Burning coal fuels climate change, causes acid rain, and spreads toxic pollutants into the environment, but now a new Greenpeace report warns that coal may also imperil the world’s biggest feline: the tiger. Home to world’s largest population of tigers—in this case the Bengal subspecies (Panthera tigris tigris)—India is also the world’s third largest coal producer. The country’s rapacious pursuit of coal—it has nearly doubled production since 2007—has pushed the industry into tiger territory, threatening to destroy forests and fragment the tiger’s already threatened population.
“Unfortunately for the tiger, its largest contiguous habitat—Central India—is also where most of India’s coal lies,” Ashish Fernandes, author of the report, told mongabay.com.
India is one of the bright spots in the global effort to save the tiger from extinction. The country now holds around 1,700 tigers, over half of the world’s population of wild tigers. Although India’s tiger population is generally considered to be in decline, there have been some local population increases giving hope that the country can turn around the situation. Yet the tiger still faces poaching and habitat loss, the latter which is likely to be exacerbated by open pit mining for coal.
“India’s Protected Areas/Tiger Reserves are small by global standards, with few larger than 500 square kilometers. As such, if isolated, their tiger populations are not viable in the long term,” Fernandes explains. “Tigers, males in particular, roam large areas in search of mates, and this ensures genetic vibrancy. As young tigers mature, they also need to establish their own territories, or face conflict with dominant males. Corridors help aid this dispersal and ensure a healthy gene flow between different ‘source’ tiger populations.”
India is a signatory of an ambitious conservation plan to double wild tiger populations worldwide by 2022, a plan which was endorsed by all 13 tiger countries in 2010. Worldwide, tigers have been decimated by habitat loss, prey depletion, and hunting, now largely to feed the Chinese medicine trade. The great cats have been left with about 7 percent of their historical range, and already three subspecies have vanished for good.
Coal mining in Central India also raises broader issues beyond wildlife and the effort to save the tiger. India’s natural forests continue to vanish. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), around 19 percent of India is covered in natural forests, excluding monoculture plantations, and many of the remaining forests are degraded and fragmented. Last year the federal government announced a $10.14 billion (460 billion rupees) plan to expand its forests by five million hectares (over 12 million acres), while improving forests quality on another five million hectares. But the state of India’s forests remains complex and generally one of ongoing decline.
“India is losing natural forests at a rate of between 1.5 to 2.7% a year—alarming when you consider that the country has already lost 70% of its native forest cover,” says Fernandes. “Plantations however are growing—usually with fast growing monoculture species such as acacia. Plantations are no substitute for natural forests. The Indian government is using its aggressive plantation program to hide the ongoing destruction of natural forest—primarily for mining, dams and other large infrastructure projects.”