Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lost glory
the tale of the tiger

The present tiger count is just over 1300. The number has been depleting steadily since the past century. Even after Independence little has been done to protect the national animal. The first tiger census was carried out only in 1972, and soon after came Project Tiger which has shown poor results. Problems like poaching, shrinking forests and shortage of prey continue to corner the big beast, which today is on the brink of extinction, writes Usha Rai

A hundred years ago, the tiger was really the king in this country. He roamed vast tracts of dense forests and undulating grasslands and there was enough prey species for lavish meals for him and his progeny. According to estimates, there were 40,000 tigers in India in the early part of the 20th century. There are paintings that show proud maharajas with dozens of slaughtered tigers lying at their feet. Tiger heads and tiger skins decorated their homes and palaces.

Since the first tiger census took place only in 1972, it is difficult to tell how many tigers were left in the country at the time of Independence. It may have been 10,000 or 12,000 — probably decimated to a fourth of the number that there was at the beginning of that century. With the end of World War II, high-speed vehicles and weapons came into the hands of the common man.

Soon after Independence, the Terai region at the foothills of the Himalayas and Jim Corbett’s magnificent tiger domain, home to a large number of the black and yellow striped cats, was cleared to rehabilitate those displaced by the Partition. Both these events spurred the decline of the tiger. At the launch of Project Tiger in the early 1970s, around the same time as the census, the number of tigers was down to 1827.

The Wildlife Institute of India has recently put the number of tigers in the country at 1300 plus. For 30 years the tiger census was done by stodgy forest officials who just could not afford to admit that the number of tigers was on the decline. Now with figures that are more realistic, the magnificent creature seems to be on the brink of extinction.

The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 as well the Forest Conservation Act have been diluted. The new Tribal Act makes it extremely difficult to move forest dwellers out of forest areas. A wildlife conservationist quipped sarcastically: "The high powered Tiger Task Force, set up by the Prime Minister, asks tigers and tribals to sup from the same table and that can never happen". Poaching and the disappearance of prey base like the cheetal, barasingha, neelgai, wild boar, etc, are the other important deterrents for the revival of the tiger.

Poaching has reached gigantic proportions in the country. There is poaching not just of the big cat for its skin, bones and various parts that are used extensively in Chinese medicines but of the food of the tiger — its prey base — and of the timber that ensures it has a safe home in our forests. Because of poaching all tiger reserves are deficient in prey base and cannot support the number of tigers that live in them. Forests have shrunk and become sparser. The shortage of the tiger’s natural food leads to their attacking the cattle, which in turn causes the man-animal conflict.

The trade in tiger bones, first noticed in 1985, has grown over the years into a well-ordered, clandestine industry. While the traders themselves operated from towns and cities adjacent to international borders, they have their network of procurers (many of them tribals) deep in the forests.

Tiger reserves with lax management were particularly targeted. The tiger’s death-knell was sounded at the start of this century. Sariska was ravaged. Ranthambore, which was just recovering from an earlier poaching bout, was again severely mauled. In fact, of the 28 protected areas which had tigers, by the end of 2005 they were eliminated from Sariska (Rajasthan), Buxa (West Bengal), Indravati (Chhattisgarh) and Dampha (Mizoram). In Palamau (Jharkhand), Pench (Maharashtra) and Kishanpur (UP), their numbers plummeted to just five and seven. Panna, Bandhavgarh, Satpura and Melghat tiger reserves were also hit.

Instead of "protection" of the flagship species, the government kept sitting on its haunches, taking comfort in the "doubtful" census figures periodically dished out. For three decades now, wildlife experts have been arguing for a cadre of foresters trained specially in wildlife management as well as for an armed force to protect our forests from poachers but both these recommendations have remained on paper. This is despite the fact that the wealth of India’s forests is more than the gold in our treasuries. Recruitment of forest staff has stopped and there is an acute shortage of forest guards, vehicles, radio sets etc.

So what are the chances of reviving the tiger population? Political will is needed from the top to the grassroots. Poaching has to be stopped and, most important, the tiger has to get a habitat that is free from human interference. Encroachments, mining — that happened in Sariska and continues in Panna — and other such activities within the protected spaces will impede the recovery of the tiger population. Is the government willing to give such inviolable spaces to the tiger? Even today, 34 years after the mammoth effort to save the tiger was started, there are 270 villages inside core areas of protected national parks and tiger reserves. Though large sums of money have been given to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (upgraded from Project Tiger) for the relocation of villages, the new Tribal Act will make it more difficult to move them out.

Though poets have gone into raptures on the beauty of the majestic tiger and tourists from across the world come to India to see the exotic Royal Bengal tiger before it goes into extinction, in India today there are very few champions of the tiger. Wildlife, whether it is tigers, elephants or snow leopards, is seen as antagonistic to the survival of the poor, marginalised people living in and around forests. Compensation for loss of life — human or animals (sheep, goats, cows and buffaloes) — never reaches the villagers in time and further fuels their dislike for wildlife. Villagers are in anguish because they see the Forest Department putting the survival of the crocodile, the wild ass or the snow leopard before their own survival.

There are very few to champion the cause of the tiger today. Valmik Thapar, Bittu Sahgal, Fateh Singh Rathore and H.S. Panwar, who took up cudgels for the tiger in the past, now seem spent forces.

If the attitude of the government and that of the people who think tigers can co-exist with human beings does not change, the chances of a complete recovery are bleak. In 15 to 20 years, the tiger would have disappeared from most parts of India. It may linger on for some more years in the Terai (Corbett, Dudhwa etc), Kanha and its surroundings in Central India, Sundarbans and some pockets of Assam. The Sundarbans is one of the finest tiger habitats because poaching is not easy in its wetlands. Kaziranga, too, has tremendous potential because the Forest Department has developed a tradition of providing protection aggressively.

Other reserves that can be built up for a stable tiger population are Melghat, Satpura-Bori as well as Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh and some areas in the North-East. The next couple of years will determine how sincere we are about saving the tiger and how much political will there is to do so.

The big cats are resilient creatures and have the capacity to bounce back if they are given a chance. A young tigress is mature to have a litter when it is around three years. Thereafter, depending on the survival of the litter, breed every two or three years. Though there may be four cubs in a litter, the survival rate is low — just one or two cubs. Even if one or two survive, they could take forward the population. In her lifetime, a tigress may have five or six litters. Sita, the much photographed tigress of Bandhavgarh who died a few years ago, had six litters in her lifetime.

There could not be a better example of the resilience of the big cats than that of the lions of Gir. Their numbers had dropped to a critical low of 12 in 1900 but the protection and care provided led to the population bouncing back to 340. In Ranthambore, too, in the early 1990s, there was a sharp decline in tiger population due to poaching. After a tremendous uproar, protection was enhanced and some curbs were put on tourist traffic to the park and slowly, but steadily, the tiger population went up.