Saturday, May 20, 2006

Give the tiger a chance

After a two-year odyssey across the tiger region, Charles Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter Ruth Padel comes to the conclusion that this prized and endangered animal has no future.
Lt Gen Baljit Singh (retd) assesses how credible is her tiger tale.

THE tiger evolved some 2.4 million years ago in the forests of the Amur river watershed in far-eastern Russia. Gradually, it swept southwards in mainly along the eastern and southern sea-boards of the Asian mainland. There was a limited spread in Central and Western Asia as well. This process concluded about 12,000 years ago when the tiger reached the southern arc from Cape Comorin in India to Bali in Indonesia. Due to certain geological evolutionary factors, the tiger remained exclusively an Asian mammal.

Around 1900, taxonomists had classified the tiger into eight subspecies. Of these, the Balinese, the Javanese and the Caspian tiger species have already become extinct; the former in September 1932 and the last named as recent as in the 1980s.

Ruth PadelTigers in Red Weather, published a few months ago, is the result of Ruth Padel’s two-year-long extensive research.

She learnt that in terms of today’s nation states, tigers had once inhabited 20 countries of Asia. But by 2000, they survived in 12 only.

So, admittedly, five subspecies of the tiger have entered the 21st century but does it have a future? Ruth Padel takes a two-year sabbatical from her life’s persuasion (she’s a well published and contemporary poet in the UK) to find the answer. Indeed, it is surprising for a poet to do so but not really when the poet happens to carry Sir Charles Darwin’s genes. Ruth is his great-great-granddaughter!

Obviously, Ruth does not believe in half measures. To begin with, she went through heaps of tiger literature and met all contemporary authorities on the tiger. She learnt that in terms of today’s nation states, tigers had inhabited 20 countries of Asia. But by 2000, the tiger survived in 12 only. Then Ruth set out on this incredible journey of tiger exploration covering the entire tiger range with the zeal of a "convert".

Tigers in Red Weather, published a few months ago, is the result of Ruth’s two-year-long odyssey. And from the extent of research and weight of evidence gathered at first hand, Ruth comes to the terribly disquieting belief that the tiger has no future. Nevertheless, she hopes that somehow the tiger just might avoid extinction.

About 20 tigers are poached in India every month
ALARMING NEWS: About 20 tigers are poached in India every month

Now, how credible is Ruth’s assessment? Well according to Valmik Thapar, one of the two foremost tiger men of India, "This is the best book on tigers of the world that I have ever read... to find out if the tiger has a chance to survive... this is ultimate tiger voyage that no one should miss."

The next legitimate concern which an average person would voice is that given a chance, could we save the tiger from extinction? Yes we can, and Ruth’s postulation is fairly uncomplicated: simply provide the tiger with the three basic resources of survival — cover, water and prey—which together constitute a tiger habitat. With the aid of a simple map in the book, Ruth shows the habitat as in 1900 and how it has shrivelled up by 2000. The awesome pressures generated by the human population explosion coupled with the forces of monetised economy diminished tiger habitat by almost 90 per cent on the global scale.

A questioning mind would next enquire that in the event of an assured global moratorium on further depletion of tiger habitat in Asia, will this splendid animal live happily thereafter? Even an optimist would hesitate to answer in the affirmative. And why? Because neo-consumerism has spawned a few barbaric and vulgar lifestyles, making the tiger one of the most cherished commodities in global commerce.

Perverse though it may seem but the tragic fact is that each part of the tiger’s body carries an unbelievably high price tag. About a decade ago, there was a numbing photograph in Time magazine of a tiger in a cage in a bazaar somewhere in Cambodia. This tiger was being publicly auctioned, one body part at a time, to the highest bidder before its slaughter. The overall price fetched was astronomical; perhaps equal to its weight in gold.

The Cambodian Government was prevailed upon to end the public auction and slaughter of the tiger. But a decade later, Ruth found that the pace and volume of tiger commerce in China and SE Asia remains undiminished. A single tiger skin is valued around $ 6,000. One bowl of soup flavoured with soup stalk from a tiger’s penis is for $ 100. Noodles garnished with slivers from tiger’s liver and tooth-picks from tiger whiskers come next in preference.

Tiger bone powder is the staple ingredient in the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for ailments ranging from arthritis, rheumatism, high fever, palsy, piles and so on. And the tiger penis-powder pills, considered to be the ultimate aphrodisiac, are the most popular merchandise in Bangkok. In the event, Ruth was not overtly surprised but disgusted to hear a fairly common refrain in Laos and Thailand: "Kill a tiger and buy a motorbike."

Of late, TCM has made inroads in the US too. As Ruth says "TCM is a proud, popular, lucrative expression of the oldest continuous culture in the world. In 1998, 50 per cent of the TCM shops in cities with weak trade controls (like Atlanta, LA, Vancouver) were selling tiger products made in China; in New York, over 80 per cent. In London, tiger-bone products overflow the cupboards of the wildlife protection offices at New Scotland Yard."

In the 1960s, Mao Tse Tung had declared the tiger, believe it or not, an agricultural pest. As a result, over 3,000 tigers are believed to have been killed in less than a decade. There are no more tigers in the wild in China any more. But China does not and is not willing to give up the TCM culture. So tigers in the rest of Asia become mere pawns in the demand-and-supply equation of commerce.

Ruth believes that Valmik Thapar’s estimate of tigers in Asia today is probably the closest to the truth: "Three thousand in India, 400 each in Sumatra and Russia, 350 all told in Nepal and Bhutan. South-East Asian countries and Malaysia may be one or two hundred each. May be 5,000 over all."

Now when India has more than 50 per cent of the world’s tigers in the wild, regrettably there is neither visibly forceful public support nor the unequivocal political intent to ensure its survival. Who would then doubt Ruth’s report on this contraband seizure? "Thirtyone tiger skins, 581 leopard skins, 778 otter skins seized in Tibet in just one Nepalese truck, going to China but all killed in Indian forests."

Touched by the immensity of the crime, the poet in Ruth surfaces thus: "The roof of the world, water source, spiritual and cultural source for so much of Asia: you cast a new shadow now. In your own tragedy, you are a route of death to tiger now."

"In the month of June 2004, 10 tiger skins, 25 leopard skins, four sacks of tiger bone and claws from 31 tigers and leopards were found in 11 seizures in India and Nepal", says Ruth. Claws are set in silver and gold for wrist and neck jewellery.

In Indonesia, where about 200 tigers survive in the two reserves in Sumatra, Ruth learnt from the locals and the Global Tiger Patrol that "each park loses 30 tigers a year... bones go to China, the local market is for skins. Politicians, army chiefs, businessmen, civil servants want stuffed ones for their vestibules. Stuffed tigers say you are Mr Big, above the law."

In India it is much the same. Last year, India Today (July 11, 2005) carried a detailed expose on wildlife crimes in Madhya Pradesh, India’s "Tiger State". Among the wrongdoers, there were two very senior bureaucrats, one each from the IAS and the IPS. While the former had on full display in his residence two stuffed tigers and one panther, the latter had two floor rugs of several tiger skins stitched together. Neither were any seizures effected nor any penalties imposed; rather the possessions were given legitimacy as bona fide sporting-trophies.

In the UK, Audy Fisher, head of wildlife crime at the New Scotland Yard, showed Ruth "a stuffed 10-week-old tiger cub mounted on olive-wood, impounded from a British film director.... The western market is out of control and its hub is China, to whose tune Asian wildlife crime dances."

For the ultimate in insensitive, unbridled consumerism, Ruth recounts a news ad from Singapore: "Cuddly tiger cubs, $ 20,000, can be delivered to any home in Singapore." I believe a few websites dealing with pets in the US have similar offerings. Every affirmative response to such an ad means one more cub lost in the wild. More serious is the fact that with every tigress-mother killed, the prospect of maintaining the optimum population of the species gets destroyed.

Efforts by individuals and NGOs to check and reverse tiger crimes are severely hampered by rampant corruption. Ruth cites the case where NGOs prevailed on the Asian Development Bank to give $ 82 million grant to the Bangladesh Government for a Sunderbans conservation project in 2000. Filtering through the political and bureaucratic maze, "in the end, only $ 5 million of the original $ 82 million" was left for benefiting the Sunderbans tigers, per se.

In the entire tiger range, Bhutan alone has the unblemished record of tiger conservation. The Bhutanese Government declares emphatically that "the tiger is a non-negotiable species. We have committed to protect it and we will." Here is something for us to emulate in India. We too have legislation but, according to P.K. Sen, former Director, Project Tiger, about 20 tigers are poached in India every month.

As for the common man in Bhutan, he firmly believes that "the tiger is good fortune for us...we will have good crop if the tiger is around". Ruth reacts to this humorously: "It is true, it will keep the deer away from their crops."

In Myanmar, the tiger population had dwindled rapidly post World War II, leaving no more than 80 tigers. But in the 1990s, Alan Rabinowits and George Schaller, two scientists of the Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, gained the confidence of the junta on matters related with nature conservation. After a decade long research, the two scientists recommended the establishment of three sanctuaries in north Burma, which has excellent tiger habitat coupled with very low human density. One of the Generals, genuinely interested in tiger conservation, shot back: "Why not have the whole of the Hukaung valley as a tiger protected area?" So indeed, "in 2004 it became the world’s largest tiger reserve: 8,400 sq miles, larger than all India’s reserves combined. Eighty to 100 tigers, which could multiply 10-fold if protection and management plans work...."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his team of the Tiger Task Force would be well advised to take briefings on the Bhutanese and Myanmar tiger conservation efforts. There is much which we could replicate with great advantage. For instance, to begin with transfer the control of all tiger reserves in the country to one central agency under the PMO, for the next 20 years at the least. Once the poaching is checked, the habitat reasserts itself and the tigers stabilise, the arrangement could be reviewed afresh, if necessary.

In this tiger-doom scenario, Ruth firmly believes that the common man is certainly not in conflict with the tiger. Rather she respects the tiger’s nobility. Ruth encountered a villager in the Kerinci reserve in Sumatra and to her inquiry whether they lived in fear of the tiger, the reassuring answer was, "If pugmarks are seen by the house, it is believed that a tiger has come to stop something bad happening in the family."

Another villager living in Sumatra’s second reserve was even more emphatic: "Last week I saw a tiger very close. I saw he wanted to eat my dog. I said: ‘Please, sir, do not interfere with my dog.’ After I said that the tiger went away." Now do remember this episode if ever you come face to face, up close with a tiger. For you will have an exciting experience to recount.

The tiger is not at all a wanton killer. Here is a classic, first-hand observation by the inimitable Jim Corbett: "I once saw a tigress stalking a month-old kid. The kid saw her and started bleating. The tigress gave up her stalk and walked straight up to it. The kid went forward to meet her and stretched out its neck to smell her. For a few heartbeats, the month-old kid and the Queen of the Forest stood nose to nose. Then the queen walked off in the direction she had come from."

Outside of India even though the tiger has its presence in 11 countries of Asia, you can seldom see one because of its low density and heavy forest cover. India is the only country in the world where you have a fair chance of seeing a tiger in the wild. It is every Indian’s birthright both to watch and preserve the tiger. So hurry, but remember the witticism from Ruth Padel:

"You cannot plan to see a tiger,

Just as you cannot plan to fall in love".