Things could be looking up for Wakeeta. Smaller than average and an orphan, she belongs to a species 45 percent of which die from unnatural causes and lives in perpetual danger of being slaughtered by poachers for her skin.
Wakeeta is a five-year-old tigress. She lives in Bandhavgargh, one of India’s most famous tiger reserves. Until now she has lived in anonymity, recognized only by wardens, guides and a few regular tiger watchers. But this week she and 24 other tigers in Bandhavgargh have been introduced to a potential audience of millions by a new website.
Tiger Nation ( www.tigernation.org ) uses the tools of social media to follow individual tigers. So far it is watching 50 in two reserves: Ranthambhore, in Rajasthan, and Bandhavgarh, in the so-called “tiger state” of Madhya Pradesh. The ultimate intention is to monitor the life of every tiger in India. With so few left in the wild – about 1,700 – that ambition is not unfeasible.
The site has not been set up with any overt political purpose. Yet its global exposure of the fortunes of so many individual animals hardly chimes with the traditional diffidence, if not outright secretiveness, of the Indian government when it comes to having its management of tiger reserves examined.
Two years ago the Indian National Tiger Conservation Authority declared that “tiger tourism” was to be phased out and visitors barred from tiger reserves. After an international outcry the idea was abandoned. A conservationist told me then: “The Forest Department does not want tourism because tourism imposes an inconvenient monitoring of its activities.” Now tourists are one of the main groups being mobilized to submit their observations to the Tiger Nation website. India’s tigers will be more publicly monitored than ever before.
One of the chief architects of Tiger Nation is Julian Matthews, who 10 years ago founded TOFT (Tour Operators for Tigers), a campaign to develop responsible tourism as a weapon in tiger conservation. “The Indian authorities just haven’t got a handle on how to use tourism as a conservation tool,“ he said this week. “It’s incredibly powerful. It’s the one thing that is saving wildlife across Africa. The problem at the moment is that India is where countries like Kenya were in the 1970s….To some extent Tiger Nation is an answer to that, saying let’s show you how tourism can build a powerful conservation tool. It is people-powered conservation.”
Significantly, Tiger Nation has not yet been able to set up webcams in the national parks or have access to footage from official camera traps. “We would really like to work with the government and we are talking to scientists who have been developing a camera tracking project,” Matthews said.” But we have to get [government] permission to do it. It’s very difficult.”
As it is, the website is an example of fashionable “citizen science”. It uses software that can immediately identify a tiger from its stripes so that contributors’ photographs and observations of particular animals can be added to a database. The information is then available to park field directors, border and intelligence agencies, NGOs and scientific organizations to help keep regular tabs on tigers and their movements.
The site is also seeking information about three dozen tigers in the two parks of which there have been no recent sightings.
On another level it’s a tiger soap opera. “It’s a bit like watching the BBC’s Big Cat Diaries online,” Matthews explained. “It’s storytelling, so people can watch a cat from when it’s a few months old to when it’s 15 and king of its domain.”
One immediate task is to come up with more names for the tigers being profiled. “You call something T41 and it disappears and no one cares. You call it Sita and then it’s ‘Where’s Sita gone?’ and you’ve suddenly got a story,” Matthews told me.
The site will be funded mainly by subscription. Basic entry is free but access to the full site costs $23.50 a year.
In the meantime Wakeeta is rearing a family of her own: three healthy male cubs. They were seen with her, drinking at a waterhole, earlier this month. Someone reported it to Tiger Nation: Wakeeta now has the world watching out for her. If nothing else, that means that, whatever befalls her, she will never be a mere statistic. And who knows? She might even be about to play a part in the story of the dramatic survival of one of the most magnificent species on the planet. Things could indeed be looking up for Wakeeta.