Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently released the tiger census data which showed India is home to more than 3,167 big cats. While tiger conservation attempts are going in the right direction, an increase in the number of wild animals and their ever-shrinking habitat poses a greater risk of human-wild conflict. ‘Tiger 24’ documentary director Warren Pereira deliberated on the issue in an interview with the Zee News Digital. ‘Tiger 24’ is based on the life of a tiger named Ustag who was declared a man-eater and was subsequently locked up in a zoo.
Pereira, whose documentary aims to promote conservation and raise awareness around the issue, said that if a majority of the human-tiger conflict takes place in the tigers’ territory, then the tiger cannot be declared a man-eater. He highlighted the fact that while the number of tigers is increasing, their habitat area is not increasing. Excerpts from the interview:
How do you see India’s tiger conservation efforts and where do you see chances of improvement?
I think the 6.7 per cent increase in the tiger population over the last census in 2019, shows the Tigers are capable of coming back. But when you increase the number of tigers, and you don’t proportionately increase the core area or the protected areas for these animals, which is the forest, you ended up with an increased man-animal conflict. I think they (Government of India) have much more accurate ways of measuring Tigers now. However, the government also would have to increase the available wild habitat for tigers, they would also have to integrate wild habitats if separated or blocked by a village and that can be done by developing a corridor for the animals to pass through safely. In times of war, for example, they may build underground corridors where cars go on top, and underneath the wild animals like tigers that move in and out.
Often many animals including tigers get killed in road accidents. How do you see the government’s decision to develop roads and highways passing through or near forest areas?
It’s hard to just blame the government, because the average Indian consumer is not that interested in Tiger conservation. They’re very interested in having a nice road to drive across the country. There’s a growing middle class who are interested in enjoying themselves for their personal gratification and so if they’re gonna vote, in a way, which causes the government to increase the infrastructure, and then that infrastructure is going to clash with tigers. I think it’s the fault of the entire democratic system. However, if there were more people in India who are filing PILs and doing legislation, or voting for legislation supporting the increase of tigers, then because it’s a democracy, the government would have to listen to them. Right now, there’s a small percentage of Indians that are interested in the conservation of wildlife.
What more can be done to involve more people and raise awareness about wildlife conservation?
I think just like my film Tiger 24 points out, if we can show people that preserving the forest is in their interest and not only in the Tigers’ interest, that’s the only way to make them understand the value of preserving these wild tigers and their territories. When you conserve a tiger forest, not only do you help the tiger, but you also help all the biodiversity within the forest. This also prevents soil erosion, fights climate change, and supports tributaries of rivers, which ultimately leads to a better quality of life for people outside of the Tiger Reserve, including the nearby villages, nearby towns and nearby cities. The second thing is that the government is aware of this, and the government realizes that there’s an economic incentive to save the wild tiger and their habitats because they offer ecosystem services, then they could incorporate that in legislation for the benefit of the entire nation, including its people.
What kind of challenges you faced while making the Tiger 24 documentary?
The challenges are initially in locating the tiger you are following. In my case, the tiger was 24. So the first thing I had to do to find him. The second thing, as a filmmaker you hope that he will exhibit some kind of behaviour on that particular day when you do find him. This documentary started as a natural history documentary but then turned into conservation, and activists versus state government versus central government. I received very good support from the state government.
What else can be done to reduce human-wild conflict?
The ultimate solution is getting the Tigers more space and then setting clear boundaries between what is human space, and what is tiger space. Once you create that distinction, then you can clearly identify which Tiger is a problem and which is not. If a tiger is leaving the core area, leaving the buffer area and routinely entering the human settlements to prey on livestock or villagers, then that animal could be the problem and should probably be removed from the wild population in the larger interest of conservation. However, if the core area is compromised, or a buffer zone does not even exist in the Tiger Reserve, and if humans are killed inside the Tigers’ territory, then that tiger could probably not be declared a man-eater. Also, I think educating the next generations, letting them know the importance of the Tiger and ultimately instilling in people a sense of national pride around the national animal of India can help. If future generations are not able to see these majestic animals, it will be something regrettable. I hope my film by Tiger 24 starts an interesting conversation around the conservation of wildlife and tigers.