Project Tiger was launched with much fanfare by the Indian government almost 40 years ago to stop poachers killing the world famous big cat in the sub-continent. But the pride of India's wildlife is still facing extinction.
Initially nine tiger reserves were set up that grew to 27 in less than 30 years. But something was amiss as tiger populations showed a dramatic decline in the early 21st century. With less than a 1000 tigers left in the wild in India, extinction is on the horizon. India has to make dramatic conservation efforts to help save the noble big cat.
When Project Tiger was launched, 2000 tigers were left in the wild, according to figures released by the Ministry of Forests and Environment. By 2000, the Ministry showed a healthy population of 4000 across India. In the following years, the figure plummeted downwards.
Tiger habitats cover an area of 37761 square kilometres in India with a core area that is free of disturbances like forestry operations. At the same time the core zone is also managed as a "multiple use area". It provides a habitat supplement to the spill over population of wild animals from the rest of the reserved forest as well as site specific eco developmental inputs to surrounding villages. Loss of habitat was not the primary problem. Poaching was and is till today the danger in impeding conservation efforts.
Tiger resources in the world market – skins, teeth, hair, bones – are priceless. And this is the root of the problem as it works as an incentive for poachers. World Aid launched an award winning international campaign, 'When the Buying Stops the Killing Can Too'. It was able to plug in some of the biggest Western and Asian stars including Harrison Ford, Gary Lineker, Ralph Fiennes, Amitabh Bachan, Sachin Tendulkar and even the former President of India, Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam. Such campaigns are healthy for certain target audiences, however, to fight the cause at the source, rehabilitating poachers is paramount. And this is one of the biggest challenges for conservation in India.
Since their forefathers, various tribes have lived in close proximity to reserved wild parks in India. They are connected to the area in mind, soul and physics. They may not be an expert cartographers but ask them to draw a map of the area and they will do so with ease. They know every brook, every path, and every hill of the forest and hence they are the primary sources in the poaching machine.
A forest reserve in India has demarcated boundaries and is controlled by the Chief Wildlife Warden of the area supported by Forest Rangers and Forest Guards. Despite the security, professional poachers find a way to get their tiger prey, sometimes without even firing a single gunshot. The process starts with tracking where they search for movements of a tiger in an area based on the pug marks, especially near watering holes. Once they are assured that a tiger has been prowling in that area, they set up leg traps after which it is a wait and watch game sometimes lasting many days before their patience pays off.
But some poachers, especially those who are not from the area, prefer the quicker way of getting the job done by shooting. The forest rangers and other guards are always the last to know or act. Some conservationists even say that they are involved in the racket.
According to Tito Chandy, formerly with the World Wildlife Fund: “Forest guards are paid a pittance and have to work extra hard in the field in some of the remote areas of the country. They are looking at ways to make a fast buck – whether it be something as small as selling wood or hunted deer meat. But, their biggest catch is always a tiger or ivory. Once they understand that they will get a commission out of the sale, they literally turn a blind eye to the offenders and allow them through the forest border checks.”
Once the tiger is poached, though this is not easy, it is possible to market it across the globe. The job of the men is to poach, while women carry it to potential buyers. The tiger produce is concealed in ordinary woven vegetable baskets so commonly used by hawkers in India. From there on, getting around is fairly simple by buses, trains and sometimes even by foot across the border. The shepherds who live in the vast lands of the Himalayas willingly help to get tiger skins across to Nepal and Tibet.
In a new initiative a few years ago, the Indian government set up anti-poaching camps. They employed local tribesmen as informants and even armed some men with guns. But a tiger skin can fetch anywhere around $25,000 in neighbouring China and is therefore worth the effort for the poachers. The solution is to find a way forward for the forest dwellers to sustain themselves on a daily basis without poaching.
Rakesh Kumar Dogra, a Wildlife Warden in Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary told The-Latest: “If they see a poacher, I have given them shoot-at-sight orders. These guards are temporarily employed. To get a permanent job in the forest department involves red tapism and I am trying to fight that as well. So, as an incentive, I promise them a job if they can bring a poacher to book. In that way, both of us win.”
Women are also engaging themselves in the fight to save the tiger. Vasanta Sena is an organisation for women in Kerala who seek out poachers and inform officials of any offences conducted within the forests. The women take any day off from their professional jobs and work unpaid to protect the tigers, the forest and the environment.
“If all this is gone, what will there be for future generations. The government can try to do its very best, but it is no harm if we contribute as well”, says Mariamma, who was one of the first to join the group.
Other initiatives by the government and many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) include the setting up of co-operatives which give the tribal folk the opportunity to use other forest resources to set up small community based businesses. Bees for Development is one such NGO in the Niligiris Biosphere Reserve in Southern India that uses the skill of the traditional bee-hunters. The bee hunters gather honey from wild nests and cultivated ones which are then sold through a co-operative and gives them a steady flow of income. The NGO benefits not only by alleviating poverty but also because they can conduct research through native knowledge.
Many conservationists believe that the official figures of the tiger populations are bloated. Conducting a tiger census is complicated because you cannot turn up on their doorstep to find out how many members live there. The common methodology used is through tracking pug marks much the same way as “finger printing” but by using plaster of paris. Six years ago, some reserve forests started using camera traps to base the census on tigers stripes and other markings. But this is because they had the financial resources at their disposal that some other population trackers do not. This is a more scientific and acceptable practice, but for a developing nation like India, it is a very expensive one.
If tigers are to be saved, a more reliable way of gathering census information is vital. One solution is to microchip wild tigers and track them with a satellite navigation system. In this way, the movement of the tiger can be monitored based on scientific facts and at the same time they can be well protected. This is easy on paper but difficult financially for a country where just less than half its population lives under the poverty line. The sad dilemma is the government's understandable priority of humans over animals.
There are other serious threats that could throw the tiger into extinction. With a population of more than a billion people pushing India to bursting point, the next big hazard would be loss of habitat which would then lead to a lack of food for the tigers.
In middle India, there is the rise in Naxalism – guerrilla warfare. Naxals control a number of forested areas. No one can estimate how many tigers are even left in these forests. Time is running out and the Indian government will have to act fast to save its famous tigers. Wildlife campaigners warn grimly that if drastic measures are not put in place, there will be no more tigers left in the wild and the pride of India will be lost forever.
* Photography: Amit Sharma