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In honour of Global Tiger Day, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar released the fourth All Tiger Estimation- 2018 report, in which he said that the number of tigers in India has increased by 741 from 2014- 2018, an increase of 33%. 

There are five zones in the country serving as conservation areas for tigers- Shivalik Hills and Gangetic Plains Landscape, Central Indian Landscape and eastern ghats, Western ghats Landscape, North East Hills and Brahmaputra plains Landscape and the Sunderbans. In 2014, these zones had 2 226 tigers, which jumped to 2 967 in 2018. 

The report assesses tigers in terms of spatial occupancy and density of individual populations across India. In addition to data gleaned from the “Status of Tigers in India” report in July 2019, this new report compares information obtained from three earlier surveys in 2006, 2010 and 2014 with data obtained from the 2018-2019 survey to estimate population trends as well as factors likely to be responsible for changes in tiger status at the fine spatial resolution of 100km. The report also evaluates the status of habitat corridors connecting major tiger populations and highlights vulnerable areas that require conservation attention. 

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On Global Tiger Day in 2019, India announced that it had fulfilled its pledge to double its tiger numbers four years earlier than intended. With numbers now at 2 967, India is home to 70% of the global tiger population. Javadekar says that India is working with all 13 tiger range countries to continue nurturing the tiger and increase numbers. 

Javadekar announced that his ministry is working on a program to provide water and food to animals in forests to deal with the challenge of human-animal conflict killing animals. To embark on this program, LIDAR-based survey technology will be used for the first time. This is a method for measuring distances by illuminating the target with laser light and measuring the reflection with a sensor. 

According to a new analysis, nearly 24 000km of new roads will be built through tiger habitats by mid-century, stimulated through major investment projects such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This makes it all the more important that conservation efforts such as those seen in India are emulated around the globe to ensure that tiger populations don’t dwindle to where they cannot maintain their numbers. 

According to a new analysis in Science Advances, nearly 24 000km of new roads will be built through tiger habitats by mid-century, stimulated through major investment projects such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

A team of ecologists at the University of Michigan calculated the extent and potential impacts of road networks across the 1 160 000 sq. km, 13-country range of the endangered tiger and found that these roads total 134 000 km across tiger habitats and are already decreasing the population and its prey by more than 20%.

The team also found that 43% of breeding activity occurs within 5km of a road and 57% of land in protected tiger habitats sits within 5km of a road. Areas without any formal wildlife protections have road densities 34% higher than protected areas, showing the importance of legal conservation efforts in saving tigers, their prey and their habitats. 

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Tiger conservation landscapes (TCLs) vary considerably by protection status and country. These protected areas are important, because they support tiger ‘source’ populations that can disperse and repopulate larger landscapes; this is being threatened by higher road densities, which kill tigers either through vehicle collisions, or through the habitat intrusion caused by the development of roads. For example, the Bukit Tigapuluh Landscape, which has one of the highest road densities surveyed in the analysis, lost nearly 40 sq. km of forest from 2000 to 2012 largely due to the expansion of palm oil plantations; adult tigers in this region decreased from 36 to 22 in the same time period. Additionally, a simulation study in Central India found that tiger extinction risk rose steeply (through genetic isolation) when road traffic volume increased. 

Further, regional road policies may be creating ‘tiger islands’, whereby tiger source populations are becoming increasingly isolated from each other. Tiger dispersal and population expansion into the nonprotected forests connecting those populations are vital in facilitating growth opportunities for the species. 

Worryingly, even protected areas are not immune to road development; TCLs in India have the largest density of roads of any other tiger range country. Similarly, road encroachment into areas where tigers have been recently detected (2009-2014) is already pervasive and even greater than places where tiger presence is unknown or unlikely. 

Neil Carter, lead author of the study, says, “Tigers face a ubiquitous and mounting threat from road networks across much of their 13-country range. Tiger habitats have declined by 40% since 2006, underscoring the importance of maintaining roadless areas and resisting road expansion in places where tigers still exist, before it is too late.”

Just 4 000 tigers exist in the wild today, most of them living in South Asia, where development and population pressures are increasing rapidly. They are considered an umbrella species, which means that protecting tigers will also promote the conservation of many other threatened species and some of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots.

The infrastructure boom throughout forested regions of South and Southeast Asia, financed through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, will threaten tigers further. As signatories of the Convention on Biological Diversity, all tiger range countries have legally binding responsibilities to create legislation that minimises harm to threatened species, including tigers. This presents opportunities for the Initiative, whereby it could adopt biological conservation as one of its core values through planning and implementing a network of protected areas and wildlife corridors. The creation of bilateral agreements that include provisions for reducing wildlife poaching and trafficking between China and countries that are a part of the BRI would also lessen the impacts of infrastructure development on tigers and other threatened species. Another possible policy to minimise the impacts of roads on tigers and other wildlife would be to require Chinese-funded BRI efforts overseas to ascribe to the same environmental regulations on road development that now exist within Chinese borders. 

Featured image by: happymillerman

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