Tiger showing teeth

India’s tiger conservation efforts have suffered a multitude of major setbacks, and threats from inside and outside the country may lead to extinction of the wild tiger. Can the tiger be saved?

When Project Tiger was launched in 1973, India reported a tiger population of 1,827 tigers – a decline from 40,000 tigers in India at the turn of the century. Now, the tiger population in India is only approximately 1,400. The Indian public is outraged, and recently held a rally in support of saving its tigers.

It has now become clear that the almost four decade old Project Tiger has not been able to do much in stabilizing, let alone enhancing the tiger population in India. Its recent successor, the National Tiger Conservation Authority is said to be, for lack of better words, without teeth. And the tiger, perhaps unaware that so much is happening in its name is fast losing the battle to survive.

How did the tiger population in India get to such a sorry state?

Poaching driven by increasing demand for tiger parts

One of most deadly threats facing the tiger in India poaching for tiger parts. According to the Times of India, a single tiger “ground down and separated into various medicines” brings in around $50,000. Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India said in the article that poachers use Nepal to move between India and China, where increasing demand for tiger parts is driven by rising affluence:

It’s the traditional Chinese medicine market that’s driving demand.

This assessment is confirmed by the Wildlife Protection Society of India WPSI).

Recent undercover investigations by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) revealed that the trade in tiger and leopard body parts in China continues to thrive, operating without any hindrance from the Chinese government whilst driving India’s wild tigers closer towards extinction.

The market for tiger parts is, in fact, so pervasive in China that the country has tried (so far, unsuccessfully) to get the ban on trade in tiger parts lifted in hopes of legalizing its commercial tiger farms, where tigers are bred and raised for slaughter. The “tiger farms” – government-sanctioned animal abuse and cruelty – are flourishing in China. And Chinese demand for elephant ivory (for making decorative trinkets and displaying wealth) and rhino horn (for medicinal “potions” to cure fever and other common ailments) is also behind the industrial-scale poaching of elephants and rhinos – which is escalating along with China’s new affluence.

No more room for tigers?

WPSI reports that mining and other development projects are reducing tiger habitat.

Large development projects, such as mining and hydroelectric dams, are also taking their toll on the tiger’s habitat. In the past ten years, thousands of square kilometers of forest land have been diverted and destroyed to facilitate such projects. Though mostly outside the protected network, the loss of this vital habitat will have serious repercussions on tiger conservation in India.

And despite the recent good news of a sighting of two tiger cubs in Valmiki Tiger Reserve, mining activities are apparently getting in the way of identifying core critical habitat for tigers in the area.

Tigers and humans were pitted against each other again in 2006 when India passed a controversial new law giving forest-dwelling tribes and other traditional residents rights to occupy and cultivate land that they and their ancestors have lived on for generations.

Known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, the law applies to families that have lived in the forest for at least three generations.

However, the act happens to include “pristine wildlife habitat”, and it may prove over time to be a setback to much of India’s wildlife conservation efforts.

Ashok Kumar, a senior advisor and trustee to Delhi’s Wildlife Trust of India, criticized the act in a National Geographic article.

In my opinion this law is eco-suicide. It would pockmark the heart of tiger country and there simply won’t be any forest anymore.

Kumar’s opinion was seconded by Sejal Worah, program director of conservation WWF-India.

Critical areas of high biodiversity value constitute only 4 percent of India’s land, so this law should really have another mechanism for the people within these areas.

As part of the new act, scientific assessment and identification of “critical wildlife habitats” is allowed. And if relocation for forest dwellers is deemed necessary to preserve habitat, relocation can be done – as long as forest dwellers are involved in every stage of the process and are offered viable livelihood options.

However, outspoken critics like Prashanta Kumar Sen, former director of the government-run Wildlife Institute of India, say that the rules are unclear, and the resulting ambiguity is likely to stall the process indefinitely.

By the time critical wildlife habitats are actually identified—which could take one year or ten years—forests will have already gone down the drain.

Tiger protectors outgunned – literally

Poachers have the means to acquire the latest in assault weaponry, and apparently have no problems attracting new recruits. Sadly, this is in stark contract to those tasked with protecting tigers, as Askok Kumar recently revealed that forest guards, wielding lathis or .315 rifles, have to take on poachers armed with automatics.

There are huge vacancies in their ranks and most of them are old since there has been no recruitment for 20 years. They are not well-versed in legal procedures and 90% of the cases against poachers fail to stand up in court.

Furthermore, according to WPSI, while new protective strategies have been proposed, they have yet to be implemented.

Prevailing conservation efforts are not geared towards, nor have they adequately addressed, the new threats with new protection strategies ie. better law enforcement, training and support. Excellent new tiger protection measures (such as the recommendations of the (Subramanian Committee for the Prevention of Illegal Trade in Wildlife, 1994 and Tiger Task Force, 2005) have been proposed but not implemented and little effective action has been taken in the field. Few of the tiger reserves have an established intelligence network and nearly 80% of our tiger reserves do not have an armed strike force or basic infrastructure and equipment to combat poaching. The forest guards are often out-gunned and out-manned by poachers. In December 1998, three forest staff were murdered in Manas Tiger Reserve and several cases of murder and serious assault on forest guards have been reported since.

Brenda Wright of WPSI also told TOI that in the case of Panna Tiger Reserve losing its last 24 tigers, lack of coordination between centers and states resulted in tragedy: She stated that the Central team ignored warnings by the Madya Pradesh authorities.

Will the latest public outcries save India’s tigers?

Fortunately, the public has taken notice of tigers in crisis and organized a tiger rally in New Delhi.

… school children and several civil society groups in the Indian capital city of New Delhi are coming together to demand the basic right of the tiger – a Right to Survival. And in that, ensuring the survival of the entire human race. The Rally that follows a tiger consultation will also be a shift from all that has been done to all that needs to be done.

The Rally was deemed a success at raising awareness and bringing the public’s outrage over the crisis to the attention of politicians.

The event, that took place amidst a major tiger crisis, was one of the first attempts at reaching out to urban India and raise awareness about the inter-connectedness between the tiger and human survival and make the public move the politicians. The initial dent has been made, the follow up is what will now determine the fate of the tiger and of our future generations.

And why save the tiger? Take a look at the compelling case for saving the tiger in this Delhi Greens article.

Here’s to hoping India’s tigers have started the journey to recovery!

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/27391161@N07/ / CC BY 2.0