Tiger and its Forest

In the last few years, no significant court judgment has put our wildlife at the center stage as much as a judgment passed on March 6, 2024, by the Supreme Court concerning tigers.
Trust Legal - Sudhir Mishra, Swasti Misra
Trust Legal - Sudhir Mishra, Swasti Misra

“If there is no forest, then the tiger gets killed; if there is no tiger, then the forest gets destroyed. Hence, the tiger protects the forest and the forest guards the tiger!”

Mahabharat (Kumbhaghonam Edition) – Udyoga Parva: 5.29.57

“A healthy tiger population is an indicator of sustainable development in the 13 tiger range countries,” quotes the recent Supreme Court judgement delivered on March 6, 2024, propounded by Justice BR Gavai, Justice Prashant Kumar Mishra and Justice Sandeep Mehta. In the latest judgment, namely, in Re.: T. N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India & Ors., W.P. (Civil) No. 202 of 1995, the Supreme Court ordered for an efficient implementation of the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s 2016 Guidelines wherein it was specifically stated that no tiger from the zoos would be obtained for tiger safaris.

The judgement further clarified that the tigers which are from a specific landscape in which the safari is planned and created must not be uprooted from their marked territories. The judgement further directed for the formulation of a committee consisting of a representative of the NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority), a representative of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), a representative of CEC (Central Empowered Committee) and an officer of the MoEF&CC (Ministry of Environment & Forests and Climate Change) not below the rank of Joint Secretary as its Member Secretary. This Committee has been directed to give its preliminary report within a period of three months from the date the judgement has been passed with respect to certain restoration related aspects of Corbett Tiger Reserve. Needless to say, creation of such committees in order to preserve and restore tiger reserves and national parks in the interest of protecting tigers is an essential step.

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It is imperative to understand the sense of urgency and despair which the Supreme Court has shown while pronouncing the landmark judgement on 6th March, 2024. Unfortunately, the moot problem is that tigers are regularly hunted down to meet the unprecedented illegal trade demand of approximate USD 20 million, primarily furled by wildlife trade emanating from China.

As per the data with the National Tiger Conservation Authority, a statutory body working under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF), there has been a record 168 tiger deaths in 2023 alone (till December 15, 2023), which is the highest in the last 12 years. The indiscriminate deaths of the National animal of India despite the huge strides taken by the government towards the protection and rehabilitation of the tigers pose a serious question to us all. Deciphering the ‘why’ of such rampant killings can only lead us towards the ‘how’ of the measures to cure the menace.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court in its epic order of March 6, 2024, inter alia, held that the tigers and the forests are like the two sides of the same coin and it would not be any exaggeration to say that one would perish without the other. The apex court at various instances has vehemently opposed the blatant felling of the trees which was in clear violation of the provisions of law and the orders of the courts and called out the authorities-in-charge for the same. While highlighting the importance of maintaining the ecological balance while opening of tiger safaris in the buffer zone of the tiger reserves, the apex court emphasized the importance of the application of the ‘precautionary principle’ to ensure that least amount of damage is caused to the environment.

The defining judgement further states that the reason for creation of the buffer zone is the promotion of the co-existence between wildlife and human activity with importance being stressed upon livelihood, developmental, social and cultural rights of the locals of the area. It further states that the buffer zone has been instrumental in absorbing the shock of the poaching pressure on the tiger population and other wild animals. In case the depletion is not controlled in these areas, then the source population of the wild animals would be targeted and would eventually disappear.

India is acknowledged as the natural guardian of 75 percent of the world's wild tiger population, basked in the triumph of escalated tiger numbers as per the latest tiger census. A surge from 2,967 in 2018 to 3,682 in 2022 resonated hope amongst all. Madhya Pradesh led the tally, sheltering about 785 tigers, followed by Karnataka with about 563, Uttarakhand with about 560, and Maharashtra with about 444 in the year 2022. A heartening upsurge predominantly danced through Central India, Shivalik Hills, and Gangetic Plains in the past few years.

Unfortunately, the jubilation was marred by regional tiger imbalances, particularly noticeable in the Western Ghats. Disconcerting trends whispered from certain regions—Mizoram, Nagaland, Jharkhand, Goa, Chhattisgarh, and Arunachal Pradesh—where tiger populations reduced at alarming lows. The detailed census echoed the highest tiger population staying in Madhya Pradesh, with Karnataka and Uttarakhand in tow, raising aspirations for robust conservation strategies.

But shadows loomed large and the road ahead for majestic tiger is uphill and tiring. The scale of tiger mortality in India hit a crescendo, claiming 202 lives of the majestic tigers in 2023, which was a record peak in over a decade. These grim figures, meticulously cataloged by the Wildlife Protection Society of India, shed light on the perilous toll: 147 succumbed to natural causes, while 55 fell prey to poaching's sinister grip. Maharashtra bore the brunt, recording 52 fatalities, nearly half transpiring in Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts. NTCA's (National Tiger Conservation Authority) vigilant eye noticed the mortality surge from 2012, painting a concerning trajectory: 96 deaths in 2019, escalating to 202 in 2023.

The rising death count of tigers in Madhya Pradesh has triggered concerns that it is at risk of losing the “tiger state” status to Karnataka as its toll is more than twice than that of Karnataka in recent times. The growth, though in numbers of tigers, had led to a problem of plenty with most of MP's reserves reaching their carrying capacity, territorial fights became more common, and the weaker ones began to be killed or pushed out in larger numbers. These dispersing tigers often ended up falling victim to wire traps, poachers, and human-animal conflicts. Though the number of tigers did not decline, the population continued to grow. MP recorded 202 tiger deaths between 2012-2020, followed by 141 in Maharashtra, and now we can see the difference as to how things are adversely changing. In fact, in 2023, the tiger death rate in Maharashtra was more than MP. The tiger State of MP is losing one tiger to natural or unnatural causes every week in the last eight months. Bandhavgarh has the largest number of tigers in the State as per the data of the latest tiger census of 2022.

The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 enshrines a robust framework for tiger conservation, mandating State governments to devise Tiger Conservation Plans. These plans, purposed to preserve tiger habitats and facilitate ecological harmonies, are integral components of the 50 tiger reserves, with 35 receiving NTCA's sanction.

The judgement emphasized that as per Section 38V of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 it is the duty of the State government to notify an area as a ‘Tiger Reserve’. The Court after discussing various provisions of the Act has, in its observations stated that a harmonious construction of the provisions reveals the legislature’s intent in keeping the Tiger Reserves at a higher pedestal than a Sanctuary, Community Reserve, National Park or a Conservation Centre.

Karnataka's impactful strides in reducing tiger mortality reflect at a commendable journey. Over five years, from April 2018 till March 2023, Karnataka's five tiger reserves mourned the loss of 54 tigers. The data from the Karnataka Forest Department reveals fluctuating figures: 7 tiger deaths annually in 2018-19 and 2019-20, rising to 9 in 2020-21 and escalating to 13 in 2022-23. This trend underscores a pressing concern demanding urgent attention.

Karnataka boasts of two tiger reserves, holding potential for a more robust tiger population. The Soligas, indigenous to Karnataka, secured forest rights within a protected reserve—an unprecedented achievement. Collaborating with diverse organizations, they crafted meticulous area-specific plans for BR Hills, an ecologically vital link between the Eastern and the Western Ghats, addressing forest preservation, poaching and more. This unified effort exemplifies the impactful role which communities play in conservation, offering hope amid nationwide concerns over rising tiger fatalities.

The dark cloud of escalating wildlife crime(s) hangs ominously, perpetuated by labyrinthine criminal networks evading justice. Poachers, often impoverished locals, bear the brunt, shielding the true orchestrators. Amidst this, the clarion call for collective responsibility resounds—every creature, every bird, integral threads in the fabric of our ecosystem, beckoning our protection and vigilance. The Hon’ble Supreme Court throughout its judgement has emphasized on the importance of tigers in conserving the ecosystem like never before. If we see the series of orders and judgements passed by the National Green Tribunal, various High Courts, government orders and even orders pronounced by the Supreme Court in last 10 years, none of them can be compared to the Judgement passed on March 6, 2024 by the Hon’ble Supreme Court for protecting our precious tigers.

In fact, to emphasize the impact of the Supreme Court’s judgement, the following para would do justice:

“Tiger being an 'umbrella species', this will also ensure viable populations of other wild animals (co-predators, prey) and forest, thereby ensuring the ecological viability of the entire area / habitat.”

The importance of an eco-centric approach has been highlighted and stressed rather than an anthropocentric one. The principle of ‘Ecological Restitution’ for restoration of the ecosystem and the recovery of the threatened species has been stressed, keeping in mind that India is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity,1992 (CBD). The principle is in line with Article 8 of the CBD which talks about in-situ conservation of the ecosystem. The National Wildlife Action Plan of 2002-2012 and Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitat Scheme 2009 which was centrally sponsored, had the principle of ecocentrism at its core, and has been mentioned by the Hon’ble bench of the Supreme Court as Indian examples of the principle.

The Path Ahead

It’s a historic opportunity to reboot conservation efforts in our country. taking advantage of the judicial positioning and international treaties and obligations which support the protection of tigers.

It is high time that the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) come together to chalk out a more effective roadmap to effectively implement the existing laws and stop the organized killing of the big cats so as to ensure a healthy and balanced ecosystem for generations to come which was also highlighted by the Supreme Court of India, very recently. Admittedly, the Indian judiciary singlehandedly has protected the tigers and its habitat against organized poaching, electrocution related deaths and animal-human conflict situations.

With growing development of wildlife forensics, it is easier to understand and document killing of a wild tiger in any forest within our country. Forensic DNA analysis can also play a significant role to determine the source and origin of the illegally traded tiger parts so that conservation and law enforcement mechanisms can be further strengthened in those areas. Transparency of law enforcement agencies is a crucial step to deal with the problem of illegal trading of tigers. As the crime is of an international nature, effective sharing of information is crucial in bringing the culprits to justice.

Strengthening of a weak criminal justice system is non-negotiable to curb this problem of poaching and killing of tigers. The financial penalties need to be proportionate with the criminal and commercial nature of the illegal trading. Concerted efforts need to be made to boost investigation and prosecution skills which include careful handling of evidence(s) in order to secure strong convictions.

Though, for a different purpose of environmental conservation and the implementation of the NTCA 2016’s Guidelines, the recent Supreme Court’s Judgement has brought us a new hope that the apex court shall always stand by its commitment to work for the welfare of all and would go to any extent to protect the environment and its habitants - the tiger in this case. The judgement has, in fact, in its concluding remarks recorded that, "the presence of a Tiger in the forest is an indicator of the well-being of the ecosystem.”

With this significant step taken by the country’s highest judicial authority, on March 6, 2024 which was coincidently very close to March 3, which is World Wildlife Day, it is a watershed moment for conservation of forest and wildlife in India. It is a well- known secret that not only our tiger numbers have dramatically increased since the launch of Project Tiger by the government of India, it also has seen a rapid rise in forest cover which acts as a huge catalyst in saving our huge population. In the last few years there has been no significant court judgement which has put our wildlife at the center stage as much as the latest judgement dated March 6, 2024 passed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India led by Justice BR Gavai, Justice Prashant Kumar Mishra and Justice Sandeep Mehta.

As tigers symbolize the wild spirit of our planet and serve as ambassadors for the conservation of biodiversity, all efforts to protect them are crucial and fundamental.

About the authors: Sudhir Mishra is a leading environmental lawyer and Door Tenant No. 5, Barrister's Chambers, UK. He is also the Managing Partner of Trust Legal. Swasti Misra is an associate at Trust Legal.

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