Among Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s myriad options to help revive his economy from a rare contraction brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, “Project Tiger” is definitely among the most unlikely.
According to Bloomberg, the country intends to grow the wild tiger population by 35% to as many as 4,000 in the next decade, which would protect forests while also boosting economic gains from conservation, according to a top official overseeing the nation’s tiger program.
“Tiger reserves are bringing benefits for society, environment and the economy,” S.P. Yadav, additional director general of Project Tiger, a government-run program for conservation of the species, said in an interview at his New Delhi office. “Economic benefits will increase going forward.”
Modi, who in 2019 joined British adventurer Bear Grylls on a television show to create awareness about environmental conservation and climate change, has doubled funding for the tiger conservation, which started in 1973. In addition to the economic boost, it’s a tiny part of a broader commitment to care for the country’s environment.
Every tiger successfully protected helps conserve around 25,000 acres (10,117 hectares) of forest, according to estimates from the World Wildlife Fund. For India, which is now home to about 2,967 wild tigers, that means expanding its forest cover by more than 10 million hectares to over 81 million hectares, and adding more tiger reserves to its current total of 51.
As well, one rupee invested in tiger reserves provides 243- to 7,488-times worth of benefits to the country in a year, said Madhu Verma, New Delhi-based chief economist at the World Resources Institute. A study authored by her in 2019 showed monetary value of direct and indirect benefits from 10 tiger reserves ranged from 51 billion rupees ($687 million) to 162 billion rupees in a year.
As the endangered big cats are at the top of the food chain, their conservation is possible only when their entire ecosystem is protected. As well, benefits flow to the population around the reserves as tourism increases and local communities get jobs.
“If conservation efforts increase economic benefits would go up,” said Verma. “Investment in reserves will have a whopping impact.”
India now spends about 2.5 billion rupees on tiger conservation efforts every year. Although it’s a fraction of the 35 trillion rupee federal budget, the amount is substantial considering the nation only spent about 11 billion rupees on tigers in total during the four decades prior to 2012.
That spending has so far helped double the country’s wild tiger population from 1,411 in 2006.
India has been using smart technology, including artificial intelligence and drones for patrolling and recording the status of tigers. These tools have helped it reduce poaching, but challenges remain.
More than 300 tiger deaths have been reported in last three years, and about a third of these are due to poaching, seizure or accidents. India’s tiger reserves on just about a quarter of the world tiger habitat are also threatened by conflicts with humans, including rise in killing of livestock and people, inadequacy of trained forest staff, as well as development of infrastructure such as roads and hydropower projects.
Tiger-human conflicts need attention and the government is studying how many tigers can be accommodated so that there are substantial benefits to communities, Yadav said, pointing out the significance of wild cats for human health and green infrastructure.
“For water security you need to preserve tigers,” said Yadav. “Several sweet water streams originate in tiger reserves. These are the factories of producing clean water and air for the country.”