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'It is the end of the road for the Indian tiger'
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'At least one tiger is killed every day'

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April 25, 2007
August 2005: 26 tigers. 21 adult tigers and 5 five cubs younger than 20 months
October 2006: 31 tigers. 18 adult tigers and 13 cubs

These figures, reflecting the population of tigers in one of India's top tiger reserves, the Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan, revealed by The Indian Express a few days ago, suggest that eight adult tigers have gone missing since 2005.

The reasoning: By October 2006 the tigers who were cubs back in 2005 should be part of the adult population. Instead the adult population has dipped.

Missing tigers, sadly, is not a new story in this neck of the woods, 18 tigers were discovered missing in 2005. And if eight adult tigers are indeed missing, their disappearance is merely the next chapter in a tragedy that has been unfolding for a long time in many of India's 29 tiger reserves (38,620 sq kms).

It is a tragedy that mirrors the complete apathy of our government say tiger experts, who are infuriated by the course of events. They feel the indifference of the authorities makes a mockery of the years of energy and money poured into saving the tiger.

They also believe we are today living with the last wild tigers on earth.

A small backgrounder: Back in the 1970s India's tiger powerful conservation programme, Project Tiger, that had the backing of then prime minister Indira Gandhi, won international acclaim for its excellent work in boosting the population of this big cat from about 2,000 to 5,000.

Project Tiger relied on the first Tiger Task Force report, put together under the chairmanship of conservationist and politician Karan Singh, to formulate an enlightened strategy to tackle the issues.

The second Tiger Task Force was constituted in 2005, 32 long years after the first and only after the tiger losses in Ranthambore and the disappearance of tigers altogether from the Sariska National Park, Rajasthan. The report from this force, which was very long in preparation, stated: 'The protection of the tiger is inseparable from the protection of the forests it roams in. But the protection of these forests is itself inseparable from the fortunes of people who, in India, inhabit forest areas.' The report suggested: 'The habitat must be shared between the people and the tigers, so that both can coexist, as they must. The poverty of one, otherwise, will be the destruction of the other.'

This suggestion was the source of much debate and was cited as evidence that the report was not well researched.

Wildlife expert and conservationist Valmik Thapar, who has dedicated his life to defending India's tigers, spoke to from London.

Thapar, the author of several ground-breaking books and documentaries, has been passionate about this big cat ever since he saw his first tiger at the age of nine. He believes India is facing one of the worst wildlife crises ever:

It is possible that tigers have gone missing in Ranthambhore. This has happened many times earlier. And this was the only news story I read about since leaving Delhi.

Tigers go missing because they get poached or younger ones leave the park for newer areas. But they find nowhere to go. They then starve. Or get killed by men or other tigers competing for territory.

Missing tigers points to poor federal governance and bad local management at a federal level. We are in the worst mess I have ever seen in 31 years of tiger work.

We have the most senior positions of director general and special secretary forests and additional director general wildlife (in the ministry of environment and forests) vacant for so many months. The former is the boss of India's forests. The latter is the boss of India's wildlife. They both work in the ministry of environment and forests.

Also not constituted and non-functioning is the forest advisory committee and the national board of wildlife. Run by the same ministry, the forest advisory committee has the legal status to protect forest land from degradation. The latter chaired by the prime minister is responsible for all wildlife issues.

To this abysmal record by the ministry, add the non-constitution of the Wildlife Crime Prevention bureau for over a year now.

The poor state governments! What can they do if all the institutions of the federal arm are non-functioning. Naturally tigers will go missing and poachers will have a field day!

Add into this menu China's effort to legalise trade in tiger derivatives. It becomes a disaster recipe and will fuel the trade, with fatal impact on the Indian tiger

The Tiger Task Force was a badly constituted authority -- mainly of non-tiger people. Its report was too encyclopedic and people-centric. It became redundant after its report. It has no meaning whatsoever today and most of its recommendations remain only on paper ie the Wildlife Crime Prevention Bureau.

One central theme to remember is that tigers do not coexist with people because they eat the four-legged animals that people rear -- cows and buffalos. This brings them into conflict. One or another gets killed. Therefore tigers do well when there are no people around. Even school children knows this. But our politicians and bureaucrats in the last two years have chosen to ignore simple facts thereby effecting policy change that signs the death warrant for tigers.

The government has failed like no other government since Independence. This Congress government has wiped out the legacy of both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in relation to forests and wildlife. The new popular legislation of the tribal bill piloted by the Left parties (Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers -- Recognition of Forest Rights -- Bill, 2005, which wishes to recognise and give forest rights and occupation in forest land of forest-dwelling scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest-dwellers) will end an era of forests and wildlife of India. As it becomes law in the next months forests will be plundered and looted. And legally.

There are probably 1,200 tigers left in India

I will not go into the issue of counting it is too complicated

The only hope lies in the Supreme Court of India. In the last years their orders have saved bits of the forests and wildlife. The question is: How much can they do?

I believe there is a complete breakdown in wildlife governance and the end of the road for the Indian tiger.

The tiger may survive in ten national parks in the future. But that is down from 120 protected areas. It cannot be a worse scenario

As told to Managing Editor Vaihayasi Pande Daniel

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