policies and the implementation of robust mechanisms to eradicate this menace from the landscape.

In conclusion, the paper advocates for a holistic approach to conservation that strikes a balance between economic development and the preservation of our natural heritage. By addressing human-induced factors and rectifying policy shortcomings, we can ensure the long-term survival of not just the tiger but the entire ecosystem upon which our survival depends. Only through informed, science-based interventions can we safeguard our biodiversity for future generations. It is a daunting task, but one that we must undertake with unwavering determination and collective action at a national scale. Youtube Channel : Long Live The Tiger Book

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