The story of India’s vanishing tigers is a crisis way beyond the environment. The royal Bengal tiger, now down to a mere 1,400 in number, has fallen prey to a crippling crisis of governance and astounding indifference towards this magnificent big cat. For years, Project Tiger, conceived to save this animal from extinction, flogged figures of 4,000-plus cats in the Indian wild, while it was clear from habitat loss and rare sightings that this count was fictional. Despite signs of distress, bureaucratic stonewalling resulted in a lost decade during which timely action could have been taken to prevent the tiger population from falling below what many scientists consider a critical survival threshold.
The big shame is this: the number of Indian tigers today is lower than at the launch of Project Tiger. There were an estimated 1,800 tigers in India then. Net net, we’ve lost 400 since.
It was an Indian Express expose that showed us Sariska’s missing tigers. The Prime Minister’s subsequent intervention has only served to ensure that the tiger census follows scientific principles, which is how we have come to acknowledge the grim state of reality.
The reasons for the population decline are clear. First, Indian forests were thrown open to “development” through an amendment to the Indian Conservation Act in the 1990s, under the Narasimha Rao government. India is now discovering the costs of development, and the loss of tigers’ natural habitat is one of them. The second reason is the low priority accorded to conservation by the states. In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, for instance, there are an estimated 1,200 vacancies for forest guards. No wonder the Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh reserves have seen the sharpest falls in numbers. The toothlessness of the Indian Forests Act worsens the scenario, with even third-time offenders getting quick bail in poaching cases.
The law needs to be tightened.
The third reason is a puzzle posed by a shadowy “tiger mafia” suspected of a hunters’ trail leading towards China and Tibet, which remain the world’s largest consumers of tiger body parts. China even has countryside tiger farms (akin to poultry complexes) for the purpose. One might think that this “farming” would at least help save tigers from extinction, but, alas, captive cats simply cannot survive in the wild. India must engage China diplomatically on this.
The final and most understudied problem, some would argue, is turning out to be conservationalists themselves, the people who collect large sums for their “work” to save tigers. Many of them have allegedly used their mission as a cover for self-aggrandisement. Cynicism surrounding the effort to save the animal has hurt the cause. The corruption of wildlife NGOs needs to be dealt with.
What is needed now is a comprehensive plan that has credibility, and operates with utter transparency, with an Internet-linked force acting on behalf of tigers. Political will and public resources need to come together. Yet, sanctioning budgetary funds for bureaucratic programmes will not do the trick.
But is it too late already? Maybe not, even if time is running out. Think habitat. For tigers to survive in the wild, they must simply be left alone. Corbett and Nagaerhole, places with the least human interference, are doing better with their tigers. In adopting “do not disturb” policies, some parks in Karnataka spell hope as well. Tigers, thankfully, can reproduce fast—if the environment is stable and conducive—and stay in good health. This makes a tiger revival a distinct possibility.
In 1947, the country had 50,000 tigers. Our record since should shame us all into a cooperative pact that says “no further”. It would be profoundly sad if the next generation gets to “sight” tigers only in cages, or as pictures on glossy paper, or even worse, as symbols on matchbox labels, bidi wrappers and suchlike. Little would they know how uplifting it is, in that rare moment of truth that an authentic sighting is, to see grace and power combine with such feline felicity.
Ninad D Sheth
Posted: Friday, Feb 22, 2008 at 2132 hrs IST
Updated: Thursday, Feb 21, 2008 at 2151 hrs IST
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