To save the tiger, revamp the system*

Shekar Dattatri

Set up by the British Raj to exploit India’s timber resources, India’s Forest Service needs to reinvent itself if we are to save the tiger.

When the Prime Minister set up the Tiger Task Force in 2005, there were high hopes that sorely needed reforms would finally be initiated in the way our Tiger Reserves and other Protected Areas are managed.  Unfortunately however, there has been little action on the ground and, with every passing day, the fate of the tiger has become more precarious.  Even so, it is not too late to save this most magnificent of the earth’s predators.  What it requires is the discarding of old mindsets, and the ushering in of a new spirit of determination. In what is perhaps our last window of opportunity to save the tiger, all right thinking people must unite, irrespective of their affiliations. If we are to succeed in saving the tiger, it can only happen through a partnership between government agencies that are the custodians of our forests, and dedicated NGOs and individuals who have developed tremendous expertise on various aspects of the big cat.  The tiger received a fresh lease of life when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi established Project Tiger over thirty years ago. It is not difficult to secure its future if we act now.

From a purely biological standpoint, there is no reason for the Indian tiger to go extinct in the foreseeable future, for it is a species that can thrive in an extraordinary range of habitats – from the cool foothills of the Himalayas, to the hot and arid forests of Rajasthan; from the forested mountain slopes of the Western Ghats to the steamy mangroves of the Sunderbans.  Add to this the other factor in the tiger’s favour: it’s a prolific breeder.  A female can start breeding at the age of three and can raise several litters of three to four cubs in her lifetime. To save the species, all that we need to do, is ensure protection of its habitat, and control the poaching of the tiger and its prey. This is really not difficult, given that some of the most important tiger habitats in India are already in the Protected Area network.  The problem is that, the missionary zeal with which Project Tiger was implemented in its early years, has given way to complacency and indifference, both at the political and administrative level.  When India was hit by a surging demand for tiger skins, bones and body parts from China and elsewhere, protection in all but a handful of Tiger Reserves had deteriorated alarmingly.  Poachers could simply walk in, establish camps in the jungle and systematically trap tigers.  Whenever evidence of poaching surfaced, the establishment, instead of sitting up and taking notice, went into denial.  Instead of coming down on poachers, Park Managers and their bosses often took the easier route of coming down heavily on the messengers – usually, scientists and NGOs – by withholding research permits and foisting false cases.

At the same time, fictitious tigers were conjured out of thin air using the notoriously unreliable ‘pug mark’ method of counting tigers.  Ignoring reliable scientific methods that have been developed for estimating tiger numbers, highly inflated figures were put out year after year, painting a patently false picture.  It took the total extinction of tigers in Sariska for this charade to finally end.  The damage though, has been enormous, and it is now emerging that many more reserves may have lost most or all of their tigers.  Yet, few of those responsible for the deceit perpetrated on the nation have been taken to task.

To make an already bad situation worse, a concept called ‘eco-development’ emerged in the 90s, ostensibly to reduce pressure on protected areas, by providing goods and services to people living around them. Funded by international agencies like the World Bank, vast sums of money are pumped into ill-conceived schemes that produce little or no benefit for the parks. In many reserves, these ‘lucrative’ projects divert the attention of Park Managers almost entirely away from wildlife protection, leaving the field wide open to poachers.  The very people who should be resisting unnecessary ‘development’ in our wilderness areas, are put in charge of building new roads that fragment fragile habitats, new rest houses where none are needed, and digging ponds in villages that have no requirement for them. Meanwhile, the ‘jawans’ of the forest, the humble but crucially important Forest Guards, who are virtually the only ones on the frontline against poachers, continue to walk around in tattered clothes and stay in leaky shelters, facing the wrath of encroachers and poachers.  Despite the huge sums of money available under ‘eco development’ budgets, it often still falls to NGOs to provide succour to the Forest Guards, in the form of uniforms, boots, wireless equipment and even insurance.

Today, except for a few reserves, most have little by way of a proper protection system. Thousands of guard posts remain vacant in all the states, leaving our treasure troves of biodiversity open round the clock to looters.  The guards who are in service are mostly in their 50s, and lack the stamina that is required for this tough job. Compounding this is a huge crisis of leadership.  Barring some exceptions, most Forest Officers have no expertise in anti-poaching operations and little inclination to lead their men in the field.   The poachers on the other hand, have become ever more organized and sophisticated, operating with code names, communicating with cell phones and retaining top defence lawyers.

If some parks still boast of good tiger numbers, it is usually because of protection systems that were established and institutionalized by visionary officers in the past, and continued by a few dedicated individuals in the present day.  These officers too usually have a hard time, trapped as they are in a system that offers little encouragement to those who toil with sincerity. Under-appreciated, and often the targets of fellow officers, interfering politicians and poaching mafias, they valiantly swim against the tide, protecting our common heritage.  As a ‘reward’ for their exemplary service they can expect to be shunted to some useless post during the next round of transfers, and have all their good work undone by an indifferent successor.

The way forward

In this era of increasing pressures of every kind, a few dedicated officers here and there are not enough to stem the rot that has set in over decades.  To save what is left, we need a bold and visionary revamp of the old system, starting with a separate ‘Wildlife Cadre’, which only recruits those who want to work for the cause of conservation.  For decades we’ve had an unfortunate system where officials are randomly reshuffled, commonly resulting in situations where a person who has an expertise in raising eucalyptus plantations is posted to head a wildlife sanctuary, or vice versa.  Equally dismaying is the fact that Forest Guards are rarely recruited from communities who know the terrain intimately – local forest dwellers.  In fact, these people are actively filtered out through archaic rules that stipulate certain educational qualifications or height requirements for the job.  Most damaging of all is the very attitude of the Forest Service, which is that of a feudal landlord.  Barring a few enlightened individuals within the system, the culture of the Service is to treat all others as either supplicants or irritants.  Independent scientists or dedicated NGOs who have developed an expertise in various aspects of conservation, are rarely consulted while drawing up Management Plans of Sanctuaries and Tiger Reserves.  Thus, potential allies have been systematically alienated.

While many government departments have reinvented themselves during the last few years, earning the respect of the public, the Ministry of Environment and Forests in Delhi, and the Forest Departments of the states are still deeply distrusted by virtually all sections of society that have to deal with them. It is imperative that senior officers wake up to reality and give their institutions a much-needed makeover. With perhaps less than 2000 tigers left, the present attitude will sound the death knell for the most charismatic predator on earth.

No other Ministry or Department holds the ecological health of the entire nation in its hands.  This is a sacred responsibility that must be approached with reverence and humility.  The Government agencies responsible for the welfare of our forests and wildlife are the caretakers of these common resources, not the owners. Forest Officers are public servants paid by taxpayers, not minor potentates running personal fiefdoms. Given the urgency of the situation, we cannot afford to leave matters as they are.  India’s incredible forest and wildlife wealth deserve to be managed by progressive and dedicated professionals who truly care.  If we allow the tiger to slide to go extinct, it will be the beginning of the end for all our wildlife.

(The writer is a wildlife filmmaker and conservationist)

*  This article appeared as an Op-Ed in The Hindu dated June 20, 2007

For general information on tigers visit the Wikipedia page


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