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The Rediff Special/ Archana Masih
At least one tiger is killed by poachers every day
The room was full up. Wildlife enthusiasts, journalists, students ... buzzing, even before the talk began. The several who sauntered in could pick their positions -- under two giant Sambhar horns, or butterfly lined boards, or against cupboards filled with books on wildlife.
"This is the worst ever crisis. Our forests and wildlife, especially tigers, are facing their most serious threat now," said an impassioned Valmik Thapar, the guest speaker and the reason for the unusually large audience that evening. A point the conveners at the Bombay Natural History Society -- the country's oldest non governmental organisation -- could not deny.
Thapar -- perhaps India's best known wildlife conservationist and an expert on tigers and their habitat -- has been the country's most vocal crusader for the cause of the endangered animal. "I am not a pied piper for the tiger. Saving the tiger is a battle and we need an army of dedicated people to achieve this," says the activist and author who also presents the acclaimed BBC televison series -- Land of the Tiger: A Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent.
India claims two-thirds of the tiger population of the world. Of the eight subspecies of the tiger, three -- the Caspian, Bali and Javan tigers -- are already extinct. The position of the South China subspecies is perilious; the Siberian, Sumatran tiger population is very low; and the Indo-Chinese and Bengal tiger habitat is so little in some areas that they face the threat of inbreeding and subsequent genetic disorders.
Though India accounts for more than 3,750 tigers -- sixty per cent of the world's tiger population -- it loses about 250 tigers every year. The figure could be alarmingly high. A weak information system results in many unreported tiger deaths. "The country is facing its worst ever crisis," says an impassioned Thapar, "There are large grey areas. I have been a critic of the government for six years, but have failed."
The government, on the other hand, maintains there has been no lack of effort towards the conservation of the tiger. The Centre-sponsored Project Tiger -- a massive conservation programme launched by Indira Gandhi on April 1, 1973 -- has been its most visible effort. With 23 tiger reserves, Project Tiger claims it has proved a success. "From 1,800 animals in 1972-1973, the tiger count has now risen to 4,000, and that has been our biggest achievement," says Project Tiger Director P K Sen.
However, critics think otherwise. Writes conservationist Billy Arjan Singh: "Project Tiger was initially a success while it was a species-oriented project, but progressively registered failure when academics of preserving the ecosystem replaced the symbolic value of the tiger." Singh believes that even the temporary increases in tiger population were caused by immigration due to destruction and degradation of its habitat in Nepal, and not to the widely acclaimed success of wildlife policy in India.
Thapar too strips Project Tiger of such claimed glory. "The Project needs an overhaul. How effective can it be if it has not been reviewed since it was set up. Even its mid-term appraisal of 1976 hasn't been implemented yet." Thapar maintains that the Project has not evolved in accordance with the changing habitat of the tiger.
In the '90s, the demand for tiger parts for Oriental medicines resulted in increased poaching. Indian tiger parts were much desired because China's dwindling tiger population threatened the manufacture of such medicines. More so because in the last 25 years China suffered a greater loss in its tiger population than any other country. The rise in human and cattle population and the subsequent degradation of forest area has further resulted in reduced numbers.
Poaching remains the single largest threat towards tiger conservation. The Wildlife Protection Society of India puts the figures at 73 casualties in 1997. High density tiger areas like Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh are most susceptible to poachers. Pitted against the poacher's sophisticated weapons, the forest department is handicapped by infrastructure problems. "Among other things, we do not have the required manpower," rues Sen, "To expect a forest guard to protect 15 square kilometres under his jurisdiction armed with just a danda is ridiculous!"
Sen says forest guards work under difficult conditions. They often remain on duty for all of 24 hours, through the month. Since there are no medical, educational or social facilities in his spot in the forest, he is compelled to live away from his family. Helpless against the might of the poachers, incidents have been reported where forest guards have had their toes chopped, even their bodies hacked in the line of duty.
At times forest officers get entangled in legal wrangles with poachers and timber merchants. "There are around 50 forest officers who are fighting cases on their own against poachers," says Thapar, and outlines the need for an action plan to tackle legal issues. "We need full time lawyers to safeguard our interests and training workshops for NGOs and volunteers," he continues.
The structure of Project Tiger is such that the Government of India does not have final authority over the various reserves. The tiger reserves fall under the jurisdiction of the respective state governments, which oversees the administration of the reserves. "We allocate funds to the state governments, but often funds do not percolate to the areas of requirement in the tiger reserves," reveals Sen.
Already delayed, the tiger census for 1997-1998 is expected to be completed by the end of the year. Precarious as it is, conservationists believe Project Tiger needs to be restructured and reformed if the great beast has to be saved. "We need more and better trained forest guards, and a technology modern enough to counter threats like poaching," says R K Tyagi of the Ranthambore National Park.
Wildlife critics maintain that the ministry of environment and forests is not equipped to handle the pressures and demands of forests and wildlife. "The government should create a new ministry for natural treasury," suggests Thapar. At present wildlife falls under the ministry of environment and forests. Thapar reiterates it is time environment and subjects like pollution were separated from forests.
Fifty per cent of India's tiger population falls outside the protected area network. Inflicted with problems like schemes that go implemented, vehicles that cannot be repaired, and a severe resource crunch, the 23 tiger reserves have lost their sheen. "Our funding level needs to be increased ten fold," says Tyagi, "Streamlining national parks is a gradual process. That kind of development cannot be done in one stroke."
However, the five year plan allocation for tiger conservation has been more than doubled to Rs 750 million. In 1998-1999, the central government has increased its funding for Project Tiger from Rs 80 million to Rs 170 million. Yet, unless administrative measures are not rectified, no real change will take place at the ground level.
Custom authorities in India multiply poaching offences by ten to estimate the actual figure of illegal trade. On this premise, the Wildlife Protection Society of India indicates credibly that at least one tiger is killed by poachers every day. "Though Indian wildlife protection laws are considered amongst the most stringent in the world, the lack of a trained enforcement staff force has rendered these laws weak, almost non existent," reveals Project Manager Bindia Sahgal of the Delhi-based WPSI.
Agreeing that the onus of saving the tiger does not entirely depend on the government's initiative, conservationists believe that NGOs should change their role and take a more active role. "Those days have gone when wildlife was taken up by people as a hobby. NGOs and individuals have to take a lead role and become 100 per cent more productive," cautions Thapar.
The tiger is a symbol of our biodiversity. "If it is allowed to become extinct, it will spell disaster for a host of other fauna and flora," affirms Sahgal, "Vital water catchments will be lost, affecting the lives of millions who depend on natural resources for their very survival."
If action is not taken immediately, the tiger will become extinct in the wild. There is no dispute about it. With sixty per cent of one of the world's tigers, India is privileged -- and perhaps the most rightful claimant to having it as its national animal. A good enough reason to stop regarding it as a mere symbol and ensuring its survival.
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