Questions & Answers – Valmik Thapar
July 20, 2009 – Wall Street Journal
Valmik Thapar, wildlife conservationist and one of India’s best-known tiger experts, was a member of the Tiger Task Force set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government in 2005 to probe the falling tiger population. But he dissented from the group, claiming it failed to pay enough attention to poaching. Barely 1,000 tigers are left in India today, down from an estimated 100,000 a century ago. But for the first time in years, the new government’s policies toward tigers show promise, he tells Jyoti Malhotra for The Wall Street Journal. Here are edited excerpts.
WSJ: India is called the “Land of the Tiger” and about 100 years ago there were 100,000 tigers. That fell to 3,600 in 2000 when the last tiger census was held and has not dropped further to about 1,400. Can you tell me whether these statistics are correct?
VT: They are roughly correct. I think at the moment we probably have about 1,000 tigers because the statistics of 1,400 tigers were documented two years ago and we have huge pressure on the tigers from poachers because of the illegal trade route that goes via Nepal into China for tiger bones and skins. So the tiger is under enormous pressure and governments haven’t done enough.
WSJ: You were saying there was a lack of political will. But how did the tigers vanish?
VT: In 1991-1992, there was no priority for the natural world. The priorities that (former prime minister) Indira Gandhi had, she was the one who made all the laws that saved the natural world, or even some of the priorities that Rajiv Gandhi had, all vanished at that time, and our focus was the free market economy, big business, how do we develop the corporate world, so we forgot about the natural world. In the 15-17 years that have gone by, we lost a huge amount of forest, a huge number of species declined, whether rhinos or elephants or tigers. The tiger is only an indicator of the health of the natural world, so the numbers are down. We are losing our forests, our wildlife, some of our primary and secondary forests are disappearing and people are trying to make plantations. But that’s all going to lead to a green desert.
WSJ: So this is really a destruction of the ecosystem?
VT: I think today it’s much more than a destruction of the ecosystem because it affects the quality of life of the poorest of the poor. If you take rural India, only 18% of the land is forest land and if it gets degraded, our water supply gets degraded because 300 rivers and perennial streams are born in the tiger’s forests. So when you don’t have the forests or they’re no longer protected, the [water] is run off and gets wasted. So everything is interlinked to keeping our forests alive and if we don’t do that in a proper way, maybe we’ll affect (thousands of people) in the countryside. Also now it’s clear that the forests play a key role in preserving the carbon and not releasing it into the atmosphere, so it affects global warming and climate change. These are important global priorities that India must realize and keep its forests safe because without the forests, I don’t believe there can be quality of life.
WSJ: This man versus animal quandary we’ve been talking about these past years, do you think it’s a false one?
VT: Over hundreds and thousands of years, large carnivora like the tiger, the jaguar, the lion, the big cats that feed on other animals, have never got along with man, anywhere on the planet. And the reason is simple. Man domesticates four-legged animals like cows and buffalos, and cows and buffalos are the food of tigers and lions and leopards. So when the tiger kills buffalos and cows, man intervenes and puts poison in the carcass and kills the animal. So both are in a situation of conflict. The only way both can exist is to separate them. For instance, lions in Africa are mostly separated from people. In the Masai Mara, the Masai live outside the main area because they realize that if they lived with the lions, either they or their cattle would die or the lions would die. We have to follow the same principle because it’s a natural principle. Where people are in conflict with animals and are happy to relocate themselves, we have to give them a package to relocate. Where they’re not, we can’t do anything. As I understand it, now more and more people want to leave the interior of the forest and get relocated because the rehabilitation package that has been made by the government of India, for the first time has a vast amount [of money]. They believe it’s important for them to take the package and relocate. That will reduce the conflict, but there’s no other way to do it.
WSJ: Tell me about this package, is this the new government that is doing something?
VT: It is Manmohan Singh’s government which took the decision that one family will get 10 lakhs, or 1 million rupees, or any person over 18 years who’s starting a family will also get 1 million rupees. If you take this plus the compensation they get for land, or land for land, their house, their well, and if they’re relocated on prime land…it has happened in Bhadra, in Karnataka, where the relocation of villages was done on prime, agricultural land, on the red earth with a canal going through it. Everyone left the forest! You didn’t have to ask people about relocation, they looked at the land and said, wow, our life is going to change, and five years later their life has changed. They are thrilled!
WSJ: So the tribals didn’t mind leaving the forest?
VT: Not at all. Anybody can go and see them. Recently our minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh went there to talk to them, they’re thrilled. So Bhadra has no disturbance of the people for the big carnivore, so the cats are coming back. So you have to find a happy medium. Where it can’t happen, you have to let it be. Big cats depend on the forests for food, and if cows and buffalos are roaming, they’re going to go for them, and the minute they go for the cows and buffalos, Man is going to go for them.
WSJ: You spoke earlier about how alarming the situation was for the tiger population. Six years ago, the Panna tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh had 40 tigers, today there isn’t even one.
VT: The Panna tiger reserve is a place I’ve known very well. I started working there in 1994 and saw the tiger population go up from five to eight tigers to about 34 to 38 tigers. It was an excellent scientific research project. The problem there is a negligent forest department. When a warning was given to them seven years ago by scientists that poachers are entering, deal with them, they went into a state of denial and until three months ago, remained in a state of denial. Till the last tiger was killed, they said, no problem. And they kept using the one tiger’s pug mark to say that there were 20 tigers because [the tiger] was walking in different areas, on different soil. If you’re not an expert, you can fool the world. The Madhya Pradesh forest department managed to fool the world. So there are no tigers left in Panna. It’s a sad, shameful state of affairs, of governance on the part of the Madhya Pradesh government, of the forest department’s apathy, of real neglect. And unless we make senior forest officers responsible and answerable for what happened at Panna, we will move nowhere.
WSJ: Why do the poachers want to kill the tiger, what are they going to do to the tiger parts?
VT: The bones go to China, they are used for medicinal purposes and tiger bone wine, which is supposed to be an aphrodisiac. It also is supposed to help arthritis. The skin is used everywhere, even the Tibetans use it to dress up during their festivals, and until the Dalai Lama recently came out to say no to tiger skins, a lot of demand was being placed on skins. Also there are various collectors across the world who will take wild tiger skins. Every part of the tiger is used somewhere. So the poacher at the ground level may get $300 to $400 but at the end of the line, the consumer may be paying $5,000 to $10,000 for that tiger. So every tiger which walks is wealth. It’s continuous warfare between the forest staff, those protecting the tiger and those trying to kill it. We’ve done nothing for our forest staff as well, so they are demoralized, they’re roughly 50 years old, as we’ve hardly done any recruitment for the last 10 years.
WSJ: How do you curb the poaching? You’ve talked about the Forest Department’s inability to open itself to scientific enquiry…
VT: In this new government, the new dynamic minister is opening himself to science, to having a special protection force which is specially trained and has to flush out the poachers. It may be made up of local people but they have to be trained in jungle warfare, if you like, because they have to deal with poachers who carry AK-47s. In Kaziranga national park in the northeast, the poachers carry AK-56 and AK-47 rifles. They kill the rhinos, cut the horn off and exchange it for arms and smuggle it for terrorism. So there are all kinds of interlinked illegalities and you have to have a special forest protection force operating in every state to deal with this menace. If you don’t have it, the forests of India are going to die.
WSJ : In Corbett national park in Uttar Pradesh, it seems as if the local tribal population, the Van Gujjars, could be involved in protection as well?
VT: I think the experiment that is being tried in Jim Corbett is to get young enthusiastic Van Gujjar tribals into a training capsule for six months. They are going to be trained just as forest guards are trained, in weaponry, in how they pursue poachers, in how they gather intelligence in a village. Once the training course is over, they could be the future protectors of Corbett, but the training capsules are essential. Our country again, over the last 15 to 20 years, has ignored training.
WSJ: So it’s a good idea to involve local tribals?
VT: I totally support it but I think you’ll find in 10,000 people, there will be 10 young enthusiastic boys. You have to locate people who are really interested in forests and train them. Don’t do it because he’s a relative of a member of parliament or you know him personally. You have to choose and screen people. If you do it properly, local people can be a real asset, if you do it badly, it can turn out completely negative.
WSJ: You’ve been hugely critical of the forest administration as well as the political bureaucracy. Why?
VT: I’ve been critical because a whole bunch of innovative ideas have been given to various governments from the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the turn of the century to this government, which is in its sixth year. Most of these ideas have been accepted by the Prime Ministers of India and then passed on to the bureaucracy who write on the file “not possible,” or “impossible.” Then the file gets buried and nothing happens. I have watched the forests of India decline, tigers decline, the natural wealth of our nation decline because the bureaucracy doesn’t have the dynamism and initiative to take a new idea, grasp it and put it into practice. I hope now, with the new minister, things will change. I believe he can change it because in the last 40 to 45 days, what hasn’t happened in 12 years, he’s managed to do.
WSJ: What has he done?
VT: He’s activated one of the biggest funds for natural India, called the Compensatory Afforestation Fund, or CAMPA, where the Supreme Court of India has ordered that 5000 crore rupees ($1.02 billion) will be used over the next five years to protect and regenerate the forests of India. It’s a little more than the budget given to the ministry of Environment & Forests each year to protect the forests. So he has the ability to engage with new ideas, get new models out, this is his masterpiece. Otherwise he’s cleared through the Cabinet a tri-partite arrangement … to make states more accountable, so you don’t have repeats of Panna. He’s also looking at some reform ideas of how you change the Forest Service and make it more specialized. He’s looking at things no one did for 15 years and things went to hell because of that.
WSJ: You talked about the bureaucracy overruling Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and yet you were part of the Tiger Task Force that the PM set up.
VT: I was a part of the Tiger Task Force because it was a suggestion I made at a National Board of Wildlife meeting and the PM took it up. I also spent time with the prime minister telling him how you create a tiger task force made up of knowledgeable people who understand tigers. The bureaucracy succeeded in putting together a task force of five people, including its chair, who had no knowledge of tigers. The task force started off on the wrong foot and in the end I gave a dissent note because I believe they forgot the main objective, which was to do something in the interest of the tiger.
WSJ: There is talk of India importing the cheetah, which is extinct in our country, from countries like Namibia. What do you think about that idea?
VT: The idea of reintroducing the cheetah has been mooted by a couple of conservationists and a meeting will be take place in three months to look at the possibility of this idea. I think the idea is fraught with problems because so far the world’s conservation community doesn’t accept that you take an animal out of Africa and breed it elsewhere. Just like we don’t like the idea of taking the tiger out of India and breeding it. But that’s only one reason. The question to be asked is: Where is there 1,000 square kilometers of grassland which is inviolate, with abundant gazelle, black buck, where cheetahs can roam freely. Where? Give me one place in India where you have it! There is no such place because grasslands were the first affected, converted for agriculture, that’s why we have no cheetahs. I believe this is an impossible dream. You could have a few cheetahs in an enclosure with a wall around with lots of gazelle inside and it can be a really big enclosure. But I don’t think cheetahs will ever walk free in India. With a population that grows at 2% every year and adds 22 million people every year, where are the cheetahs going to walk? With great difficulty, a tough predator like the tiger is surviving, the cheetah is fragile, delicate, it can be chased by pie-dogs and killed, you cannot give it any human disturbance whatsoever.
WSJ: You’ve been deeply involved with the Ranthambhore foundation in Rajasthan, where the tiger population has grown beautifully. What did you do right there?
VT: I was involved with Ranthambhore from 1988-2000, and in those 12 years I did everything I could to engage the local people in running the park. So I became an expert in cows and buffalos, in dairy management, milk yields, I ran rural medical services…but in the end I failed because of village politics. I was living with a very tough community which lives around the park and to your face they would tell you they were doing one thing, when they were doing the opposite behind your back. But I couldn’t persuade the people to protect the forest. They still went in to cut the wood, the money they got…money is always in short supply, they use it for weddings and festivals…the forest was still depleted…What I wanted to see was a vision of the future, but I couldn’t because of village politics. Not central politics or state politics, but village politics!
WSJ: Thank you very much.