India must wake up to tiger crisis
Known as one of India’s leading wildlife conservationists, Belinda Wright has been the public face of tiger protection in the country. Born in Kolkata in 1953, Ms Wright has spent her entire life in India working on a gamut of wildlife issues. She was brought up in a house full of unusual animals, including a tiger cub and a leopard, which possibly set the stage for her life-long passion for nature and wildlife ~ particularly for wild tigers.
In 1994, Ms Wright founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) with the avowed objective to “bring a new focus to the daunting task of tackling India’s growing wildlife crisis” by providing support and information to government authorities, including state forest and police officials, to combat poaching and the escalating illegal trade in wildlife.
Ms Wright is the executive director of WPSI. One of the country’s respected and effective wildlife conservation voluntary organisations, the WPSI has now broadened its ambit to deal with human-animal conflicts.
Assisted by a team of committed environmentalists, Ms Wright has been responsible for hundreds of seizures and raids on poaching gangs dealing in body parts of tigers and other endangered wildlife animals. She travels the length and breadth of India to support conservation efforts and help enforce the law, often going undercover, in the battle against wildlife crime. As part of her endeavour, she has even literally stared down the barrel of a gun in order to help curb the trade in tiger skin and bones.
Before founding the WPSI, Ms Wright was an award-winning filmmaker and photographer. In 1985, she won two Emmy Awards and 14 other major international awards for her National Geographic film Land of the Tiger. To shoot this film, she spent more than two years pursuing the secret lives of wild tigers in Kanha and Ranthambore tiger reserves.
She has co-authored five books, including Through the Tiger’s Eyes: A Chronicle of India’s Wildlife. Her photographs and writings have appeared in books, exhibitions, magazines and scientific journals throughout the world.
In a freewheeling interview with MAUSAM SHARMA, Ms Wright highlights the grave tiger crisis gripping India ~ which was exemplified by the vanishing of all tigers from the Sariska tiger reserve a couple of years ago. Striking a grim note, Ms Wright warns that it might be too late if India still does not wake up to the tiger and wildlife crises engulfing it, stressing that the country must put its act together to avert such a disaster.
How do you assess the decline in animal population in the wild?
Well, I think it is more a question of an alarming habitat decline. Since India’s Independence the country’s forest cover has drastically fallen and obviously you can’t have wildlife if you don’t have the habitat. Another problem is that much of the habitat known as forest land is heavily degraded, mostly from human activity, including grazing, wood collection, etc., other than minor forest produce collection.
Encroachment and poor quality of habitat are leading to diminishing prey species. And without habitat and prey species, you of course cannot have animals like the tigers. The tiger really is a symbol of our forests but a tiger is not a difficult animal to save or protect. It needs ample space to live in, water and good prey species as food. But even these three elements are scarce now. The degraded and diminished habitat affects all wildlife. Not only big animals, but small ones too. And then ultimately this affects the quality of our life. Because, if you don’t have insects or bats or pollenisation, life cycle is disturbed. With forests being cut down, the source of our water is also getting affected and that would also become a critical issue.
What is your analysis of challenges facing the tiger habitats?
With escalating population and scarce land, people, particularly our political masters, now look around for unused land and tiger habitat is always eyed. Historically, the best lands, including the flat lands and fertile valleys, were turned over to agriculture. The more difficult landscape, with gorges and hills and impenetrable forest, were set aside as sanctuaries and national parks, many of which became tiger reserves. These have obviously been blessed with natural resources. That opens the door to a variety of human intervention, the biggest of which would be mining, construction of dams; but also if a highway, electricity are to be put through, the first thing would be them.
So, the tiger habitat is constantly being encroached upon. Even though there is law to curb that, people find a way round it. The lesson that is never learnt is that these are not just useless land and are too precious a natural resource to be frittered away. A combination of influential people, including politicians and bureaucrats, is bent on doing it. Not every time is it for personal gains as often it becomes just a question of convenience. If you put a dam where there is a town, you may have to deal with the opposition of a lot of people, but if you have to put a dam in a tiger habitat, then tigers don’t talk, they don’t have a vote, they don’t have bags of money, so they are very easy to deal with.
How effective have various government policies, laws and schemes been in tiger conservation? Where did they fail and how can the loopholes be plugged?
India has fantastic forest laws and conservation policies, including the Wildlife Protection Act. As pieces of legislation, for the most part they are excellent. The problem is they are not effectively implemented. And yes the government has amended them so may times. They don’t have loopholes, but sometimes it’s lack of knowledge on the part of officials as well as the judiciary, of the people entrusted with the job of implementing them. On paper, however, no problem exists. They have not proved effective because their attempts have been half-hearted.
Now the tribal forest rights law is coming into force. Nobody really knows how huge its impact would be on India’s wildlife. But as a conservationist, I can only presume that its effect would be bigger and deeper than any other legislation in India since it gives land rights to people saying that would be good for wildlife.
I think 20 years ago, yes, it might have been, but in this age when people want to move forward they don’t want to be stuck in the jungle, lands they cannot till? it is not appropriate. Most conservationists in India are extremely concerned about its fall-out that has to be seen. This has been debated and discussed right up to the prime ministerial level in great detail, but ultimately it’s a matter of votes, and tiger and other wildlife have to take a back seats.
The onus is really on people who created the Act and felt it was not necessary to exclude India’s national park and wildlife sanctuaries.
If you ask the ministry, loopholes can be plugged by another amendment. But I believe that good training and knowledge of the law would make them sufficient, provided the wildlife legislation is not overruled by people’s legislation.
How does India measure with the rest of the world on the conservation front?
Fortunately, India has a long history of conservation and this goes back to the Mauryan empire when forest guards were appointed to protect these areas. So, thanks to this great history of forest conservation, India has a fair amount of wildlife left. We have almost 60 per cent of the wild tiger population in the world. But I believe that we don’t really value our amazing natural, national heritage, which is distressing.
India’s wild tiger population is certainly the most important in the world. There are tigers in 13 other countries, with small populations. In China there are hardly any tigers left. Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh have important tiger populations but nothing as compared to India. The rest of the world is extremely concerned about India’s tigers, but, broadly, there is silence in India. The media has done an amazing job covering tiger stories but the public at large and political leaders are lacking in their initiatives.
How do you evaluate the performance of the Tiger Task Force?
The Tiger Task Force was set up by the Prime Minister to look into all these things, it does not exist any more as it was a time-bound exercise. But it produced a report on the issue of tiger conservation in India. Where, I think, it let the tigers down was that, for the first time, it brought up an argument that had not been expressed before ~ tigers versus people.
In India, people for centuries have spent their lives with the tigers, not always on very good terms, but for better or worse, it was a way of life.
The Task Force created this new dragon that people must come first and this was like people versus tiger. Its report says that tigers need a lot of space, habitats, but then there is a big gap? which is, what about the people who must come first.
I think there is a place for people and for tigers. And it’s our responsibility to make sure that the tiger has an empire, place and space in the future of India. That is where we have all failed.
Basically tigers and humans can’t live in harmony, they can live in respect. People need space and tigers also need space. The problem is the country’s ever burgeoning population. And even if we cut every tree, remove every park and national wildlife sanctuary in India to let people move in, it still wouldn’t be enough. Now, our important wildlife areas, including critical tiger habitats, should be like temples or mosques. They should be so sacred that we do not harm them. Because they are something we have to leave for our children and future generations and that is where we have failed.
What is your prescription to save tigers?
Saving the tigers is no big deal. The problems and solutions are well-documented. Tigers are also prolific breeders providing they get space, food and water. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. But, unfortunately, we have not been able to work out a way where these basic needs are provided for this magnificent animal. It includes a will, better resources, training and facilities for forest guards; it requires trained professionals working with local communities so that they benefit from the protection of these areas.
After all these years, the National Wildlife Crime Control Bureau has been set up to protect the tiger and curb the trade in its body parts. But, I think it is only on paper yet. It does not have police officers, its phone number doesn’t ring. I am a very optimistic person, but I am afraid, I am not so about such an ineffective bureau or, for that matter, the question of saving the tigers. Which means that people like me have also failed. All these years what we have managed to achieve is that tigers no longer die in pain. At least people know what the problem is. Why they are being killed? But we can’t stop the problem.
How can people at large be involved in conserving wildlife?
People in India, because of its culture and history, have a sort of national interest in nature. But in this age of Indian development, this is being crushed so that it hasn’t flowered. Because if we had a very public response to the wildlife problems, then we would have found the way through. India is developing quite fast and people barely have time for any other activity now. So even though there might be seriousness of interest, that seed has never been allowed to germinate. And we, the conservationists, have also failed there and I don’t know why. Some of my colleagues say there is a new way forward we have to look at? people benefiting from the habitats left.
I think the children of India are very interested in this subject but in ten years time when they are in a position to make the real difference, it will be too late.
(The interviewer is a Staff Reporter with The Statesman, New Delhi.)
For The Tiger
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