The Great Indian TIGER SHOW

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December 27, 2010 12:01:37 PM

The big cat has hogged the limelight throughout the year, but will it help its cause, wonders Ananda Banerjee

Brand tiger was omnipresent this year, making headlines and adorning magazine covers for all the wrong reasons — death by poisoning and poaching. Its plight was discussed in a global summit, in sports as the lovable ‘Shera’ — the Commonwealth Games mascot — and in tiger telethon (a day-long 12-hour television ‘drama’). All in all, the entire tiger jamboree has fared well in the name of public awareness; there were kids for tigers, ‘page 3’ fundraisers for the big cat, book launches, conferences, seminars, petitions, campaigns and even an anthem for tigers. “Just 1,411 tigers left,” barked a corporate-NGO campaign which caught the fancy of city slickers early this year, some of who created traffic jams deep inside the forest to click the one ‘Geographic’ moment for posterity.

According to the Chinese calendar, 2010 is the year of the tiger. It is a well-known fact that after exterminating its own source population, the Chinese have successfully pushed the Bengal tiger — the only subspecies found across the Indian subcontinent — closer to extinction. The massive demand for traditional Chinese medicine where each body part of the tiger is used (see box) is the single greatest threat of extinction and a crisis that engulfs our national animal.

From the cuddly big pussy cat to the ferocious man-eater, the magnificent animal is reduced to a commodity today, the most sought-after item for poaching syndicates supplying 60 per cent of China’s humongous population. The newly affluent Chinese, who have struck gold on the booming economy, see tiger products as a symbol of status and wealth. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) believes that at least one tiger is killed daily for its use in traditional Chinese medicine and the black market value of a tiger today is estimated around $50,000, which is a good `2 crore plus.

On the other hand, despite teething problems, everyone seems to love the crisis. The media has its breaking news, the corporate houses have put on their conservation caps for social mileage and brand enhancement, the activist and ‘experts’ their 15-minutes of fame, the celebrity more than happy to endorse the cause for the same limelight, auctions and fundraiser events to pull in millions of rupees. Suddenly, there is a great market for the ‘tiger’ — in books, art exhibitions, films, percolating down to T-shirts, key-chains, coffee mugs, ash trays, USB drives, and last but not the least the booming tiger tourism. It’s show time with both Hollywood and Bollywood coming to party where not only Leonardo DiCaprio pledges to donate $1 million for tiger conservation, but also our own Big B auctions his watch to raise money for tiger conservation. That watch fetched a cool `7.11 lakh!

The glitz and glamour have pushed ‘conservation’ on the back seat. The spotlight never falls on the few good men, the dedicated officers and forest guards on the frontline as they are not fashionable and suave enough for the lens. Being too righteous often draws the ire of seniors or political masters and routine transfers are the order of the day. To most urbanites, wildlife conservation is confused with animal welfare. The great social divide persists between the urban and the rural. The English language is alien to our forest staff and this makes a mockery of the state in which they man our tiger reserves — unequipped, unpaid and untrained. Natural history conservation is still very much an elitist subject, predominated by the Queen’s language with hardly any significant vernacular presence.

There is great debate and arguments as some think this tiger economy is a necessary conservation tool for awareness and to keep the authorities on constant alert. But for how long will this hoopla last? And how well are the funds utilised or who will support the recurring costs? Yes, we need awareness, but for that we need to go vernacular on a mass scale; after all, there are 22 official state languages, excluding English. This alone can provide maximum outreach, not a corporate-media spectacle.

The problem areas are well established since January 2005 when an exposé shocked the nation, declaring there was not a single big cat at the Sariska Tiger Reserve. Soon, the Panna Tiger Reserve followed the suit. In the last two years, Chandrapur, the tiger capital of India, has lost 28 tigers. Over the past decade, tiger numbers have fallen as much by 40 per cent and one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that tiger conservation has failed.

In the past six years since the Sariska tragedy, nothing has gone right. The Centre versus the State ego war hasn’t helped the conservation cause a bit. The Project ‘toothless’ Tiger in its newest avatar — National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) — also remains helpless as the management of the tiger reserves still rest with the States that are unwilling to cooperate. But any mishap on the tiger front, and the finger automatically points to NTCA, whereas the actual culprit, the State, goes scot-free. The NTCA directorate, under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, is mandated with the task of just providing technical guidance and funding support. During the last financial year of 2009-10, the total amount released to tiger States was `20152.99766 lakh, as per budgetary demands. If you read the tripartite memorandum of understanding between NTCA, the State Governments and the field director of the Tiger Reserve, (, it is crystal clear who is responsible for what.

Poaching remains the gravest threat, followed by habitat loss. One of the biggest problems that still plague our tiger reserves is the lack of infrastructure, especially well-paid, trained forest guards. In a few States, the vacancies are huge — in some cases almost 50 per cent. Those who are serving are old, untrained and demoralised. Worse, the new recruits are mostly hired on daily wage contract and are in perpetual insecurity without any medical or pension benefits. The problem persists for more than 15 years now. One just wonders why?

Conservation biology and management are complex issues with an array of stakeholders interlinked in a web which is not easy to comprehend. It’s a great jigsaw puzzle where each element has to fit perfectly to maintain balance and harmony. In a country as diverse as ours where social demographics change every 300 km, the task is more challenging, but all that a tiger asks for is its habitat — a sacrosanct space with sufficient prey base and protection. We still neither have strict laws, nor first-track courts for a quick trial and verdict.

With no political will, the conservation juggernaut has no direction whatsoever. The grand experiment to re-populate Sariska came back as a slap on the State Government’s face when in two years’ time the first trans-located animal was found poisoned this year. It is hard to imagine how a State functions; first, the tiger was flowed into the reserve without adequate preparations. The excuse was given that once the tiger settled in, everything would fall into place and the pressure to denotify the tiger reserve from the mining lobby would be averted! After five tigers were released one-by-one, the same State Government makes a U-turn and gives out mining permissions around the perimeter of the said reserve. This is yet another classic tale of wonder, awe and disgust.

Will the tiger survive is the million-dollar question. Well, it has to, for the hype and hoopla tigers create at five-star events, for prime-time TRPs and also for the planet earth. There is too much at stake on the big cat.

The 4 surviving subspecies

Bengal Tiger: Panthera tigris tigris
Siberian (Amurian) Tiger: Panthera tigris altaica
Sumatran Tiger: Panthera tigris sumatrae
Indo-Chinese Tiger: Panthera tigris corbetti

The 4 extinct subspecies

Javan Tiger: Panthera tigris sondaica, extinct since early 1980s
Bali Tiger: Panthera tigris balica, extinct since the 1940s
Caspian Tiger: Panthera tigris virgata,extinct since the early 1970s
South China Tiger: Panthera tigris amoyensis (possibly extinct in the wild, as reported in 2002)

Note: Omitted In Surviving Subspecies: Malayan Tiger: Panthera tigris jacksoni

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