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The principle cog in the food and ecological cycle, with every tiger gone, the entire country's survival is at stake. Beware India. Protect the big cat in the wild. Hardnews joins the campaign to protect the most majestic and magnificent creature in the animal kingdom
Akash Bisht Delhi
February 14 this year marked the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Tiger. Ironically, the majestic species faces serious threats of extinction owing to a speculated increase in the obsessive and irrational Chinese demand for tiger parts in its namesake year.
Conservationists believe that the year poses direct, sinister and organised threat to tiger populations across the globe. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), during its investigation on the sale of tiger parts in China, confirmed with traders that the demand for tiger parts is bound to see an unprecedented surge.
Fuelled by robust economic growth and capitalism in fast-forward mode, conservationists fear China's insatiable demand for tiger parts could dangerously hamper India's tiger conservation plans. Predictably, the massive demand would accompany a wash of filthy money on offer to lure poachers and emulate what happened in Sariska and Panna where tigers went locally extinct.
Samir Sinha, who heads Traffic India, views the debate as a platform for creating awareness about the tiger and to intensify international pressure on China to wipe out tiger parts trade from the country. Sinha says, "The positive aspect of this debate has been the awareness that has been created about the tiger and the need for its survival."
Indian authorities played down the Year of the Tiger issue as a simple case of perception but agreed to the use of tiger parts in Chinese medicines as the primary reason for tiger's disappearance in India. "A recent investigation by Debbie Banks of EIA revealed that tigerparts were openly sold in China, so the perception isn't a false one. China never came out openly as to what they do with tiger parts, but there is a common belief among the Chinese that certain tiger parts possess medicinal values," explains SP Yadav, DIG, National Tiger Conservation Authority.
Yadav added that the Chinese breed tigers but the belief that a wild tiger possesses more medicinal powers has led to the rapidly dwindling numbers in India. There are only 20 wild tigers in the whole of China.
India has the largest population of wild tigers in the world, but these numbers witnessed steep decline since the turn of the 20th century when an estimated 40,000 of these magnificent cats roamed about in the Indian forests. Latest official numbers suggest that the tiger population stands at a dismal1,411, at the last count, but many conservationists believe that the number is not more than 1,000.
Despite these abysmally low numbers, tigers are still being poached while increasing human intervention is destroying tiger habitat which will lead to early extinction of this species. Increased pressure by the mining lobby also threatens tiger survival as central and state politicians consider tiger as a hindrance in their attempt to clear large areas of forests for mining which would benefit multinationals and big business houses. Says filmmaker Krishnendu Bose, who made The Death Chronicles, "The main problem is that authorities are too interested in short-term development benefits and a mindless quest for profit, which is destroying tiger habitats through deforestation and mining."
The Death Chronicles confirms that a total of 95,002.86 hectares of land has been diverted to mining. Half of it is in the tiger reserves of mineral-rich Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. India also lost 26,245 sq km of its dense forest cover for severalmega projects.
So what has gone wrong with our tiger conservation plan and why were Sariska and Panna such a big disaster whereby not one tiger was left alive?
Experts attribute this to a lack of political will and ambiguity on the part of the government on how to succed tiger conservation within the stipulated framework. Depleted, underpaid manpower, especially forest guards, degradation of tiger habitat,non-existent infrastructure and increasing conflict with man have only added to the precarious and bleak scenario.
Soon after the Sariska shock - where the entire tiger population was cold-bloodedly decimated even while the BJP-led Rajasthan government turned deaf and blind - public outcry forced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to ascertain the reasons for the vanishing Indian tiger. The Tiger Task Force (TTF) was formed with a mission of reviewing tiger conservation and "suggesting a new paradigm that shares the concerns of conservation with the public at large".
The TTF submitted its report to the prime minister and most of its recommendations were accepted. On TTF's recommendation, Project Tiger was converted into a statutory authority named National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in 2005 and a Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) was also set up.
None of these measures has translated into effective protection for the tiger. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, more than 171 tigers have died from 2005 to 2009, which is a huge number. Though the authorities have been able to arrest few top traders and poachers, the notorious tiger trade is in no way on a decline.
The NTCA authorities have blamed insensitive state governments for being indifferent to conservation goals and vigilance. The TTF said, "There is delay in disbursing central assistance to tiger reserves by state governments, earmarked activities are not completed and funds remain unutilised. The Centre, therefore, withholds the next instalment. This leads to a situation where... central outlays for wildlife conservation increase progressively, but... funds lapse because of non-utilisation."
"The Indian forest sector needs special attention as it suffers from poor cadre management and training. There has been continuous depletion of staff strength and their capacity and ability to protect and guard. The tiger cannot survive without trained and capable staff that is motivated enough to become an important part for the survival of the species," says Sinha.
Reportedly, in most tiger reserves, more than 50 per cent posts are vacant. There is a permanent freeze on recruitments by some states since the last two decades. The average age of the forest staff is 50 and promotions come hard. The salary payments are in complete disarray; some don't get paid for more than six months. The TTF report reads: "The revival of direct recruitments to the state forest services have significantly upset the promotion prospects lower down, leading to frustration in the subordinate forestry cadres - the rangers and frontline staff. ...the decay in forest services has led to deteriorated capacity-building."
The forest staff is ill-equipped, wielding only lathis and archaic .303 guns against poachers who use sophisticated and modern weapons making it much difficult for them to nab them. Ironically, many forest guards face murder charges for firing on poachers and have cases lodged against them for several years.
The conviction rate of wildlife and related crimes is as low as 1 per cent. "In our country when people can get away with murder, how do you expect stringent actions against wildlife crimes which are not even taken seriously by the government and its agencies?" says Belinda Wright, a conservationist.
The judiciary's indifference has made sure that several thousand wildlife-related cases, including serious cases of poaching, are pending with various courts across the country. As per law, there are no provisions of a bail for offences against protected wildlife (Schedule V areas are primarily inhabited by tribals). Most criminals get bail owing to lack of evidence.
"The poaching mafia is like an army of ants. If one link is cut it will soon be replaced with another. Even if they are convicted, the sentence isn't harsh and once they get out they move to a different area, get familiarised and start poaching again," says Sinha.
The forest department with limited resources and training finds it hard to collect evidence that can be used for speedy conviction. "With lack of harsher punishments and no information about the whereabouts of the criminals once out of various jails, we can't predict what they plan to do next. The victims of poaching are mute animals who have no relatives protesting in police stations, hence the evidence is negligible, making it easy for poachers to get out on bail," says a WCCB source, expressing utter helplessness.
Infamous Sansar Chand is an accused or co-accused in 57 wildlife cases since 1974.Chand is considered the key link to tiger poaching from various reserves, including Sariska. He had confessed to the CBI of selling 470 tiger skins and 2,120 leopard skins to buyers across the border. He was once convicted in 1982, and later in 2004, wherein he got bail only after three months of his conviction. He continued with his trade till he was finally caught in 2005 and handed over to the CBI. Experts believe that Chand's large family is still involved in the poaching business. Chand belongs to a traditional poaching community of Girahas.
Several such communities run the poaching racquet in India and are responsible for numerous tiger 'murders'. "Bavarias, Pardhis, Mongis, Lisus and Bahaliyas are all traditional hunting communities and some of them get involved in poaching because of the large doles of money involved," says Yadav.
Increasing tourism is also threatening the tiger by blocking crucial corridors. "The tiger's future is doomed if we fail to protect the forest buffers and its corridors that helps tigers disperse to nearby forests," says Sinha.
Interestingly, most reserves with large concentration of tigers are also some of the poorest regions in India, often tribal dominated, who have remained alienated from India's 8 to 10 per cent city-centric growth scenario. Owing to stark poverty, many such villagers get lured into tiger trade because of the money. A CBI report after the Sariska fiasco mentioned that many villagers assisted the poachers in killing, removal and skinning tigers.
This human-tiger conflict cannot be viewed only through the prism of tiger conservation. Tiger conservation should have a humane face too as 150 of the poorest districts fall in prime tiger habitats and the people, mostly indigenous adivasis, have inherited these forests and land. They have for centuries lived in harmony with wildlife and ecology, protecting forests, and never allowing poachers on their territory for money. "The forest-dwellers and tigers are not threatened by each other. Some of them might be black sheep, but majority of them have lived in harmony with the forests for generations. They must be involved to protect the tigers," says Joel Lyall, author of Tiger Tales.
"India's conservation programme is located not in the homes of its rich, but in the settlements of the very poorest. It is their land that is set aside for protection. It is theywho share their resources with the tiger, without getting any benefits in return," reads the TTF report.
Tigers need a pristine and natural space for its survival, which should not be violated. The core area needs to be free of human activities, while buffer areas (peripheral forests) need to be strictly well-managed and monitored, making villagers an active part of tiger conservation.
Dharmendra, a biologist with Tiger Watch, a non-profit organisation, works with the people in the buffer areas, especially with the hunting community of Mogiyas that have been accused of being involved in tiger disappearances through Rajasthan. "We helped the government arrest more than 47 poachers. We are also trying to mainstream the community by educating them and creating livelihoods."
WCCB sources informed Hardnews that several foreign players are getting into the trade. "Recent seizures at Majnu ka Tila in New Delhi in 2009 involving Tashi Tsjhering, a Tibetan national, exposed the role of international players that have entered the lucrative poaching business," the official said.
Experts believe that the poaching mafia is as organised as any other criminal syndicate and needs to be handled with the same seriousness. The concerned authorities should drastically improve vigilance on a war-footing in vulnerable habitats and try breaking the nexus. However, wildlife crimes are seldom considered serious and most national and international laws to protect tigers go unenforced.
The constant degradation of forests has also led to tigers being confined to smaller spaces. "Mining, highways and use of land for commercial purposes threaten tiger existence and if these commercial activities are not stopped in national parks we might see a gene pool stagnation of tigers," says Sinha.
The central government has initiated several steps to protect the tiger. Theallocation under the eleventh plan for tiger conservation has jumped nearly six times and reached Rs 650 crore from 161.92crore, allocated in the tenth plan. "The government has increased the rehabilitation package for people living in core areas from Rs 1 to 10 lakh. There are nearly 80,000 families living in the core areas and they all will be rehabilitated soon," says Yadav. He stresses on the need of making the core area devoid ofany activity, including mining, highways or human interference.
A tripartite memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the ministry of environment and forests, state governments and field directors of tiger reserves has been signed for effective discharge of responsibilities. This MoU should help in speedy release of funds and better management of the reserves. "The need to declare buffer areas by the states is of crucial importance. Notifying the buffer area would stop mushrooming infrastructure being built inside national parks in the name of eco-tourism," says Yadav.
"No doubt, I believe every tiger is important. If the tiger has to survive anywhere, it has to be India. We have the largest number of wild tigers. It should be taken as a matter of pride and opportunity to save this great predator that has captured the imagination of generations through centuries." Says Yadav.