Although India boasts nearly 3,000 tigers across the length and breadth of its forests, the country has witnessed a major spike in poaching during the lockdown period enforced by the government to stem the spread of coronavirus.

According to the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, 88 poaching incidents have been reported in the post lockdown period from March 23-May 3, almost double the number reported during the six weeks before lockdown.

As the International Tiger Day is being observed on Wednesday, the Indian government said in a report on Tuesday that the overall tiger population in the country was estimated at 2,967.

“Out of this, 83% were actually camera trapped individual tigers and rest were recaptured. A total of 2,461 individual tigers (> 1 year of age) were photo-captured,” said the report titled Status of Tigers Co-predators and prey in India.

Another official data suggests that India has lost 110 tigers in 2019, one-third of them due to poaching.

“It is still unknown how poaching rates increased during the lockdown. Despite consistent efforts by law enforcement agencies, wild animal population in India came under additional threat during the lockdown period,” said a study conducted by the Traffic.

A total of 222 persons were arrested in poaching related cases by various law enforcement agencies during the lockdown period across the country, significantly higher numbers, as 85 suspects were arrested during the pre-lockdown phase, revealed the study.

Over the last eight years, 750 tigers have died in the country, most of them fell to the bullets of poachers, said the government data.

Experts believe that spike has been also noticed in poaching of other animals that these tigers depend on for food.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Faiyaz Khudsar, a wildlife biology scientist said that the loss of livelihoods due to the lockdown and food shortages has forced people to resort to illegal hunting for sustenance.

“The pandemic is pushing people into all sorts of illegal activities and poaching is no less. The poachers are taking advantage of the crisis and selling the meat. Bushmeat consumption has also increased,” said Yadvendradev Jhala, a senior scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, a government institution run by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education.

Reserves facing virus threat

Khudsar said the illegal hunting of wild animals directly upsets the intricate ecological balance and in-turn makes animals vulnerable to virus pathogens.

“When you have a complex ecosystem, the pathogens get diluted, but when the system gets simplified due to unregulated killing then these pathogens spill over and cause problems leading to further spread of zoonotic disease,” he said.

He added that after a tigress tested positive for COVID-19 at New York’s Bronx Zoo this April, it has become crucial to step-up the patrolling as there is a potential virus threat to India’s 50 tiger reserves.

“There is less than just one person patrolling 10 square kilometers [6.2 square miles] of the area and that too without proper patrolling gear and vehicle. If the virus enters these reserves, it will hit the conservation efforts badly,” said Khudsar.

Last year on July 29, coinciding with the International Tiger Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released the Tiger Estimation Report for 2018. The report estimated 2,967 wild tigers in the country, confirming that India has 75% of the global tiger population.

The estimation, which involved camera traps at 26,838 locations spread across the country and over 34 million images, set the world record in Guinness Book. But the census soon became a topic of concern as many media outlets reported that cubs under one-year-old were also included in the estimation count.

“The norm until 2014 was that cubs will not be enumerated as their mortality rate is high. Only sub-adults of over 1.5 years old used to be part of the census. As per the National Tiger Conservation Authority [NTCA], 1-year-old individuals are considered as cubs,” reported The Times of India, the largest circulated English language newspaper.

Jhala, however, said that it is not the age but the size of the tiger population which matters.

“If a tiger is at shoulder length with his mother, he is counted in the estimation. This may sometimes even include 11-month-olds,” confirms the scientist.

Animal habitat deceasing

India has 25% of the world’s tiger habitat, with 50 designated tiger reserves, but shelters 75% of the global tiger population, according to the numbers recorded by a government agency Project Tiger.

Khudsar says that the habitat for the tigers and other animals is decreasing leading to their straying and in turn getting killed by the poachers.

“It is important to form corridors of territorial forests with extended agricultural fields to save the animals. As of now, only forests are patrolled, not the agricultural fields, which leads to open ground for poachers,” said Khudsar.

He also said that due to limited areas around territorial forests the wild animals come face to face with domestic animals. These domestic animals may in-turn become carriers of zoonotic diseases.

“If poaching of small animals remains unchecked it will lead to depletion of a prey base for big cats like tigers and leopards and a depletion of the ecosystems. This in turn will lead to higher incidences of human-wildlife conflicts and will undermine the significant successes that India has achieved in the field of wildlife conservation,” said Ravi Singh, chief executive officer of WWF-India.

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