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The fear factor: How a little alarm protects tigers, landscapes – and us

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The Fear FactorPoaching, hunting and habitat loss have reduced the global tiger population from roughly 100,000 in 1900 to just 3,800 today. Photo: Midori Paxton

“Alarm call!” My 12-year-old daughter whispered.

Fear was in the air, and a successful tiger safari depends on it. The alarm calls of spotted deer and Hanuman langur told us that a tiger was on the prowl.

I had always dreamed of seeing wild tigers, and India was the obvious choice. More than 70 percent of the estimated 3,800 remaining wild tigers live here.

My alarm calls started in February this year when I was in the Ranthambore National Park. Once a hunting ground for maharajas of yore, it is now a tiger reserve with an 11th century fort cresting a towering plateau that overlooks its lakes, dry forests and meadows.

Tigers, as well as all the birds and other wildlife, are a sufficient draw in their own right, but it is the ruins of human times past – gates, ancient stone slab roads, the foundations of long gone shrines etc. – that raise Ranthambore from the remarkable to the truly exceptional! Humans past. And humans present. And Tiger present!

This small reserve, despite an estimated 62 wild tigers, is unfenced. Despite India’s dense population of roughly 1.3 billion, the same goes for all the country’s 49 tiger reserves. “The park is surrounded by 90 villages and farmlands,” the head of the National Park told us. “This is a real test of co-existence.”

The experience was simply incredible. Three days, five jeep safaris, and every trip at least one tiger, often almost close enough to smell that majestic auburn coat.  

There are no elephants here, nonetheless the animals, to a less noticeable degree, shape and regulate the landscape. One evening while friends were swapping photos of peacock flocks roosting in a banyan tree by the ancient rajah’s gate, I came across an interesting academic paper. It focused on two things: natural landscapes and large carnivores. The title was intriguing. “Fear itself' can help restore ecosystems”. The content of the paper was equally intriguing – especially given that I read it in Ranthambore.

This recent study by the University of Western Ontario argues that the fear top predators (i.e. large carnivores such as lions, wolves and tigers) inspire can have cascading effects down the food chain critical to maintaining healthy ecosystems.

Basically what it says is that the layers of prey species – in this case sambar deer, spotted deer etc. – prompted by the fear factor, move and behave in a way that sustains the complex functioning and vital biodiversity of ecosystems.

This means that the killing of top predators such as tigers for their bones and skins is not only driving the species to the brink of extinction, robbing people from opportunities deriving from tourism income, (tiger tourism and a range of ecosystem services from six tiger reserves contribute an amazing US$1.3 billion annually to the Indian economy), ecosystem services such as water catchment, flood control, carbon storage etc. It is also fundamentally detrimental to the well-being of all that benefit from their healthy living environment, human and wildlife alike.  

When I visited, Ranthambore was thriving. The gateway town of Sawai Madhopur had tiger murals all over its railway station, scores of hotels and guesthouses, bustling craft markets, restaurants, cafes, safari outfitters, tourist commerce aplenty. And why not? Every year, about 300,000 people visit the park.

This brings me back to the Fear Factor. If they all went to the same place, it would be a disaster. Parks authorities prevent this by dividing the reserve into zones, evenly distributing visitors, and leaving large portions off limits. Large predators do something similar. They keep prey species on the move which prevents sedentary populations and localised over grazing/browsing and habitat degradation.

Tigers, despite their prominent symbolic role in many of Asia’s cultural and religious belief systems, were once regarded as a danger to humans. The fact that half the world’s population live in tiger range countries tells us something. Co-existence, while not always easy, can be achieved. The unfenced Ranthambore scenario proves it.

Tiger populations are increasing in some range countries, but not all. In the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, “Conservation of tigers is not a choice, it is an imperative.”

UNDP, with funding from the Global Environment Facility, has supported projects in tiger landscapes in 12 tiger range countries. Our strategy comprises maintenance of vital ecosystem services, improved livelihoods and enhanced capacity for natural resource governance.

Prime Minister Modi also remarked, “Friends! Species belonging to the animal kingdom, usually do not act to their disadvantage. However, human beings are an exception.”

I believe a healthy tiger population is an indicator for sustainable development, and we must not act to our disadvantage. The Fear Factor and landscape health is a welcome addition to our armoury.

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Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic
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Photo: Midori Paxton
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Photo: Midori Paxton
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Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic
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Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic
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Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic
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Photo: Midori Paxton
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Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic
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Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic
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Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic
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Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic
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Photo: Steve Winter/National Geographic
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Photo: Midori Paxton

Asia & the Pacific Environment India Ecosystems and biodiversity Blog post Midori Paxton