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Home > News > Interview

The Rediff Interview/Belinda Wright, wildlife expert

'There is more concern for the tiger outside India!'

April 27, 2007

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The Wildlife Protection Society of India, which was founded in 1994, has a prime objective: to tackle India's wildlife crisis.

It achieves this by offering information and support to those at war with poachers and participants in illegal animal trade.

The WPSI, a non-profit organisation is run by a group of environmentalists and conservationists. Their help over the years has consisted of maintaining a database on wildlife crimes and cases, offering legal help in processing wildlife cases and filing cases against those guilty of wildlife crimes, support to wildlife conservation projects and training and workshops to those involved in tracking poachers.  

Related Feature: 'It is the end of the road for the Indian tiger'

While the WPSI has done a good deal of work protecting all kinds of Indian wildlife, specifically the chiru or the Tibetan antelope from whose fur shahtoosh shawls are crafted, it has a special focus on helping with the protection of tigers.

Belinda Wright -- who belongs to a family of confirmed Indophiles and grew up with a leopard and tiger in her childhood  home -- is the executive director and founder of WPSI. She was a wildlife photographer and filmmaker who has won awards for her work (two Emmys and 14 awards her NatGeo film Land of the Tiger), before she got involved full time with saving tigers and Indian wildlife.

Managing Editor Vaihayasi Pande Daniel interviewed Kolkata-born Belinda Wright about the reported disappearance of eight more tigers in Ranthambore National Park.

Have you received information about the disappearance of eight tigers at Ranthambore? Could it be true? What reasons would you subscribe to their disappearance?

First and foremost, Ranthambhore is one of the best protected tiger reserves in India. This figure of eight "missing" tigers is debatable. The Ranthambhore estimation in May 2005 -- 6 males, 15 females and 5 cubs (not sub-adults) -- was  largely based on the digital pugmark technique and not photographs.

The 2006 Wildlife Institute of India census was based on camera traps. You will inevitably get different results using different methods. It is also unlikely in any scenario that all the cubs would survive to adulthood, or for that matter that all the adults would survive naturally over a 17 month period (May 2005 to October 2006).

Furthermore, I understand that the photographs of the "missing" tigers were collected over many years.

But even when news is sometimes incorrect in its entirety there is often a kernel of truth somewhere. Do you suspect that there has been any sort of problem? Or is it just a difference between recorded results as you suggest? To underscore, are you saying that the news report was completely false and incorrect?

I should add: There is of course always a possibility that there are tigers missing in Ranthambhore, I am merely questioning the methods used in the report to reach this conclusion and highlighting the fact that in this case there could be a difference in recorded results.

I have spoken to the people involved in the news report and -- rather confusingly -- it appears that nobody is suggesting that there has been large-scale poaching in Ranthambhore, merely that certain tigers are "missing" and that this matter should be looked into.

I believe that presently Ranthamhore is well protected, better than it has been for many years. But this doesn't mean to say that professional poachers cannot strike again. They are very resourceful and cunning and the management will have to remain continually on alert.

To clear this matter up, the best course of action is probably for the government of Rajasthan to request the Wildlife Institute of India to analyse the photographs in question. To reach an accurate conclusion, the photographs should be from a proven time period and as close to WII's camera trap exercise as possible.

What are the larger factors that could have lead to a situation like this? Is traditional Chinese medicine which uses tiger ingredients the only villain?

There is virtually no demand for tiger parts in India. Tigers are killed by poachers to feed a demand for skins and tiger parts in China.

Is India in danger of losing its tiger population? How serious do you think the government is about addressing the problem?

Unless enforcement is stepped up, India could well lose its tiger population. Tiger poachers are part of a well-organised criminal network which has not been effectively addressed. What is required is intelligence-led, professional enforcement.

Is this being done in any small way in any part of India? In your view, which are the areas that have an enlightened policy and why? Also, how much of this is in the state government's domain and how much of it needs centralised policy-making?

At present, practically everything depends on the individual who is managing a protected area. If the person is interested and good at enforcement, then the area is well protected. Fortunately we have a number of such people in the field.

What we need is strong political support for the protection of our wildlife, both from central and state governments. Policy-making and laws are important, but they are only as effective as their implementation. You also have to keep in mind that curbing poaching in the field is only one step in the process. Curbing wildlife crime needs good enforcement all along the chain -- in the field, against professional poachers, and intelligence-led action against city-based wildlife traders and border smugglers.

What best illustrates that the government is not seriously addressing the problem is the fact that presently we have no National Board for Wildlife, no Forest Advisory Committee, no CITES Management Authority, no Director General of  Forests, no Inspector General of Forest Conservation, and no Director of the National Forest Academy...

Under these circumstances how can there be any urgency about tigers!

How many tigers does India have? Between the government figures and those cited by activists, there is a huge gap.

I don't think anyone knows the answer to this, but I believe we will be fortunate if we have 1,800 tigers left in India.

Most experts agree that India's tiger population has crashed by at least 50 per cent, and that at least ten of our tiger reserves are critically affected. Hopefully the new WII census will give us the true picture.

Which reserves in your view are critically affected? One reads reports that Kaziranga is the best managed, and that it has been added to the list of tiger reserves because of mainly an efficient administration. So how far is ground-level micro-management a factor?

At least 10 tiger reserves are critically affected -- Sariska (of course), Palamau (Jharkhand), Valmiki (Bihar), Simlipal (Orissa), Nagarjunasagar (Andhra Pradesh), Indravati (Chhattisgarh), Namdapha (Arunachal Pradesh), Buxa (West Bengal), Manas (Assam) and Melghat (Maharashtra).

Also, what about tiger census methods? Are we using the best possible means? As in, some suggest pugmark casts are outdated and that camera images are the only scientific way. Can you please elaborate for the lay reader?

There are a number of ways to estimate tiger populations. The pugmark cast method is certainly outdated and leaves huge room for error.

I am not an expert on the new census methodology but it is certainly considerably more comprehensive.

Some scientists have expressed concern that it involves the collection of information from more than  40,000 forest guards and it might therefore be difficult to monitor quality control. An additional concern is that this new method is very time consuming. If the results take two or three years to collate, much of the information will be out of date.

So what in your view should be the way India should go on its tiger counting methods? Do you agree with the contention by some scientists that the new method has issues?

It is important to take out the guesswork from estimating tiger populations and I believe the new method is a sincere effort to do just that. The process is nearly complete so the best course of action is for scientists to evaluate the method thoroughly once the results have been published. Hopefully there will be room for fine tuning, and that the next time round the estimation process can be done more swiftly.

What aspects of the tiger situation need global awareness so India does not altogether lose its big cats?

There is already global awareness of the problem. In fact there appears to be more concern about the future of the tiger outside India!

Inputs from Sumit Bhattacharya

To be concluded

 


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