Project Tiger didn’t adapt to changing scenario

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Tiger, a magnificent creature, is one of the most culturally important
and beautiful animals on earth. The big cats – most important
constituent of the ecosystem – are facing the threat of extinction due
to unabated hunting for the greed of money, despite global
conservation efforts. Many say by hunting tigers humans are doing
nothing but digging their own grave.

India, once home to 40,000 tigers, now has just 1,498 big cats left,
according to a 2008 report by the National Tiger Conservation

In an exclusive interview, Belinda Wright, one of India's leading
wildlife conservationists, shares her views with Biplob Ghosal of on several issues ranging from Project Tiger's
incapability to adapt to the changed scenario to illegal trade and
poaching of tigers.

Belinda Wright founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India in
1994. The organisation helps avert India's wildlife crises by
providing support and information to combat poaching and the
escalating illegal wildlife trade.

Biplob: The last Census revealed a significant decline in the number
of tigers. How do you rate the Project Tiger launched by the
government three decades back? Can India still save the tiger or is it
already too late?

Belinda Wright: When it was launched in April 1973 – which is nearly
four decades ago – Project Tiger was considered one of the most
ambitious wildlife conservation projects in the world. As a result of
Project Tiger, huge tracts of forests were declared protected areas
and received special funding. The tiger was the focus but all the
other species in its domain also benefitted.

There is no doubt that Project Tiger is one of the main reasons why
wild tigers still survive in our forests today. Unfortunately, in the
past couple of decades, Project Tiger did not adapt to or even
acknowledge the changing scenario and consequently, it did not take
timely action to stem the growing problem of poaching and human-tiger
conflict. Ground-level protection and enforcement and implementation
of The Wild Life (Protection) Act were also very lax and this resulted
in tiger numbers declining, once again.

But it is certainly not too late. If we can curb tiger poaching and
the poaching of the tiger's prey species, if we can stem tiger-human
conflict and if we can stop the encroachment of tiger habitat, then
yes, the tiger can be saved. It is not difficult for this species to
make a comeback; if tigers are given enough space, food and water,
they breed well and multiply quickly.

Biplob: What steps should the government take to save the magnificent
creature? Should the shoot-at-sight orders in place in Kaziranga be
implemented across the country's reserves?

Belinda Wright: The Central government finally started to wake up to
the fact that the tiger was in dire straits in 2006. The combination
of the loss of all Sariska's tigers in 2004, the August 2005 expose of
the tiger skin trade in Tibet by WPSI (Wildlife Protection Society of
India) and EIA (Environmental Investigation Agency), the August 2006
CAG report on the management of tiger reserves, and the August 2007
preliminary report of the government-sponsored tiger Census, all came
as a shocking wake-up call.

The government has now greatly increased funding and is making a
sincere effort to be proactive. Various steps are being taken to
improve the protection and management of our tiger reserves, and to
secure their boundaries. What we need now is the same acceptance and
political will from the state governments. Unfortunately, the states
are still more driven towards projects aimed at financial gain, rather
than tiger conservation.

The shoot-at-sight orders in Kaziranga have proven to be very
effective in curbing the poaching of both tigers and rhinos. However,
before similar efforts can be made in other parts of the country, the
field staff needs to be mandated to use arms, and they need to be
trained, equipped and motivated.

Biplob: Illegal trading of tiger parts is rampant in India. Can you
throw some light on this illegal business for our readers?

Belinda Wright: The illegal trade in tiger parts is indeed widespread
in India, and no wild tiger is really safe from this menace. What we
must keep in mind is that almost all this trade is fuelled by a demand
for tiger parts from outside India's borders; i.e. from other
countries such as China.

Analysis of information in WPSI's wildlife crime database reveals an
alarming scenario. Although some poaching incidents are one-off or
driven by human-tiger conflict, many are part of large organised
networks of poachers, traders and smugglers. These networks are
controlled by city-based masterminds who are seldom linked directly to
the illicit goods.

The severity of the problem was first brought to light when
investigations carried out in 1993-94, led to the seizures of 36 tiger
skins and 667 kg of tiger bones in northern India. The illegal trade
has now spread its tentacles throughout the country and is in the
hands of ruthless, sophisticated operators.

A tiger can be killed for as little as Rs 40 for the cost of poison,
or by using a reusable, inexpensive steel spring trap. Much of the
tiger poaching is done or assisted by tribal people who know their
forests well, and their hunting talents and knowledge are often
exploited by others. Although poachers are now paid well, it is the
middlemen and traders who make the most profits from the illegal trade
in tiger parts.

Biplob: Will the Green India Mission, meant to enhance forest cover,
benefit in conserving the tigers?

Belinda Wright: Tigers are hardy animals and good breeders. If they
are given enough undisturbed space, and if we can stop the
encroachment of tiger habitat, then we will be a step closer to saving
the tiger.

If the Green India Mission can successfully enhance India's forest
cover in areas around protected areas, then this will benefit India's
tiger conservation efforts. But more important than additional
forested areas, we must first ensure the effective protection and
management of our current protected areas.

Biplob: How can wildlife tourism co-exist with tiger conservation programme?

Belinda Wright: Wildlife tourism should be seen as one of the tools
through which effective conservation can be undertaken. There are many
reasons for this. Apart from providing livelihoods and income for
local communities, the presence of tourists acts as a major motivation
force and a monitor for management and protection measures being
implemented by the forest department. It is also a fact that in areas
that have no or low tourism, poaching cases are higher as poachers can
roam freely through these protected areas without fear of being
spotted or caught. By default and because of poor enforcement, tourism
is currently playing an important role as a protector of wild tigers.

However, it is imperative that wildlife tourism is also managed and
closely monitored. Visitor numbers must be limited and wildlife
resorts must be made to practice responsible wildlife tourism and
conform to environment-friendly norms. In some areas wildlife resorts
are already blocking wildlife corridors, depleting water resources,
purchasing illegal head-loads of wood, and creating noise and rubbish.

The resorts are there because of the wildlife, and wildlife
conservation and the well-being of the protected areas must always be
<> Thursday, January 13,

For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL  33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

Caring for cats – Ending the trade

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