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'If we can't protect our national animal then what can we protect?'

April 27, 2007 14:55 IST

Part I: 'There is more concern for the tiger outside India!'

In the first part of the interview with Wildlife Protection Socitey of India executive director Belinda Wright, about the reported disappearance of eight more tigers in Ranthambore National Park, Wright spoke about the danger of India losing its tiger population altogether. She also said that the government's attitude seems to indicate that there is no urgency about tigers.

She says the situation in 10 of our 29 tiger reserves is worrying and quick action is required. Over to Wright:

Is the recently passed tribal bill a death warrant for tigers in the country, as some activists suggest? If yes, why?

This is a complex issue, but yes, it is believed that the Forest Rights Bill will have a negative impact on a large chunk of our already scarce tiger habitat.

May I request you to explain this a little further?

Ranthambhore National Park, for instance, is surrounded by human habitation. It will not be possible for tigers to thrive, and be protected there, if people have the right to graze or move back inside the park. It was only after the villages were moved out of Ranthambhore, in the 1970s, and grazing was curtailed that the tiger population built up.

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

To reverse these efforts would be turning the clock back to square one. Hundreds of forest dwellers moved out of Ranthambhore voluntarily -- they were compensated but it was a huge sacrifice, socially and culturally, for the tiger. We should respect this, and treasure the results.

The indisputable fact is that people and tigers need exclusive space for both these species to thrive.

What aspects of the tiger situation are being exaggerated and what aspects are not being exaggerated enough?

To save wild tigers in India there are three main issues at stake -- poaching, habitat destruction and prey depletion. These are the problems that need to be addressed.

Would you say that poaching is the overriding problem though? And is poaching at an all-time high? Or has India faced similar epidemics of poaching in pre-Project Tiger days?

Even if there is good habitat and sufficient prey species, poaching can still wipe out an entire tiger population. It is not the overriding problem, but the biggest immediate threat.

I believe organised wildlife crime came of age at the end of 1999, and before that it was haphazard and opportunistic. What we face now is entirely different. The illegal wildlife trade in tiger parts is now efficient, ruthless and organised.

Are tiger poaching cartels known? Or are they too widespread to be counted?

There is a lot of information available on record on both tiger poachers and the key people involved in organised wildlife crime.

Only a handful of people actually control the illegal trade, but as with the drug trade, they will not be stopped until they are targeted by intelligence-led, professional enforcement.

There are also thousands of wildlife cases pending in the courts, and to date, only a handful of convictions. This delay often means that wildlife criminals continue their activities while out on bail.

One forest official told us that India would have lost its forests had it not been for Maoist guerrillas. He even suggested the guerrillas and the forest officers have a symbiotic relationship: they protect the forests, the forests protect them. Is it true?

No comment.

What is your message to the Indian government and the Indian public? What can we do?

The tiger is an incalculable treasure to India. Once it is lost, it will be gone forever. India is the custodian of the tiger for the world, and no effort should be spared to save the tiger for future generations. The most pressing, immediate need is effective enforcement against both wildlife criminal networks and habitat destruction.

In your view what is the first step that needs to be taken, that you are campaigning for? Also, what do you consider your main role is in this?

What is urgently required is a dedicated wildlife crime bureau. A multi-disciplinary body that can effectively curb organized wildlife crime with intelligence-led, professional enforcement.

The idea has been approved and legislated, but after over 10 years of discussion it still hasn't become a reality.

My colleagues and I have a huge amount of information on the subject and years of experience working with various government enforcement agencies that we could share with such a bureau.

As an average Indian one reads about tiger disappearances and one also reads about the fearful web of corruption, crime and money linked to their disappearance and one feels it is a no win situation. Is that true? Or is that view to pessimistic? Or does India just need one strong voice like Mrs Indira Gandhi's apparently was to reverse the situation?

If we cannot protect our national animal, the tiger, then what can we protect?

The problems of corruption and crime can be seen everywhere, but that doesn't mean to say that we should step back and let India be looted.

A strong political voice for wildlife, such as Mrs Indira Gandhi, made all the difference in the past. Hopefully this can happen again.


Inputs from Sumit Bhattacharya