WHY SAVE WILD TIGERS?
When asked why he wanted to climb Everest, English mountaineer George Mallory is reported to have famously remarked, “because it’s there!”. We could say the same thing about saving tigers. Tigers don’t need to justify their existence on this planet any more than we do. It is our privilege to still have them in our midst and we must do all we can to pass them on to future generations.
Of course, protecting tigers simply because they are there may not seem like a good enough reason to some people. Well, here are a few more:
a. National Pride: We pride ourselves as a modern nation and an emerging economic super power that deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with developed nations. What kind of message will we send to the world if we cannot even save our National Animal? Just as important, if we lack the commitment or the sagacity to save so charismatic an animal as the tiger, will we be able to save anything else?
b. Preserving nature’s balance: Thousands of ‘lesser’ species share the tiger’s habitat. By taking steps to save the tiger we also save all these species, which are vital for maintaining the balance of nature.
c. Ensuring our ecological security: Protecting nature is not a luxury but a vital necessity. Hundreds of rivers that we depend upon for irrigation and drinking water have their origins in forests that have been protected in the name of the tiger. If tigers disappear, the political will to save these forests will erode further. Mining and timber mafias will then degrade and destroy them, and, in the process, put all our lives at risk.
d. Preserving something irreplaceable: The tiger is a priceless gift of nature. If it disappears, a part of India’s uniqueness will be lost forever.
e. Ethical reason: The tiger is an extraordinary creation of nature that has survived along with us for millennia. It has as much of a right to continue to exist on our planet as we do.
And by the way, let’s not forget that saving forests and wildlife is enshrined in our Constitution!
48A. Protection and improvement of environment and safeguarding of forests and wild life.—The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wild life of the country.
51A. Fundamental duties.— It shall be the duty of every citizen of India— (g) to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures;
It will be a great shame if we push the tiger into needless extinction. In the words of the great wildlife biologist, George Schaller, “Future generations would be truly saddened that this century had so little foresight, so little compassion, such lack of generosity of spirit for the future that it would eliminate one of the most dramatic and beautiful animals this world has ever seen.”
A long time ago, our ancestors knew that all life was interconnected and interrelated. Here’s a passage from the Mahabharata written over 2400 years ago!
“Do not cut down the forest with its tigers and do not banish the tigers from the forest. The tiger perishes without the forest and the forest perishes without its tigers” (Udyogaparva).
CAN WE SAVE WILD TIGERS?
Yes! absolutely. The tiger is a versatile species that can thrive in an extremely diverse range of habitats. It is also a prolific breeder. All its problems are man-made and hence can be solved if we do the right things now. This section provides an analysis of the problem and offers some practical solutions.
AN ANALYSIS OF THE CRISIS
1. Why are India’s tigers disappearing?
Tigers once roamed fearlessly across the length and breadth of our country. But as India’s human population expanded, habitats were destroyed on a massive scale to settle people and bring more land under cultivation. Tigers were also considered as pests and bounty hunted. They were shot, snared and poisoned. Thousands were also slaughtered in the name of sport during the British Raj. Today they are confined to wildlife reserves, where they are under various kinds of pressures.
Here are three fundamental reasons why the status of tigers in India is so precarious today:
a. The insatiable demand for tiger skins, bones and organs – primarily from China – that is fueling poaching by organized and well-networked criminal gangs. These gangs, mainly members of highly skilled hunting tribes like the Baheliya and Bawaria from Central India, travel to wildlife reserves across the country on poaching expeditions, and are wiping out entire populations.
b. The rampant illegal hunting of the tiger’s prey by local people, which is creating empty forests where it is impossible for tigers to survive, let alone multiply.
c. The abysmally low level of protection in most of our protected areas, which allows poachers to have a free run. India has some of the strongest wildlife laws of any country, but extremely poor enforcement. Most of our reserves are understaffed, and manned by ageing, under equipped and poorly trained frontline staff. Dynamic officers who are willing to lead from the front are the exception rather than the norm, and state Forest Departments have neither the resources nor the expertise to effectively investigate cases, prosecute poachers and ensure convictions.
2. What laws protect the tigers ?
The tiger is protected under the Wild Life (Protection) Act and killing one (except in a clear case of self defense) is punishable with a maximum penalty of 7 years in prison and a fine of over Rs.10,000. Anybody who tries to encroach the habitat of the tiger by altering the boundary of a tiger reserve faces a similar penalty. However, few people are caught and even fewer are successfully prosecuted and convicted.
3. Who is responsible for protecting our tigers ?
The primary responsibility of protecting India’s natural wealth rests with each state. But most Chief Ministers have little interest in wildlife conservation, and often view forests as a burden and conservation as an impediment to development. As a result of low political awareness and will, state Forest Departments, which have suffered both neglect and rampant interference, have turned into weak, demoralized, red tape-ridden bureaucracies without a clear vision or a mission. Outdated ideas with no basis in science, outmoded mindsets that are out of synch with the 21st century and an authoritarian ‘feudal landlord’ mentality plague Forest Departments, preventing constructive public-private partnerships with civil society groups for the betterment of forests and wildlife.
4. What about the good people in the system?
Barring a few interested and committed individuals here and there, most candidates enter the Forest Service as just another way to secure a government job. Sadly, those who do enter it with zeal and enthusiasm soon find themselves trapped in a no-win situation. If they are sincere and effective in their jobs, and act strictly against poachers, encroachers or illegal cattle grazers, they often come under pressure from local politicians. Sometimes they don’t even receive the support and encouragement of their superiors in the department. As a reward for their selfless service, they may be shunted to some useless post where they will languish for years.
On the other hand, corrupt officials who are willing to bend the law to accommodate mining or timber felling at the behest of their political masters are often rewarded with lucrative postings to wildlife reserves where they get to spend vast sums of taxpayer’s money on largely useless and, often, destructive ’development’ or ‘habitat improvement’ activities.
Visit any reserve today and you will see evidence of this in the form of needless buildings, check dams, culverts, decorative arches, ‘viewlines’ and other human artifacts that do not benefit wildlife in anyway. The tragedy is, our wildlife reserves are frequently in the hands of officers who have little interest in wildlife protection.
5. But don’t our forests need to be managed?
Most forests require little ‘management’ beyond good protection from illegal activities like poaching and man-made forest fires. However, a whole host of unnecessary but lucrative plans are hatched every year under the guise of ‘habitat improvement’. Unnecessary waterholes are dug even in high rainfall areas, vegetation that provides food and cover to animals is cleared in the name of ‘weed removal’ and ditches are gouged out deep inside forests in the name of ‘rainwater harvesting’. Since these activities take place in faraway forests, few people are even aware of them.
6. How prevalent are these practices?
Sadly, they have become extremely widespread. The rot has set in so deep, that it is now reportedly routine in many states for some unscrupulous officers to ‘bid’ and secure a posting to a wildlife reserve that has received a project with a large budget. The officer then recoups his ‘investment’ and makes a profit through construction and earthmoving activities. Often, inept consultants, retired officials and even unethical NGOs form an alliance with such officials and siphon off money meant for protection. Crores of rupees of taxpayer’s money go down the drain in this way.
7. What about budgets for protection?
Ironically, while there appears to be no dearth of budgetary allocation for unnecessary and undesirable ‘civil works’ in our forests, there is a perpetual shortage of funds to employ enough frontline staff to guard and protect India’s priceless natural wealth. It is estimated that there are over 20.000 field staff vacancies in state forest departments across the country because of ‘lack of funds’.
Serving staff in most states are invariably close to retirement, and are forced to work under extremely difficult conditions without proper training or equipment. Anti-poaching camps, where they even exist, are usually in poor shape, with no wireless equipment, firearms, first aid kits, vehicles or even basic necessities such as clean drinking water. To top it all, field staff, especially ‘daily wagers’ who are employed as ‘watchers’ and as assistants to Forest Guards, often don’t receive their salaries for months.
8. So, what’s the crux of the matter?
Our tigers are disappearing not because of being afflicted by some rare disease or unknown cause, but because the system that is supposed to protect them has failed badly. With virtually no institutional reforms, recruitment of guards or modernization during the last two decades, protection capacities of most forest departments have shrunk. The structure resembles an inverse pyramid with a glut of senior officers at the top and a severe shortage of frontline protection staff at the ground level. As a direct consequence, many of our protected areas are poorly guarded. Unless we, the people, wake up to the reality of what’s happening and strongly voice our concerns, tigers are likely to become needlessly extinct in many states within the next decade.
9. How difficult is it to save wild tigers?
Saving tigers isn’t rocket science. This is a resilient species that breeds well and has the ability to bounce back given adequate protection. This was demonstrated in the 1970s and 80s, when a determined effort was made to protect the tiger and its habitats. Despite the fact that India was an extremely poor country back then, tiger number saw a dramatic increase in many reserves, proving that all we really need to do is provide adequate protection for wild tigers, their prey and the habitat, and nature will do the rest.
In fact, in a few reserves where a proper system of protection has been institutionalized – with anti-poaching camps and regular foot patrols by field staff – tigers and other wildlife have staged a remarkable comeback and continue to flourish. But such reserves have become the exception rather than the rule. According to the Government’s own admission, at least 18 of the 39 Tiger Reserves in the country are in an extremely precarious state. As of 2010, only 9 or 10 Reserves are acknowledged to be doing relatively well.
We now have all the knowledge we need to save the tiger, thanks to decades of research by top notch wildlife biologists. There is no dearth of money either, since India is no longer a poor country. What is needed is a determination to do away with the ‘business as usual’ approach and tackle the problems head on.
10. How many tigers can live in India’s forests, and how many do we have now?
Dr. Ullas Karanth, a Senior Scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and one of the world’s most respected tiger biologists, believes that India’s forests can support over 10,000 tigers. But according to the Government’s own estimates, there may be fewer than 1500 left in the country.
11. Many species have gone extinct in the past; perhaps its the tiger’s turn now?
Not true. There is no evolutionary reason for the tiger to go extinct at this time. It is a robust species that thrives in many different types of habitat and breeds extremely well. All its problems are man-made and therefore can be solved. We can ensure the tiger’s continued survival by doing the right things now.
12. What does the government need to do immediately?
1. Appoint only committed officers to wildlife reserves and give them the resources and support to do their jobs without fear or favour.
2. Loosen its authoritarian stranglehold on our forests and initiate genuine public-private partnerships between reserve managers and independent scientists, conservationists, civil society groups and local communities.
13. What about citizens like you and me? What can we do?
All of us have a role to play in saving tigers. Well-informed citizens who are willing to campaign in a sustained and sensible manner and contribute their skills can make a huge difference. An entire page on this site is devoted to this topic. But before you skip to ‘Defending the tiger’ please take a look at the next section – understanding tigers.