Umbrella species (Def): Umbrella species are species selected for making conservation-related decisions, typically because protecting these species indirectly protects the many other species that make up the ecological community of its habitat.
On this day, how could I not write about one of the most enigmatic species of Indian junglesÂ – The Tiger. Also considered as an umbrella species they are crucial not just for maintaining the ecological balance but also for our survival. How? I will come to it shortly. But first, let us look at some interesting facts about tigers.
Do you know that no two tigers ever look the same? Hence they can be identified based on their stripe pattern. The tiger stripe patterns are like human fingerprints, they are unique to that individual. We all know tiger Panthera Tigris Tigris is big carnivore from cat family and we must know like domestic cats they spend a lot of time grooming themselves. Not just that, they have an extremely keen sense of smell and sight. They have eyesight which works 6 times better than humans in dark. Crepuscular by nature, they are most active during dawn and dusk. This is generally speaking the hunting time for tigers. It is at dawn and dusk that I have seen them in jungles.Â They use scent marking of bodily discharges, also known as spraying, scraping and rolling on ground to make other tigers aware of their presence. All these acts essential involves the release of Pheromones to communicate with other tigers.
It is firmly believed tigers use tail wags to communicate with other tigers around, how and what of tail wag is still a mystery. It is also proven that they use the whiskers around the mouth to detect micro-changes in wind directions and or feel objects around them.
Next interesting aspect is that tigers use ears not just for listening but also for communication. This communication is done using false ears. It also acts as a distraction if any other animal is stalking them. The ears look like eyes from behind. Every tiger has false eyes.
All this communication is essential to tigers because they are very territorial. Tigers will viciously guard their turfs against other tigers. A male Royal Bengal tiger can have a territory as big as 100 sq km whereas the Siberian tiger can have a territory of 250 sq kms. One male can easily have 3 to 4 females in his territory. Females have smaller territories compared to males. Not just that females are almost smaller by one third to the size of a male tiger. An adult male would easily weigh 250 kgs whereas a female would hover around 180 kgs. Just image, they are 3 to 4 times the size of an average human adult. By now you must have realized why they are the apex predators. They have all tools required to be at top of the food chain.
It was on top of the food chain for millions of years. It was only when we started using the mechanized equipment for hunting the game change. At the beginning of the 20th century, it is estimated that Indian subcontinent had almost 1,00,000+ tigers in the wild. During British Raj, tigers were used for trophy hunting and sport. In the post-independence era, abject poverty along forest lines and heavy demand for tigers for medicinal use in China led to rampant poaching. By the year 1974, only 1800 tigers were left in the wild. They had almost disappeared. This is when Government of India intervened and started “Project Tiger”. Today the number of tigers in India is estimated to be around 2900. Not even 3% of what it was 120 years ago, whereas the human population has grown almost 6 folds in the same period. This rapid growth of human population meant indiscriminate deforestation to meet the human need for various resources like wood, coal, road and rail to name few. With nowhere to go now, the tigers come in direct conflict with humans on a regular basis. So it is essential that we protect tigers by protecting their habitat. The question that would come to your mind is “Why should be urban citizens worry about tigers in the jungle, they are thousands of kilometres away from us?”. The answer for me is simple.
To protect our future generations. To save humanity we must save tigers and it’s habitat. It has benefits aplenty. When jungles are dense and have a thriving population of tiger, people refrain from venturing into jungle to gather firewood, honey, tendu leave etc. This implies we will have a positive cascading effect on increasing forest cover which is below recommended figure of 33%. An increase in forest cover would mean- first, lesser damage will be caused by the flood. Second, it will also replenish the under groundwater levels. Last and most importantly give us air filled with oxygen. Water and air are basic requirements for human sustenance. Also for the forest eco-system, absence of tigers will mean an unsustainable increase in wild herbivore like deers, wild boars etc. This, in turn, would lead to herbivore coming out and destroying agriculture lands. Example, the blue bulls are declared as Vermins in state of Maharashtra. I am sure most of us won’t know what blue bull is. Point in case, More animal conflict and resources issue will crop up in absence of tigers.
Just to give an example, when the Dodos went extinct in Mauritius, one species of Acacia tree stopped regenerating completely. Ultimately entire system collapsed. So when a species goes extinct, it leaves behind a scar, which affects the entire ecosystem. Tiger is umbrella species and we can’t let it go extinct. So we need to protect tigers, save them from poaching and save them for saving ourselves.
Another big benefit of thriving tiger habitat is it gives a scope for tourism, thus employing locals. According to one study done by economists, one tourist can give employment to 11 locals. This will automatically reduce the need for local to poach animals to earn money. Think about it.
Unfortunately, humans have erroneously believed that we are “Umbrella species”. Humans have infinite prowess to control and manipulate nature, that’s what we always believed until the Corona Virus struck us all. Till now we believed that our presence is utmost important and nature is last thing on our mind. Now we are so scared of nature’s fight back that we are hiding away in pockets of our homes, isolating ourselves, to save ourselves from the wrath of nature. We believed that as umbrella species we can do whatever we want. But that was never the case. The job of the umbrella species is to protect everything under it and maintain an equilibrium. We aren’t the Umbrella species. And if we want to be Umbrella species, we need to start protecting tigers and it’s habitats.
I’m sure in a few months down the line we will have a vaccination. We will come out of our hidings and soon become engaged in our ignorance. It will last till the time nature fights back with us, again. It is time we give respect to nature and not take it for granted. Support tiger protection and habitat conservation efforts. Visit a tiger reserve, support eco-tourism and make sure you see the enigmatic apex predator of India for yourself before it is too late.