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Social Concerns


Decimation of Indian tigers is a national shame

The Indian tiger, the country’s national animal and pride, is not burning bright. It is being butchered not just in the darkness of the night, but also in broad daylight.

Overnight, 26 tigers in the Sariska Project Tiger Reserve in the northern Indian State of Rajasthan seem to have vanished. India’s worried Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has called for an urgent probe into this mystery.

In Sariska, no tiger has been spotted for the past six months, and the World Wildlife Fund-India has said that most of the 26 tigers that were counted in the last census could have been lost. An intense search recently confirmed the WWF’s statement. In Rajasthan’s other Project Tiger Reserve, Ranthambore, it is feared that there cannot be more than 12 tigers against the official figure of between 35 and 47.

Although officers of the Project Tiger, an impressive conservation programme introduced in 1972 to save India’s dwindling tiger population, give a host of reasons for the disappearance of almost the entire pride in Sariska, the real cause is well known, though seldom admitted in the higher echelons of the nation’s administration.

Sariska, for example, may house 23 villages within the reserve and 198 on its fringes. This leads to the pressure of grazing cattle, which villagers own and eke out a livelihood from, and human habitation with its constant noise and movement. Also, of late, there has been enormous construction activity: several holiday resorts are coming up. All these could have driven the tigers away.

In Ranthambore, two dozen hotels have been built well within the core area of the Project Tiger Reserve with the resultant unruly tourist menace.

However, no sane argument can pin these as the cause of complete decimation of tigers.

The legendary hunter-turned-conservationist, Jim Corbett – who lived in India and gave his name to the Indo-Chinese sub-species and to the renowned Corbett National Park – warned the British Viceroy to India in 1946 that just about 3000 to 4000 tigers were left and even these would pass into history. These words were indeed prophetic.

India’s tiger population continued to go down at an alarming rate till 1972, when the country’s then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, banned hunting of the animal, introduced a wildlife Act and set up Project Tiger under the World Wildlife Fund. Several forest reserves were placed under Project Tiger, and in what was considered a remarkable conservation effort, India’s tiger population soon crossed 4,000. The 1972 figure was 1800.

Project Tiger certainly stopped poaching, but angered the poor people who lived within and just outside these reserves, and who depended on forest land for their meagre existence. In the face of the inadequate compensation they got from the Government, these forest dwellers not only began poisoning tigers after every incidence of cattle lifting by a tiger – whose growth in numbers brought it into dangerous conflict with man – but also stared helping poachers in return for attractive monetary remuneration.

The trade in tiger parts grew enormously in China and many countries in Asia, and as the blind belief grew in the animal organs as the magic cure for a whole lot of ailments including sexual impotency, the craze for a tiger penis soup or a tiger bone broth swung up.

Added to this was the gross inadequacy of the guards appointed to save the tiger in the Indian reserves. Ill paid and ill equipped, with often just a stick, these men were no match to poachers, who used sophisticated vehicles and weapons to carry out their deadly mission. They sported night glasses and had long-range binoculars to achieve precision, and with the large money they earned selling tiger parts, including the skin, they merrily bribed villagers and guards to get their support.

The Project Tiger officials found an easy way to sort this problem. Instead of addressing core issues, such as realistic compensation for villagers and finding suitable alternative place of economic activity for them, and providing firearms for guards, the officials produced inflated tiger census statistics and fooled the world into believing utter lies.

Even when international wildlife specialists repeatedly pointed out that a tiger a day was being killed in the Project Tiger Reserves, the Indian Government chose to ignore their warnings.

Today, India faces the embarrassment of having to face an uncomfortable truth. If one does not even know the actual number of tigers left in India’s wilds -– some estimates place the figure at less than 2000, although the 2001-2 census places the figure at 3600-odd -– there is no way one can hide the great Indian tiger disappearance at Sariska. The world is watching a great conservation effort slide into a dark pit, where a few body parts of a majestic creature like the tiger lie underlining a national shame.

(Posted on this website on March 7 2005)

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