In early April, when a tigress in New York’s Bronx Zoo tested positive for Covid-19, medical experts recorded the first evidence that the novel coronavirus could jump from humans to other species. The four-year-old tigress, Nadia, was suspected to have contracted the virus from an asymptomatic caretaker. Within weeks, four more tigers and three lions at the zoo tested positive. Today, in the face of multiple threats to the endangered big cats – including habitat loss, poaching, human-wildlife conflict and a growing predator-prey imbalance in the natural forests – this human-to-tiger transmission poses additional challenges.

Tigers are a keystone species at the top of the ecological pyramid, and their survival is pivotal to the wellbeing of several animals, including humans. Classified as “Endangered” in the IUCN Red List for years, coordinated global initiatives are now impacting a slow rise in the tiger numbers, with an estimated 3,159 individuals in its natural habitat today. India has been leading these conservation efforts, and is home to an estimated 2,967 wild tigers in its 50 tiger reserves, that is, roughly three-quarters of the world’s total remaining non-captive population.

The threat of a potential virus in and around tiger reserves and other wildlife sanctuaries, could upset conservation efforts, raising concerns about feline health and deaths, endangering the intricate ecological balance and life on earth itself. Recent studies have also highlighted that a decline in wildlife population has facilitated the transmission of zoonotic viruses to humans, pointing to a vicious cycle from wild mammals to humans and back. To control and manage this stress effectively, it is important to reduce human exploitation of wildlife habitats and limit our interactions with wild animals despite an inevitable increase in anthropogenic activities.

Tiger-bearing forests matter

For centuries, the tiger has dominated the Indian psyche and celebrated in its folklore. But this is not the sole criteria of India’s tiger conservation strategy – it is, in fact, an effort to counter forest fragmentation and environmental degradation, and support a symbiotic, nature-based way of life in which forests, wildlife and humans thrive.

Research shows that an adult male tiger typically commands a territory ranging from at least 20 sq km in high tiger density areas like India, to almost 900 sq km in the forests of Russia. Similarly, it demands a tiger-prey balance, with standing prey base of 400-500 ungulates per year. Unfortunately, despite varied measures, loss of habitat, declining prey base and poaching continue to plague India’s forests today. To offer ecological security to the tiger and all its associated species, means to ensure continued existence of healthy forest ecosystems that are safe and non-fragmented, and offer ample area for free movement of the feline. Such a forest can have generous co-benefits ­– most importantly, it can offer economic support to forest-dependent communities and related businesses, at large.

Tigers are a keystone species at the top of the ecological pyramid and their survival is pivotal to the wellbeing of several animals. Credit: readontheroad/Flickr

Engines of economic growth

Policy options in the present times are often focused on reigniting growth in a sustainable manner. Tiger bearing forests support ecological processes that produce varied ecosystem services important for human well-being. While current economic growth models emphasise productivity improvements by building infrastructure, tiger reserves are colossal bedrocks of green infrastructure that provide fresh water and clean air, curtail disease occurrence and spread, decompose waste, store carbon, conserve soil, support local economies and are sources of many current and potential medicines. These values have significant resilience and health benefits for the people.

To cite an example, more than 600 rivers originate or are fed by India’s tiger reserves, which ensure provisioning of water to the nation’s large population. An important lesson about the connection between tiger reserves and rivers comes from the conservation efforts in the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai forests near Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, which saved the river Tamirabarani. By early 1990s, this 125-km-long perennial river, the only major river that starts and ends in Tamil Nadu, was drying up. Its revival came in the form of a notification by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1992, declaring Kalakkad-Mundanthurai a tiger reserve and restricting human movement in the forest. Not only did this directive help the tiger population of the region, but also gave an inadvertent boost to the conservation of the river.

Thus, it was only obvious why, while inaugurating the Third Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation in New Delhi in 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew the attention of the global community to the enormous benefits of tiger forests as “natural capital”. This was the basis of a study supported by the National Tiger Conservation Authority and conducted in 16 tiger reserves of India, which showed that a rupee invested in tiger reserves provided 243 to 7,488 times worth of benefits to the country annually, but without receiving any recognition or payment in exchange.

Tiger bearing forests support ecological processes that produce varied ecosystem services important for human well-being. Credit: Suriajay88/Wikimedia Commons

‘One-health’ approach

Today, as Covid-19 spreads across world communities, causing loss of lives to livelihoods, economic crashes and fears of existing and impending co-morbidities, it becomes even more important to understand and analyse various aspects and benefits of tiger conservation. The possibility of human-to-animal transmission of Covid-19 today, demands that the Indian authorities practise vigilance and put all its wildlife habitats and corridors – which house nearly 60% of world’s tiger population – on high-alert. Additionally, securing the country’s abundant natural assets could go a long way in preventing future pandemics.

While the government has promoted programmes like the Ayushman Bharat Scheme to bolster the healthcare sector, it has now become important that to adopt a “one-health” approach to understand the interconnectedness between humans, environment and animals for purposing optimal health outcomes. Such an approach could reduce disease prevalence and minimise healthcare expenditure substantially.

Not just tiger reserves, but the entire network of 870 protected areas – comprising 104 national parks, 551 wildlife sanctuaries, 88 conservation reserves and 127 community reserves and covering 5.02% of the country’s geographical area – urgently deserves attention. Tighter monitoring, empowering forest dwellers, restricting and supervising tourism in forest areas, controlling interference and encroachment by urban communities, can help secure these habitats, and facilitate health and economic wellbeing.

As an immediate response to Covid-19, educating forest communities, equipping them with knowledge and wherewithal, safety and hygiene measures, first-aid and medial support and easy connectivity to health centers, is also crucial. A well-distributed and resilient habitat for wildlife and forest-dwellers can enhance the flow of multiple ecosystem services to economic systems thereby promoting physical, environmental and financial wellbeing not just among the local people but the national populace, as well.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.