Connecting Ecological Corridors to Conserve Outstanding Biological Diversity in Indo Malayan Ecoregion : Tiger as Touchstone Umbrella Species!

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July 2, 2019 by Species Ecology

Connecting Ecological Corridors to Conserve Outstanding Biological Diversity in Indo Malayan Ecoregion : Tiger as Touchstone Umbrella Species!

Mohammed Ashraf

Bengal Tiger as Umbrella Species

In spite of the large scale investment on tiger conservation over the last quarter of a century, tiger numbers continue to decline at dramatic rate. Considerable conservation efforts, initiatives and campaigns both nationally and internationally have been spearheaded with mixed results. In some nations, tiger numbers dropped to near zero with little or no hope for long term survival in the wild. In other nations, population seem to be stabilized and only few nations managed to increase tiger numbers so far. India and Nepal have made good advancement to increase tiger numbers over the last decade or so and governments, civil societies and NGOs of these nations alongside international donor organizations are collaborating to help secure tiger population and its habitats for long term persistence of wild tigers. Since the 2010 Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg in Russia, the first most high-level government meeting for conserving single species in Asia, states of all thirteen nations where tiger population is arguably present, made commitment to help protect tigers in their respective nations through ambitious project called Tx2 which aim to double the tiger numbers from current population of 3900 to 7800 by year 2022 – coinciding with next Chinese Year of the Tiger. It certainly is an ambitious project that came under St. Petersburg Declaration agreed by all the thirteen tiger range states. Three quarter of the time has elapsed since St. Petersburg Declaration with only three years left to double the global wild tiger population, countries have lost tigers, large numbers of tiger habitats across Asia has been converted to mono culture cash crop cultivation, tigers essential prey population has been decimated, forests and grasslands are encroaches and decimated and direct killing of tigers for its body parts, retaliation continued unchecked and unabated. The future of tigers’ survival in the wild looks bleak and pessimistic. In the face of current population status of tigers and considering to the fact that time is ticking to meet St. Petersburg Declaration for Tx2 deadline by year 2022, it is critically important to revitalize our tiger projects that can reflect more holistic approach of tiger conservation where significant potential to approach tiger conservation as key proponent of overall biodiversity conservation should sits right at the heart of all tiger ecology and conservation action plans across Indo-Malayan tiger landscape.

This young transient Bengal tiger was captured in came trap in restored wildlife corridor in Bhutan. Wildlfie corridors play essential role for improving dwindling population size by aiding tigers to disperse from its source pool that are often small protected areas in many parts of Asia. Image courtesy : World Wide Fund for Nature, 2017 Report – Beyond the Stripes

Tigers are truly a high profile landscape predator which require relatively large landscape for hunting, breeding, foraging and for home range establishment. It is a flagship carnivore that has catalyzed significant social and political momentum in the past and often served to raise ecological and conservation education across the hemispheres. Since, its ecological and behavioral attributes are deeply rooted into harnessing the opportunities of large landscape, it is critically important that tiger conservation initiatives focus on safeguarding landscapes that are beyond protected areas where majority of

Tiger Conservation Landscape : These are the only areas where tigers now live against the ongoing anthropogenic disturbances in heavily fragmented ecosystems as indicated in green. GIS Data Source : World Wildlife Fund, Washington D.C. USA.

the tigers now inhabit. In spit of the fact that there are still seventy million hectares of landscape available for tigers across Indo-Malayan biographic ecoregion, over eighty percent of the current tiger population is restricted within protected areas of various sizes. Protected areas lone cannot help secure long term survival of breeding tiger population. For tigers to live this century and beyond, it is essential that landscape corridors that link source population currently residing in protected areas are created and maintained for healthy breeding tigers to disperse and establish their own home range. Sadly, it is often outside of the protected areas where land degradation, agricultural expansion, mining, energy and other anthropogenic disturbances that take place. Creating ecological corridors to connect protected areas will ensure that the entire tiger landscape has been protected. It will significantly enhance ecological diversity and gene flow not only for tigers but also for large suits of species of flora and fauna that share lands with tiger.

Panthera tigris

Tigers are classic keystone umbrella species that help protect multitude of endangered mega fauna including Orangutan and Rhinoceros in tropical and semi tropical ecosystems across South and South East Asia. For example, where critically endangered primate Orangutan (Pongo abelii) and Sumatran Rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) live, hundred percent of their land overlap with tiger habitats. Over thirty percent of endangered Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) population falls under tiger landscapes in countries like Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Since these species are also endangered and often served as flagship species, conserving tigers simply means, these species receive automatic protection. Hence the word ‘umbrella species’ for tiger conservation has special meaning in terms of bringing about high profile vertebrate conservation management and education across Indo Malayan landscape. Some of the most outstanding and most richest biological assemblages are found in tiger landscapes in Asia. Four Biodiversity Hotspots – the worlds most richest part in terms of biodiversity – lie in Indo Malayan ecoregions and three of these Biodiversity Hotspots are in India and Nepal alone. They cover majority of the tiger landscapes hence conserving tigers not only help protect these critically important global biodiversity hotspots but also help safeguarding astonishingly high numbers of species from all taxa notably mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fishes – the essential components of tropical diversity. The diversity of ecosystems from tall grasslands in Eastern India to Himalayan foothills, the temperate high altitude forests where critically endangered Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) roams in Nepal to the largest mangrove swamp of Bangladesh where only remaining Bengal tigers live, conserving tiger habitats beyond protected areas through creation, restoration and maintenance of wildlife and ecological corridors for dispersal, gene flow, ecosystem functions is not just for tigers itself but more importantly for multitude of charismatic and enigmatic species that are facing global extinction assaults stemming from human induced disturbances across tropical and semi tropical Asia.

Current tiger range (green) and Tx2 range (red) to double the tiger numbers by year 2022 against the background of historical range of tigers (Panthera tigris). GIS Data Source : World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Washington D.C. USA.

Landscape based tiger ecology and conservation management has been well integrated in many parts of South Asia and its effectiveness to improve tiger population size is well documented in Nepal, Bhutan and India. Fragmented tiger ecosystems in the form of protected areas in India for example simply are not enough, if tigers to survive well beyond this century. Considering to the fact, over 70 million hectares of forests are still available for tigers to disperse through establishment of ecological dispersal corridors, restoration and establishment of landscape corridors will not only help benefits to increase tiger numbers, given adequate protection of course, but will immensely benefits large suits of biologically diverse flora and fauna along with multiple numbers of critically endangered flagship vertebrates like Snow Leopards, Great Indian Hornbills, Indian Rhinoceroses, Asian Elephants, Burmese Pythons, Orangutans, and Sumatran Rhinos to name few. Long term survival of these species in the wild depends on securing long term future for tigers in Asia.

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