Project Tiger – a conservation marvel

INDIA’s national animal

A Background –

About a hundred years ago, an estimated 58,000 – 100,000 tigers roamed India’s lush, unbroken forests. But centuries of hunting and habitat destruction left fewer than 2,000 wild individuals by the 1970s. In 1973, the government declared the tiger India’s national animal, banned hunting, and set up a conservation scheme called Project Tiger. There are 50 reserves today under the program, and about half are well managed, according to a government assessment. The reserves are small, averaging less than 1,500 squares kilometers — much smaller than many protected areas in Africa. These are unfavorable conditions for the solitary tiger. Male Bengal tigers need a home range of about 60–150 km2, whereas females use about 20– 60 km2 depending on prey density. And tigers do not share easily, even with siblings or kids. So, when a cub hits adolescence at about one and a half years, it begins roaming to find territory in which to live and hunt. If the tiger reserve is already full, it has two options: either push out an old or weak tiger and take over the space or keep moving well outside the reserve until it finds unoccupied territory. It is thought that 70–85% of India’s tigers are inside reserves.

Historically, tigers (Panthera tigris) roamed India and 29 other nations, from the Indonesian swamps to the Russian taiga. There were once Balinese, Caspian, and Javanese subspecies, all now considered extinct. Today, only six subspecies remain. IN 2014 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that there are only about 2,200 to 3,200 individuals in the wild, placing the animal on the organization’s endangered list. About 93% of the tiger’s historic range has emptied owing to habitat loss,  poaching, and depletion of prey.

The specter of a world without tigers led 13 nations to meet in 2010 in St. Petersburg, Russia, where they declared that they would double their wild tiger numbers by 2022 as part of the World Bank’s Global Tiger Initiative (GTI). But all except India, Nepal, and Bhutan are struggling to save their tigers, even in protected reserves.

Against this backdrop, India is the beacon. It has roughly two-thirds of the world’s tigers in less than one-quarter of its global range. In 2019, it has invested 3.5 billion rupees (US$49.4 million) in tiger conservation, including relocating villages outside protected areas. And it has built the world’s largest animal underpass to funnel tigers safely beneath a highway in central India.

About 3% of the spending on tigers is flowing to government-sponsored science. Government scientists are studying all aspects of the animal, and are heading a large tracking study to understand tiger behavior. Today India has entered the Guinness World Records for the largest camera trap wildlife survey.

The efforts have paid off, according to the government. It announced in July 2021 that the number of wild tigers in the country had doubled from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,967 in 2018 — meaning that India has met the St. Petersburg target. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that tiger conservation could go hand in hand with building roads, railways, and homes. As adapted from Nature.

The Journey –

For me after spending my childhood as a member of the National Geographic Society, it was a delight then to spend time across India, and Africa. Experiencing wildlife in person towards filming it, so much so that after spending close to two decades in the corporate world, it showed how beautiful the natural world is – where life can breathe. Experiences touched my soul and there was a wish to help the ground conditions that I could see deteriorating rapidly. When I compare my two homes across the US and India, the first country has 3 times the landmass of the latter but one-third the population – giving a scale difference of 9 times indicating a severe crunch on natural resources. Especially in India given the huge population base and a growing middle-class requiring access to resources, natural or otherwise is not trivial. This has caused the wildlife to live on much-reduced landmass as compared to a hundred years ago.

Post my African odyssey, the resolve to help nature and wildlife were strong, but the question was where to begin? Being a big cat lover Africa was a place with a lot of opportunities, but why not do something for India as a give back to the country? Magically the answer appeared overnight – I remembered National Geographic featuring its first article on an Indian Tiger Reserve in their 1984 issue. At 12 years of age – it had etched a deep memory due to the wonderful pictures of tigers, especially some looking down from ledges/walls of historical forts upon people in vehicles driving through the forest (see picture below). Why not approach them? said an inner voice. I headed out there to the NGO/office of the Field Director who was featured all over the 1984 National Geographic issue. On hearing my narrative to help conservation and given my life path of 25 years since having read that article he was pleasantly surprised. The gentleman retired since was impressed but I could see he was more touched inside for my coming out there in an individual capacity to help make a difference…. That’s how it all started… As the saying goes ‘All good things start small and most importantly ‘All good things take time’, that I learned all over again here. I regarded myself as a slightly above the average patient individual, but the experiences during this journey needed so much more of that and in so many directions at one time, that I had no idea or ever dealt with.

Thereafter since 2010, the decade served as a Goodwill Ambassador to Project Tiger in the state of Rajasthan has been an extremely heartfelt endeavor. Something that cannot be described in words given the experiences – magical landscapes of the state that we grew up seeing in the media, and then traveling to. The rich culture, heritage, and now the wildlife aspect was a natural (almost karmic) coming together of multiple wish lists. Being an Indian but working far away from India most of my adult life, it was very concerning to see the ground conditions of rural communities and their landscapes. This increased my resolve to go above and beyond my personal capacity to address these conditions. Working with the government and bureaucracy at the state, and central level for the benefit of human communities, wildlife, and biodiversity bought about a lot of learnings that changed the perspectives and approaches to life. Somewhere inside it gave a feeling that God was too kind to some and not so to many others. These socio-economic human divides have been the bane of human existence for millennia, and have now become much more severe in the post-industrial times, especially in the developing world as a divide between the haves and have not’s. All these were beyond the realm of my professional world of work so far, but given then the immediate role of play herein it slowly showed that the path to resolving everyday challenges lies elsewhere – in the simple and sustainable Rural Development paradigm.

The Indian Prime minister in 2005 had initiated a tiger task force to study the decline of tiger numbers, and present their findings formally to parliament – see Report. The main recommendations were around the problems arising out of the human pressures within the park and its periphery, causing the decimation of nature, and a lack of inviolate space amongst many others. This bought about the government’s resolve to address the issue of the human influx in the protected areas by introducing a voluntary relocation program as a Centrally Sponsored Scheme in 2008. This scheme paid a million rupees per family (husband, wife, and non-adult kids) to move away from the protected areas and to live in civil/revenue areas. This amount is now revised to 1.5 million in 2021. In a multi-family household which is a mainstay, this amount was a multiple of the number of such individual families under the same roof, quite supportive of what was required for their move at the time. However a change to ‘human comfort zone’ is a human peril in absence of ‘motivation‘ or ‘know-how‘ and as a result, most communities, and families were apprehensive of the move – not knowing what to expect or the outcome, more so for the older generations in the family than younger ones.

To undertake such a relocation exercise was not trivial, that’s where the government requested my help as an advisory and liaison in good will, I said why not? On engaging I realized their true peril – not only did they NOT have the required HR skillsets for the exercise but neither the kind of relationships with the villagers that required these dialogues towards a successful engagement. The ground reality being, traditionally the forest staff and villagers were always at loggerheads with each other due to non-compliance with rules of grazing, tree felling, farming, rights, hunting, etc. Surprisingly the need for any ‘soft skills’ to action for change on the ground were not acknowledged or provided to the required extent within the CSS, only the fiduciary and procedural responsibilities across revenue and forest departments.

As I took time over weeks, months, in the years thereafter – to sit down with village communities to discuss what their current problems were and then explain what they could expect in life outside the forest areas – its value to helping children’s education, their health care access, electricity, water, amongst many other things that could all better their life. In the process, I was getting exposed to what it meant for them to live in their primal and primitive ways that were very sustainable and culturally rich. So while I stepped in to help them, this was indirectly helping me in ways that I never imagined, – to let go of the worldly worries, relax internally, detox the soul, and most importantly slow down, breathe and enjoy and be a part of the natural system, and processes that we are born and meant to live in (away from the rat race). Most importantly since all this happened without asking, and that has been a true blessing!

Starting my work by contributing about a week each month to this effort in a advisory and catalytic role, then most importantly the rigorous and steadfast follow up by the ground staff has facilitated a move and self-relocation of over 1,300 families or 6,000 individuals over the past decade. All this was under the CSS at a capital expenditure of USD 25M and other operational expenses under the forest and revenue department budget heads. Today I am extremely humbled, welled with gratitude to say – My association since 2010 with the state’s forest department, communities, and the ensuring teamwork has helped double the state’s tiger numbers while increasing the inviolate space in the National Park by about 150-200 sq. km. This is all by far, thanks to the hard work and unending efforts of the forest staff (and the villager’s co-operation) – it won them ‘Protect the Species Awards’ on the backdrop of the 2012 UN-CBD COP.

Additionally, my role encompassed outreach to state, and central ministers for help, then addressing other challenges that could sometimes not be done via government channels. Over time we could bring a lot of NGOs to work with the village people for their development and benefit. However, while a lot was done – I realized in time so much more needed to be done, and should be done. See list of some official communications in the period

  1. May 2011 to MoEF Mr. JaiRam Ramesh,
  2. December 2012 to CM Mr. Ashok Gehlot,
  3. March 2013 to Chief WildLife Warden Rajasthan,
  4. February 2014 to CM Smt. Vasundhara Raje,
  5. August 2014 to CM Smt. Vasundhara Raje,
  6. March 2016 to CM Smt. Vasundhara Raje,
  7. February 2020 to CM Mr. Ashok Gehlot,

The joy of working here, the delight of each day spent with the communities have enriched my life to a magnitude that no money or career could ever help attain. I must say I am extremely thankful for the opportunity and humbled by the ‘richness of heart of these simple and hardworking rural people in the Indian landscapes. They own so little, work so hard, but are so much happier than it would put a lot of city folk who have much more to shame. Here’s SVP’s narrative after the first visit to the park in early 2020.

Today after these priceless experiences I felt this is the real India (non-urban) that I experienced, and larger initiatives need to come together to help rural people’s livelihoods, then preserve value system, skills and arts, culture and heritage, and most importantly bring wellness in the landscapes. If only we can develop communities, then state, and finally nations while preserving all these globally over time, we would go a long way to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Livelihoods and Landscape management are the key here to ensure communities, landscape, and bio-diversity thrive and prosper. Healthy landscapes, ecosystems, and human populations in-inexplicably linked. As part of the Network for conserving Central India, we convene to connect science, policy, community needs, and sustainability together. One such conversation with John Seidensticker in 2014 echoed my thoughts /experiences completely, showing the big picture as highlighted in his opening address at the Kanha Pench Landscape Symposium.

The successes achieved on the ground in this journey always left me asking for more, especially envisioning what would be required to have uniform results across project tiger in different states of India, and other tiger range countries as well. If such models could be developed then they could be uniformly applied across global landscapes. With prior exposure managing large IT organizations and to advocacy and policy work on Capitol Hill in the US, the mind was connecting the dots for holistic solutions in the landscape management and sustainability space. Increasing green cover, and involvement of private sector as partners in the landscape are key to bring in the change at the scale required. All this has to be done via sound framing of government policy at multiple levels such that the communities and their needs are addressed first, then landscape, and biodiversity. This gives a strong focus on a bottom up approach as a strategy to meet with the traditional top down outlays and siloed institutional setup. This is the next big step to help achieve sustainable goals. More on this under the gallop initiative to build, back, better – Outcome remains to be seen!!


  1. Shekhar Dattatri’s Truth About Tigers Film – Vimeo, YouTube
  2. The United Nation’s2011 Year of the Forests video release
  3. The GoodPlanet Foundation’s HOME
  4. The Earth-Policy Institute’s Presentation & Book

Conversations with villagers in the forest under the CSS Relocation program.
Tigers looking down upon passing vehicles from old ramparts.
Tiger resting in the National Park.