Blues for the big cats

Everyone knows of the tiger's endangered status, but the government seems unwilling to face the reality. So far, it has tried to resolve the issue through conferences and meetings, but there has been no concrete action

Published: Saturday 15 May 1999

Blues for the big cats

-- project Tiger, India's ambitious programme to protect the country's tiger population, recently completed 25 years -- an event duly celebrated by the government through a string of high-profile conferences and meetings highlighting the project's successes. Reality, however, tells a different story. Irrespective of the initiatives taken by the government and national legislation, poaching of tigers and destruction of their habitats continue unabated. The greatest irony, perhaps, is that none of the country's 25 so-called tiger reserves are free from human intervention.
Paper tigers So far, the government's efforts to solve these problems have been limited only to the frequently held conferences and impressive agreements, protocols and treaties. After November 1998's much-hyped conference celebrating Project Tiger's 25th anniversary, the ministry of environment and forests ( mef) organised another, the Millennium Tiger Conference, in New Delhi in early March this year. Experts, however, remain unimpressed. A senior forest official, on conditions of anonymity, says, "The mef is yet to implement the recommendations passed in the November conference. And now, more recommendations have come up. I wonder how only recommendations and no action is going to help the country save its tiger population."

There are many such instances highlighting the aimlessness of the government's approach. Recommendations and agreements are not enough. These must be implemented properly if the country is serious about protecting its big cats. P K Sen, director, Project Tiger, admits, "Even after four years of signing a protocol with China, no progress has been made to stop illegal trade of wildlife parts." China still has more than 150 traditional medicine units using tiger bones and parts. As the country itself does not boast of a tiger population, these units rely on poaching and encourage illegal trade of tiger parts (see box: Wildlife trade ).

Even in countries like Myanmar and Thailand, trade in tiger parts is thriving. On a visit to two border towns -- Tachilek in Myanmar and Mae Sai in Thailand -- Down To Earth 's Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain found clouded leopard and Royal Bengal Tiger skins in the wildlife market (refer to Bone bazaar , Down To Earth, Vol 7, No 7). Three subspecies of the Royal Bengal Tiger are already extinct. Experts believe that there are around 4,500 of them today in the world. Interestingly, all these species are classified under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ( cites ) as "rare or endangered and in which trade is not permitted."

Medicines containing tiger derivatives are sold in many countries and in Japan, they are "legally" available. A 1998 traffic survey shows that 43 per cent of the traditional Chinese medicine shops in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver sell medicines containing tiger bone. In New York, tiger bone medicines were found in 83 per cent of the shops surveyed.
What threatens the tiger Today, almost all the Indian tiger reserves are being threatened by commercial enterprises such as mining, industrial and tourism projects. According to conservationists, these are the biggest risks facing wildlife in the country. These activities are also responsible for displacing communities indigenous to the regions, cutting them off from the forest -- their sole source of food, fodder and fuel.

Further, tiger habitats are shrinking across the country. Since Project Tiger's launch in 1972, India's tiger habitats have shrunk by 50 per cent -- from some 300,000 sq km in 1972 to the present 150,000 sq km. Lakhimpur Kheri is a good example where tigers and humans have come into conflict due to the shrinking habitat of the tiger. Tigers are moving into the areas inhabited by people, who in turn are poisoning the big cats to protect themselves and their cattle.

To limit human interference in India's tiger habitats, the government declared several forests, known for their tiger populations, as "core areas", restricting access of the local people to these areas. It was a disastrous move and a glaring instance of myopic policy-making.

Thanks to the government's lack of foresight, communities that had depended on these forests for generations, were now being alienated and totally deprived of their rights to collect firewood and fodder from the forests.

According to S C Sharma, additional director general (wildlife), mef , the problems that cripple tiger conservation moves today include scarcity of funds, lack of adequate infrastructure and absence of scientific data. He blames overgrazing and other pressures of rising local population for the shrinking habitat of the big cats. Between 1947 and 1998, says a Traffic-India report, the country has lost some 5.4 million hectares (ha) of forestland to various non-forestry uses.

So far, lack of funds has been one of the biggest hurdles towards providing the tigers a safe habitat. Traditionally, government projects in India have had a history of fund shortages. But lately, even international organisations, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature ( wwf ), seems to have lost their sympathy for India's tiger population. Though the country boasts of 60 per cent of the world's tiger population, the wwf has allocated only us $0.4 million to India, out of the us $8.4 million it has raised for its tiger conservation projects.

In Bihar's Valmiki tiger reserve ( vtr ), where Project Tiger was launched in 1994, declaring the place a core area has dealt a severe blow to the local people. Today, cut off from the forest and without any other means of subsistence, these people frequently engage in poaching and illegal logging for paltry sums of money offered by poachers and timber smugglers.

The same is the case of the tiger habitat bordering India and Nepal which include parks such as Dudhwa, Corbett and Suhelwa. These parks are plagued by several problems. The vtr is known for large-scale timber smuggling as well as gun running and poaching. The problem becomes most acute in areas around Dudhwa where tigers are routinely poisoned by farmers to prevent them from raiding the cattle. In 1989, the media was full of reports of tiger poisoning in Dudhwa.

But because of a porous border it is difficult to apprehend the smugglers. As the smugglers and poachers have a very well connected network. Locals allege that a Dubai-based mafia don and a Australia-based smuggler have stake in the smuggling of timber from this area.

Wanted: a definitive policy
In parks where villagers are not permitted inside "core areas" for collecting firewood, a chicken often makes a suitable bribe for the forest guards (refer to: The method behind the madness , Down To Earth , Vol 7, No 11).

A K Sinha, district forest officer, vtr (range- i ), commenting on policies that have alienated the local people from the forests, says: "This attitude has created a major socio-economic problem and forced villagers in this tiger reserve to become dacoits or join hands with poachers and smugglers. People who once fought for the protection of wildlife and forests, are now assisting anti-social elements."

The forest is also in a state of disarray. In vtr , forest guards have not received salaries for the past year. Pune-based environmentalist Ashish Kothari believes that alienating the local people is the root cause of the problem. "The government has failed to make wildlife conservation a people's agenda by alienating the people from the forest, and pursuing the wrong wildlife policies," he says.

Government employees are now accused of indulging in activities that endanger both the tiger and the country's forests. An inquiry conducted by speaker of the Bihar Legislative Council Jabir Hussain, clearly implicates three forest officials, including Prem Sharan, former managing director of Bihar State Forest Development Corporation, West Champaran, of indulging in large-scale destructive activities in the vtr region, thus putting its tiger habitat in great peril. The government's usual practice has been to shift all its responsibilities to the local communities.

Several experts feel that any effort to increase the tiger habitat must involve participating countries like India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and China who must co-operate with each other for the protection of tiger. "We need to shift our focus from military security to environmental security, protection of nature will be possible only then," said J L Srivastava, ccf (Wildlife), Bihar.

"Tiger poaching and illegal trade in its parts is another major threat to the survival of tigers," says T Marshey, director general wildlife (Nepal). There is a need to regard the tiger as a global heritage, and to introduce stringent rules and regulations to protect the beast, he said. The main markets for tiger parts are in China and Japan. Nepal has not been able to put an end to such activities despite the formation of an anti-poaching unit, he said.

The Millennium Tiger Conference, like the others before it, came up with several recommendations to protect India's tigers. But given the government's poor record, their implemen tation remains doubtful. Meanwhile, tiger numbers will keep dwindling.

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