it is estimated, 100,000 wild tigers in India at the beginning
of the 20th century. A hundred and six years later, that number
has dwindled to 1,500-1,800.
Will the tiger survive? And, can legislative
fiat change the alarming situation on the ground? The government
has at last pushed the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act 2006
through Parliament to give teeth to Project Tiger and tiger conservation,
but the general feeling is that it is too little too late. Worldwide,
there are already more tigers in captivity (there are 15,000 captive
tigers in the us alone) than in the wild. The question is: what
can be done to save the latter from extinction?
Says Valmik Thapar, Director, Ranthambore
Foundation, a conservation organisation: "This new law proposes
a National Tiger Authority, which will have representatives of
tribals. What does this mean? The interests of tiger and its habitat
will be increasingly ceded to human communities. The government
wants 'peaceful coexistence between men and tigers'. The reality
is that tigers and humans can't live together."
But officials and former officials are quick
to jump to the defence of the government. "It's only because
of Project Tiger that the tiger is still surviving in India. Look
at Bhutan, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Myanmar and other countries
where the wild tiger is almost extinct," says P.K. Sen, former
Director of Project Tiger and outgoing director of World Wildlife
Fund's Species Programme.
That's really a disingenuous argument. Experts
say that Project Tiger, though very successful initially, has
lost its way. Belinda Wright, Executive Director, Wildlife Protection
Society of India (WPSI) says: "When it was set up, Project
Tiger was the most tenacious wildlife conservation programme of
its kind in the world. It was extraordinarily successful in protecting
tiger habitat and the big cat itself. But new threats were emerging.
In the 1980s, for example, China ran out of its own supply of
wild tigers that fed its traditional medicine market and India
became the new source of supply. This illegal China-India trade
in tiger skins and parts has since become the biggest threat to
the Indian tiger." Thapar agrees. "There is no doubt
that Project Tiger was quite successful in protecting tigers initially;
in 1989, our wild tiger population was a healthy 4,000. But since
then, Project Tiger has gone downhill," he says. Sen puts
the population of wild tigers in India at 1,500 and Wright at
a marginally more optimistic 1,800; but those are still less than
half the 1989 figure. But why should that be surprising when 250
tigers are poached ever year?
A detailed investigation by WPSI has shown
that smugglers are using the ancient silk route between India
and China to conduct their illegal business. Lhasa, in Tibet,
is the primary destination and distribution point for tiger skins
and other parts. The trade has also become more organised and
sophisticated. In 1999, for example, three tiger skins, 50 leopard
skins and five otter skins were seized in Ghaziabad; the paper-thin
tanning and the precise folding of the skins indicated a level
of organisation that had not been seen before. There are credible
reports that tiger carcasses, pelts and parts are sold openly
in the Tibetan capital while Chinese officials benignly look the
| THE TIGER FAMILY
| It's scary. The
Bali, Javan, and Caspian tiger sub-species have become extinct-all
in the last 70-75 years. There remain five surviving sub-species
Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)
Male Bengal tigers, on average, measure 2.9 metres from
head to tail and weigh about 220 kg. Females are smaller,
measuring about 2.5 metres in length and weighing approximately
140 kg. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that there are
3,100-4,700 surviving Bengal tigers; of this, 333 live in
captivity in zoos across the world. Their natural habitat:
India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar. The White
Tiger is an albino Bengal Tiger.
Amur Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica)
Amur tigers, also known as Siberian or Manchurian tigers,
are the largest of the tiger sub-species. Males can grow
up to 3.3 metres and weigh up to 300 kg. Females are about
2.6 metres in length and weigh 100-167 kg. The WWF estimates
that 360-406 such tigers still exist in eastern Russia,
northeastern China and North Korea. Another 490 can be found
in various zoos across the world.
IndoChinese Tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti)
Male Indo-Chinese tigers measure 2.7 metres from head to
tail and weigh about 180 kg. Females are 2.4 metres in length
and weigh about 115 kg. According to WWF, there are about
1,200-1,800 Indo-Chinese tigers left in the wild, mainly
in Myanmar, southern China, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and
peninsular Malaysia. Another 60 such tigers can be found
in zoos in the US and Asia.
Sumatran Tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae)
The Sumatran tiger is the smallest of all tigers. Males
measure about 2.4 metre from head to tail and weigh about
120 kg. Females measure approximately 2.2 metre and weigh
about 90 kg. WWF believes that about 400 of these tigers
still exist in Sumatra, and another 210 live in zoos across
South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis)
The South China tiger is only marginally bigger than its
Sumatran cousin. Males are about 2.5 metre in length and
weigh approximately 150 kg. Females are smaller, measuring
about 2.3 metre in length and weighing approximately 110
kg. WWF estimates that only 20-30 South China tigers still
exist in the wild in central and eastern China. Another
47 South China tigers live in Chinese zoos.
"Through the 1980s and 1990s, the threat
of poaching and smuggling was turning the tide against Project
Tiger. But the authorities did not do anything to change and adapt
the project to face these new threats," says Wright. The
government's attitude, in fact, ranges from the uninterested to
the callous. Last September, for example, there was a large seizure
of tiger skins in Melghat (Maharashtra). "The police told
us later that no one from the government even bothered to contact
them. No one cares," she adds.
So, what ails Project Tiger? Bureaucratic
sloth, corruption and the lack of political will to take on illegal
wildlife trade though India is a signatory to cites (Convention
on International Trade in Endangered Species). The Centre's role
under the Project Tiger is limited to making recommendations and
releasing funds to various state governments. And, as the example
of Sariska (where the tiger population was found to be extinct,
despite officials' claims on the presence of at least 24 big cats)
showed, the central government has no way of checking ground level
(mostly unreliable, and, shockingly, often deliberately fudged)
data provided by state governments. This allows officials to get
away, literally, with murder.
Then, there are 10,000 vacancies for forest
guards; these are not being filled up. The average age of forest
guards is 55; they are poorly trained and use antiquated arms.
"The government doesn't fill up these vacancies, doesn't
train and equip these guards and doesn't enforce wildlife laws,"
says Thapar. "So, what else can you expect?"
"In states such as Uttaranchal and Orissa,
the fight against wildlife crime takes place only on paper. Besides,
the conviction rate of those arrested for such crimes is negligible.
And India has not been able to put into place any effective transnational
treaties against wildlife crimes, especially with China and Nepal,"
Sen gives the problem an economic perspective.
"At a broader level, one of the factors militating against
Indian efforts to protect its forests and wildlife is that the
country's economic development has left its interiors untouched.
While urban India has been growing wealthier over the years, absolutely
nothing has changed in the interiors, where forests support both
wildlife and the local populations. So, a growing, and increasingly
impoverished, human population is eating up the forests where
WPSI's assessment shows that Sariska may
not be an isolated case. Tigers in Palmau (Jharkhand), Valmiki
(Bihar), Simlipal (Orissa), Nagarjuna Sagar (Andhra Pradesh),
Indrawati (Chhattisgarh), Namdapha (Arunachal Pradesh), Buxa (West
Bengal), Manas (Assam), and Melghat (Maharashtra) are also on
the verge of extinction. Panna (Madhya Pradesh) is also threatened,
but the situation there is still debatable. Incidentally, the
government has not released any tiger census figures since 2002.
In 2005, it started work on a new methodology for counting tigers,
but the data won't come into the public domain for another year.
"By the time the new count comes out, won't it be too late?"
Rajesh Gopal, Director, Project Tiger, brushes
aside all criticisms. "Project Tiger has put the big cat
on the assured path of recovery and despite what the doomsayers
say, this project will not let the wild tiger die," he says,
adding that addressing the needs of forest communities is critical
to the success of conservation efforts. "If the forest communities
are alienated, poaching will only become more serious as they
will help the poachers. Sariska has awakened us to the dangers
of making a tiger reserve an isolated fortress. The stark reality
is that Project Tiger will not be successful without involving
the forest communities," he says.
Can tiger farming help? Thapar dismisses
it out of hand. "The idea of tiger farming has nothing to
do with conservation. It is a stupid idea that talks of supply
and demand (of body parts)," he says. Cost is also a factor.
Breeding captive tigers is expensive and time consuming. Hence,
poaching will remain a viable financial option in the foreseeable
future. "I'm afraid, we may soon lose the battle unless something
drastic is done," says Wright.
Is there, then no hope for the king of the
Indian jungle? The new National Tiger Authority will facilitate
and support tiger reserve management in the states, while the
Wildlife Crime Bureau, a statutory body on the lines of the Narcotics
Control Bureau and the Criminal Bureau of Investigation, will
collect intelligence on and investigate all wildlife-related crimes.
Will this help? Given the political dimensions to the problem
of balancing tribal and tiger rights, there is little reason to
believe that the battle to save the tiger is truly being joined.