This may be the last time you see a tiger
Neelam Raaj, TNN 9 August 2009, 01:27am IST
Tiger country is losing its stripes, surely, and not slowly enough. From an estimated 40,000 big cats in India a century ago, the number may be down to just 1,300 and falling. Soon, Kipling’s Jungle Book may be all that we have of Sher Khan. The next time, President Bill Clinton comes visiting, there may be no ‘Bamboo Ram’ or his cubs to spot. The mighty Royal Bengal Tiger is in trouble. The latest blow was the Panna reserve’s admission last month that it has lost all of its 24 tigers. It was a repeat of the 2005 Sariska story, though there were warning signs this time round.
The tiger tragedy is being played out everywhere. Namdapha (Arunachal Pradesh) had 12 tigers in 2006 but has not had a single sighting this year. Ditto Buxa (West Bengal), which also had 12 tigers. Dampa (Mizoram) may have only two tigers left. Indravati in Chhattisgarh has been taken over by Maoist rebels. The situation is bad in Palamau in Jharkhand and Simplipal in Orissa. In MP’s Kanha reserve, one of the best tiger habitats, there have been six unexplained tiger deaths since November 2008.
The conservation story is back to square one — or rather the 1970s, when Project Tiger was launched and the numbers stood at 1,827. Forty years and millions of rupees later, numbers rose, only to drop to an all-time low. The last tiger census in 2006 put numbers at 1,411. Since then, nearly a 100 have died. What’s killing the Indian tiger?
Hunting the hunter
Tiger numbers may be falling but not the price on its head. In the international market, a tiger pelt goes for $10,000, a bowl of tiger penis soup (said to improve sexual prowess) for $320 and a single claw for $20. It’s estimated that a single specimen — ground down and separated into various medicines — earns roughly $50,000. China’s rising affluence has meant greater demand for tiger parts. “It’s the traditional Chinese medicine market that's driving demand,” says Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. For poachers, who use Nepal as a transit route to China, the big cat is big business.
Squeezed for space
In the name of development, forests are being cleared to build roads and human encroachment is eroding buffer zones, reducing the animals’ habitat and food supply. “Tiger reserves take up just 2% of India’s landmass. All we need to do is make is those 35,000 sq km inviolate,” says P K Sen, founder-director of Project Tiger. Easier said than done. In 2006, a new law granted tribals legal right to forest land. Thousands of people flooded into the forests, elbowing out wildlife. But the government also declared that the Act did not mean ‘Critical Tiger Habitats’. Rs 50 crore was also set aside for a Tiger Protection Force.
The budget for tiger protection has gone up but the green army tasked with saving the big cat has neither the equipment nor the training for the job. Forest guards, wielding lathis or .315 rifles have to take on poachers armed with automatics. “There are huge vacancies in their ranks and most of them are old since there has been no recruitment for 20 years,” says Ashok Kumar of the Wildlife Trust of India. Range officers get no training in wildlife enforcement. “They are not well-versed in legal procedures and 90% of the cases against poachers fail to stand up in court,” says Kumar.
Too many Centres of power
Better co-ordination between the Centre and states could save many a tiger: that’s the consensus among conservationists. “Funds are required but what is even more urgently needed is the two working in tandem,” says Wright. She cites Panna as an example. The Madhya Pradesh authorities ignored warnings by a Central team.
Today, tigers are prisoners of human intruders. At night, they are wary of poachers. By day, there are camera-clicking tourists. “Irresponsible tourism can pose a big problem for the tiger,” says Sen. But the good news is that the National Tiger Conservation Authority has now barred visitors from breeding areas.
So is it too late?
“Bagh Bachao, Jungle Bachao, Bharat Bachao” is the rallying cry of tiger NGOs. Some experts worry that the small population makes the future of the tiger scientifically unviable, others are optimistic. Until now, the big cat has always been extraordinarily adaptable and resilient. “All a tiger needs,” says Kumar, “is a little bit of cover, some water and some prey.”