Saving the Indian tiger

Without active intervention by government and society, the majesty and fearful symmetry of this magnificent beast may disappear from Indian forests forever.

THE plight of the Indian tiger has never received the sort of publicity that it is currently receiving any time in recent memory. The telecommunications conglomerate Aircel flashes, on a daily basis, an advertisement on the main television channels in India about the dwindling tiger population.

It has employed India’s cricket captain M S Dhoni as its ambassador, exhorting the Indian public to save the struggling tiger. There are a variety of daily news items on the state of tiger populations, each day focusing on one of India’s 39 tiger reserves, with scoops on recent tiger deaths, corruption and incompetence of forest officials, and interviews with experts and politicians, discussing and analysing solutions to what has become a nightmarish prospect – the extinction of the Indian tiger.

There is no doubt that India’s national animal is in deep trouble. According to a 2008 census, there are only 1,411 tigers left in the wild in India, compared with 3,600 tigers a decade ago and over 40,000 a century ago.

In some national parks such as Panna and Sariska, which once had thriving tiger populations, tigers are now officially extinct. Some experts believe that even the figure of 1,411 is exaggerated and that numbers have now dipped below 1,000. Bearing in mind that India is home to over half of the world’s tiger population, this does not bode well for the species as a whole.

But India has been in this situation before. In its first ever census conducted in 1972, shocking news emerged that the tiger count was only 1,827. This was largely attributed to widespread poaching – India started banning tiger poaching only in 1970.

Save Wildlife

There is no doubt that India’s national animal is in deep trouble. According to a 2008 census, there are only 1,411 tigers left in the wild in India, compared with 3,600 tigers a decade ago and over 40,000 a century ago. Some experts believe that even the figure of 1,411 is exaggerated and that numbers have now dipped below 1,000.

The crisis precipitated a government sponsored project known as “Project Tiger”, which resulted in the creation of a number of tiger reserves dedicated to the protection of the tiger, as well as core buffer areas: contiguous areas which were freed from human activities to allow for tiger corridors. This lead to significant recovery over time of tiger numbers, the apex period being in 1989, when India’s tiger population rose to an impressive 4,334.

Poachers

However, this time, the crisis comes with an even greater bite. The dwindling of tiger numbers has two primary causes. The first primary cause is the old enemy, the poacher. Poachers in India generally belong to impoverished nomadic hunting tribes who traverse the country to hunt tigers and supply tiger parts to traders and smugglers, primarily to satisfy demand in the Chinese market.

A poacher may get up to US$5,000 for a dead tiger, big money in his circumstances. Multiply this 10 times for the trader – the skin of a tiger alone can fetch up to US$35,000 in the Chinese market. Virtually every part of the tiger has commercial value, primarily for the perceived medicinal properties. Some of these claims are manifestly absurd – the brain of a tiger, worth US$2,000, is used to treat laziness, its whiskers, worth US$100 per strand, used to treat toothaches.

The second primary cause is the loss of habitat, resulting in the diminution of prey species and territory for tigers to operate. India produces 20 million new citizens a year, most of this population growth occurring in rural areas, which exist side by side with India’s forests, thereby causing lateral expansion of human habitat and consequently deforestation.

The almost weekly reports in the Indian media of human-tiger conflict in rural areas is testimony to this growing problem, as tigers are forced to move closer to humans in search of territory and food. This invariably has tragic consequences as villagers often kill tigers out of self-defence or to protect their livestock.

In addition, the Indian industry’s drive to acquire real estate and natural resources, which fuel India’s spectacular economic growth, also puts pressure on tiger habitat. Recently, the Indian prime minister personally intervened on this issue by writing to the state government of Maharashtra to request that crucial buffer areas be notified around the Tadoba Reserve to protect a tiger corridor from intrusion by India’s coal mining industry.

Does this mark the end of the Indian tiger? There is reason to be optimistic about its future, in view of the currently huge and ever-growing awareness among the Indian public of the need for action to save its beloved national animal.

But reforms still have to take place. One fundamental tenet, mirroring the African approach, is to ensure that there is economic value placed on the tiger’s survival. Some experts estimate that an adult tiger can rake in over US$100 million worth of eco-tourism revenue in its lifetime.

Eco-tourism also supports the livelihoods of local communities who then in turn have a stake in the tiger’s survival. In this regard, it is difficult to agree with the recent decision by India’s National Tiger Authority to phase out tourism in its tiger reserves. Apart from disregarding the obvious economic value, this decision also overlooks the importance of eco-tourism in curtailing poaching, with each vehicle operating as a sort of security unit against such activity.

Other reforms should necessarily include proper forest management and involvement of local communities in anti-poaching activities, use of intelligence and technology to track poachers and monitor tiger populations and protection of forests and buffer areas against urban development.

In terms of curbing the trade in tiger parts, some progress has been made through India’s efforts on the diplomatic front, resulting in the recent directive by the Chinese State Forestry Administration to step up action against illegal trade in tiger parts and products.

The fate of the Indian tiger is in the balance. Without active intervention by government and society to save it, we may never see the majesty and fearful symmetry of this magnificent beast in the Indian forests again.

By Prakash Pillai – From Business Times

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