From The Tiger Who Came to Tea to William Blake's Tyger, tyger, burning bright, the beauty and majesty of these striped predators have long captured the popular imagination. But can you imagine having one as your neighbour?
Tigers need large areas to roam and hunt unmolested. But Bengal tigers live in one of the most populous areas on Earth – and the resulting conflict with humans and destruction of habitat has pushed the species to the edge of extinction.
That’s why an initiative by the wildlife charity Born Free is focusing on helping humans and tigers to exist alongside one another. Called Living with Tigers, the project aims to recruit help from the villages bordering the great tiger reserves of Satpura in central India, home to one of the largest tiger populations left in the wild.
The need for action is self-evident. In the last century 96% of wild tigers in Asia have been wiped out, victims of poaching, conflict with humans, and deforestation. There are now believed to be fewer than 4,000 tigers left in the wild, with approximately half found in India.
The future of the tiger hangs in the balance – some environmentalists believe we could witness their extinction in the wild within a decade. But their numbers have bounced back slightly in recent years, and that is down to the tireless conservation efforts of international bodies, governments and NGOs.
Global wild tiger population
Born Free’s Living with Tigers initiative operates right on the front line. Seven tiger reserves in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh are linked by forest corridors that allow tigers to travel between them. In the nearby villages, volunteers are recruited as “tiger ambassadors” to patrol the area and recognize signs of tigers activity. Mobile education units teach local children about the value of conservation. Women are trained to be tourist guides, boosting their financial independence and employment levels.
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It is often simple, practical schemes which bear the most fruit. Sourcing sustainable bamboo for handicraft and providing biogas from cow dung can both cut the need to go into the forest to harvest raw materials. Even building toilets so that villagers don’t have to risk encountering a tiger when they seek out some privacy in the trees can make a difference.
Central India’s wild tiger range
This approach of providing viable alternatives to exploiting a wild habitat, and giving locals an economic stake in the survival of the flora and fauna around them, supported by strong government action, is proving to be a winning formula across the world.
It’s not only the tigers of Satpura (whose population is now 500 and growing) who have benefited. Manatees in Florida, elephants in Sumatra, and manta rays in the Pacific Ocean off Peru are just a few of the examples of conservation efforts that seek to help animals and the people who live alongside them.
These success stories, and others like them, are all the more important when you consider the scale of the threat facing so many ecosystems and species. In his remarks to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Sir David Attenborough warned that we are entering a new era – the Anthropocene, or Age of Humans: “We can do things accidentally that exterminate a whole area of the natural world, and all the species that live within it,” he said.
The Forum’s Global Risks Report 2019 makes it clear that environmental concerns, including the loss of 60% of species abundance, are at the forefront of the challenges facing us all. If the devastating loss of biodiversity of the last century is to be halted, practical initiatives that enable humans to co-exist with the natural world, like Living with Tigers, may help lead the way.