The Tiger's Trauma
"Given the trauma that the tiger is currently facing with poachers, miners, dam builders and more chipping away at its future, perhaps it is time to revisit and article that Valmik Thapar and Bittu Sahgal wrote in 1996, and which was published in Sanctuary Asia. If anything, today, the tiger is in a worse position than it was. And our prescriptions for its survival remain as unimplemented today as they were when we raised the alarm then."
TIGER 2000 – One thousand days to save the tiger
by Bittu Sahgal and Valmik Thapar
As we approach the landmark half-century of our Independence it is important that we record for posterity the manner in which our government has virtually escorted the tiger and its associated wild animals towards extinction. The crisis of the tiger is not unknown to our nation. We were engulfed by it in 1972-73 and responded admirably then by launching Project Tiger and by passing the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 through Parliament. The tiger then had political support. Much has changed in the intervening 24 years. Now only economic issues seem capable of drawing the attention of Prime Ministers, not ecological ones. What is worse, those who make the law themselves find the most creative ways of breaking it.
The Tiger Crisis Cell and the Steering Committee of Project Tiger have alerted the government to the impending extinction of the tiger. They have asked that India set an example to other tiger range countries by initiating early measures to coordinate protection with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. A series of cross-border meetings have been mooted. Forest density and distribution maps to determine corridor status have been requisitioned. Enhancement of penal provisions for tiger and leopard poachers have been recommended along with stepped up anti-poaching and enforcement measures. All these, together with a clutch of detailed reports, action plans and hard evidence of the tiger’s decline sit gathering mould in government files. Meanwhile, the tiger keeps sliding closer to the edge. This then is an archival record of government irresponsibility and policy makers’ culpability... which a widening circle of touts have taken advantage of to the detriment of the tiger.
As we go to press constituents of Tiger Link, a forum launched in February 1995 in defence of the tiger, have decided to escalate their battle by taking it to the people. This may well prove to be the last hope for the species because the voice of many tribal groups and leaders such as Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and Dr. B. D. Sharma, ex-Commissioner Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes, has been joined to that of socially conscious wildlifers in defence of natural India and the tiger itself. To succeed, however, these groups will have to climb the wall built by powerful but visionless men guided by the light emanating from the World Bank. The outcome of this battle will be determined by the ability of very diverse groups to get together in joint purpose. Saving the tiger amounts to saving forest cultures which are in retreat even faster than the tiger itself.
In any event, in the name of sanity, we charge the people of India with the responsibility of saving the tiger before the turn of the century. We have but 1,000 days in which to accomplish our task.
We followed her pug marks on foot for over a kilometre through dusty paths and damp rivulets. The trail suggested that her two cubs, despite a myriad distractions, never drifted more than a few metres from the protective reach of their mother. By the side of the road, obscured from view, we saw fresh droppings where the feline had stopped to defecate, scratching the earth to leave a momentary, “I was here” message in the distinctive manner of tigers. Did the stiff brown bristles belong to a now-departed sambar? Or a wild boar perhaps? Only laboratory analysis would provide a conclusive answer, but for the moment we were pleased enough to know that despite all our failures the tiger had managed to survive in yet another forest.
Above us the canopy closed in a dense tangle only visible where humans are not. A bushy-tailed male giant squirrel caught our eye where he sat spot-lit by the sun in the branch of a large jamun tree. In the silence we could hear the crunch of rodent teeth whittling forest fruit. There were many more squirrels about. Did the whistles and clicks suggest amourous advances... or territorial battles? Whatever, no biologist could ask for a more definitive manifestation of forest health than giant squirrels above and tigers below. For a while we forgot the tiger crisis and basked in the comfort of nature’s harmony.
We were in the Churna Sanctuary, in December 1995, walking through a little-known, inaccessible section of Madhya Pradesh’s fast-vanishing tigerland. We had driven from Pachmahri and Bori, through deep ravines and gorges which easily rivalled some of the world’s most celebrated natural monuments. Less than an hour ago, we stopped at an impressive rock shelter where we gazed in wonderment at works of art left for posterity by a community of forest-dwellers more than 10,000 years ago. Like an awning, a massive rock overhang protected tigers, elephants, deer, snakes and langurs, all etched indelibly on an ancient 30-metre-long stone canvas. A melancholic thought haunted us as we pondered the fact that future Indians would probably be able to view this gallery 20 years from now... but not its star subject, the tiger.
Despite an endless stream of rhetoric and lip service, the tiger continues to die. Masters of paper policy, we cannot implement anything on the ground. The time-lag between intent and action must pass a bureaucratic mine field where tiger games are continuously played by those who damage the animal they are employed to protect.
Trouble in tigerland
The tiger has no more time to tolerate paper pushers, file movers, committee watchers or administrative restrictions. A handpicked and motivated team of people with a clear cut mandate from the Prime Minister’s office must be instructed to work within a time-bound framework. Within 36 months – l ,000 days – this team must cut across 17 states to network men and resources to form an armour of protection for the tiger and all that live under its umbrella. No national purpose could be better served than by undertaking this one crucial step because, little known to most economists, the tiger is a symbol of India’s water security. Its forests are the source of our most reliable water supplies. If these go, India goes.
Because nearly 25 per cent of all tigers in India live in the forests of Madhya Pradesh we decided to focus our attention here as a first step towards preventing the tiger’s extinction. In Bhopal, we had heard of ominous plans to connect the Churna and Bori forests via a bridge with an island in the Tawa Reservoir. A hotel and casino had been mooted where cardsharps and bartenders were to be set the meaningful task of siphoning money from the rich and famous... ostensibly for the ‘development’ of a tribal region! So much destruction has been fobbed off as development in India that no one is any longer surprised at the ludicrous lengths to which well-connected people are prepared to go to justify their avarice!
The forests of Bori have only now begun to recover from past forestry blunders. Monocultures of teak which foresters had tried in vain to exploit were in the process of being reclaimed by nature. More recently, Bori and Churna were subject to still worse tragedies. Lakhs of trees were destroyed and thousands of people displaced when the reservoir of the controversial Tawa Dam began to fill. The waters eventually consumed homes, fields... and some of the best tiger forests in the world. No assessment was ever conducted on the social or ecological impact of the dam. The damage has not been tabulated to date. There is more. So as to avoid the complication which arise from the abuse of legally protected forests, we discovered very recently that some notified sanctuaries may not even be listed by state governments which thus continue to allow mines and other such projects in these valuable forests. One example is the Gangau Sanctuary which abuts the Panna National Park. Gangau is a crucial tiger habitat and serves to accomodate the spill-over population of tigers from Panna. Yet, over 40 Forest Conservation Act violations have been observed here, largely by mines seeking access to stocks of white sandstone.
Who will save the tiger
The list of violations against the tiger are legend. Almost every tiger state is guilty of betraying the tiger to a lesser or greater degree. Even now, the process of violating the tiger’s space and that of other wildlife is an on-going one, as can be judged by the attitude of senior forest officers and governments who have gone on record when preparing Fact Sheets to support commercial proposals to divert forest land from valuable wildlife areas. Here are some examples:
1. ANDHRA PRADESH. NAGARJUNA-SRISAILAM TIGER RESERVE: A total of 81 hectares out of a proposed 113 hectares required for the construction of the Tail Pond Dam downstream of the Nagarjunasagar dam, falls in the Srisailam Tiger Reserve Area. In trying to justify the sacrifice of this irreplaceable natural forest the DCF (C) “opined that the submerged area will provide additional marshy/wet land for crocodile which are available in the area.
The Chief Wildlife Warden of Andhra Pradesh added that: “though an area of 81 ha. of Tiger Reserve would be lost under submergence, a new area of about 530 ha. will be turned into an ideal wetland ground for fish population which in turn will attract diverse aquatic bird species in large numbers.”
2. BIHAR. PALAMAU TIGER RESERVE: The Horilong U/G (mine) Project seeks diversion of an 11.92 hectare parcel of land which falls within the Palamau Tiger Reserve. The Deputy Conservator Forests (Core) asks that the Project Tiger boundary be redrawn to exclude this area. The Fact Sheet on MoEF files confirms that the area is a dry sal forest and that adjuscent forest lands extending to 794.19 hectares will be mined. Palamau is already threatened by submergence by the Kotku Dam. Man-animal conflicts are already at an all-time high because of land shortages for both man and animal. Time and again proposals have been mooted to increase the sanctuary area as a buffer to absorb the spill over wildlife from the core areas. Diversion of forest lands and wildlife habitats for mining will clearly impact adversely on the future of the tiger.
3. MADHYA PRADESH. SITANADI SANCTUARY: The Sondur Irrigation Project seeks diversion of 1080.22 hectares of land from this crucial sanctuary on which more than a third of a million trees are estimated to be standing. This is excellent tiger habitat and is the last refuge of the Central India wild buffalo. At first the State Government had denied that the area even formed part of any protected area, however a site inspection revealed that a huge 529.70 hectare area did indeed fall inside the Sitanadi Wildlife Sanctuary.
4. MADHYA PRADESH. JHIRIYA TANK PROJECT: This involves diversion of 128.47 ha. of forest land on which more than 86,000 trees are estimated to be standing. In response to the question as to whether the habitat is significant from the wildlife point of view, all the Chief Wildlife Warden had to state was that:
“It did not form part of a wildlife sanctuary or national park”. This is evasive at best and duplicitous at worst as the case was recommended for clearance.
5. MAHARASHTRA. THE MELGHAT TIGER RESERVE: In denotifying more than 500 sq. kms. of the Melghat Tiger Reserve, the Chief Wildlife Warden opined in a personal interview that:
“This will help the tiger in the long run.” He added: Felling operations will also provide employment for ‘poor adivasis’.
6. KARNATAKA. KARWAR FOREST DIVISION: In an amazing double deal of destruction, the Karnataka government first wanted to displace people from Kali Hydroelectric Project and the Kaiga Nuclear Plant and then resettle them in forested lands. When asked whether the area was significant form a wildlife point of view the Chief Wildlife Warden after approving the felling of over 40,000 trees replied:
“No. But tiger, panther, Malabar squirrel are present in the area.”
7. KARNATAKA. MULKI DAM PROJECT: After having violated the Forest Conservation Act, the State Government came to the centre for “clearance”. When asked whether the area was significant from the wildlife point of view, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests replied:
“No. But tiger and panther are present in the Sualkadu Block Reserved Forest.”
8. KARNATAKA. KUDREMUKH IRON ORE CORPORATION IN CHICKMAGLUR: A few years ago the Kudremukh National Park was yet again abused by yet another prospecting lease inside the extremely rich forest which was a known repository of iron ore. The Ministry of Environment and Forests is alleged to have allowed a massive area of over 1,000 hectares of land to be destroyed. The result is that a mind-boggling quantity of 75,000 tonnes of iron ore extraction now pollutes the Bhadra River which flows into the Bhadra Sanctuary, a proposed Tiger Reserve. In this case the wildlife department passed some extremely adverse comments against the prospecting. Yet MoEF officials sacrificed the area:
“The area is in the midst of Kudremukh National Park... rare/endangered species include liontailed macaque, flying malabar squirrel, tiger and leopard... the areas will be highly vulnerable to erosion and land slides if they are mined.”
9. AIZAWAL. MIZORAM: The Tuirial Hydro Electric Project asked for clearance to drown a 53.30 hectare forested area in which ONE MILLION TREES required to be hacked down. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests when asked whether the area was significant from a wildlife point of view replied in one word:
This was bad enough, but the response of a senior wildlife biologist attached to one of India’s premier wildlife research institutions who was aware that a million trees would vanish (and must have been well aware of the fact that the forests in the immediate vicinity harboured tiger, leopard and even clounded leopard) wrote:
“I strongly recommend that immediate clearance be given to Mizoram Government to build the hydel project at the earliest.”
At last count, the gentleman was asking that sport fishing be allowed in sanctuaries across India.
The tragedy of the tiger thus unfolds. Even those who the nation believes are protecting the interest of the tiger can be seen to be selling it down the drain. Thousands of violations have piled up of the Wildlife (protection) Act, 1972, Forest Conservation Act 1980, and the Environment Protection Act. We see that most Chief Wildlife Wardens, PCCFs and DFOs and even some wildlife biologists have recommended cases for release of forest land to large-scale “development” projects by stating “the wildlife is of no significance” In many of these cases this has happened because of political pressure. Clearly the Northeast is in danger from developers.
There are very few Fact Sheets which actually object to the release of forest land. Who will ever enforce the laws of this land?
Mistakes and misdemeanours
The list of human offences against the tiger grows by the minute: Mining in a clutch of crucial forests including Sariska, Ranthambhor, Bhadra, Madhav, Palamau, Balphakram and Simlipal. Mega-dams in Palamau and Indravati. Five-star tourism in Nagarhole and Gir. Temple expansions in Periyar. Timber extraction in Melghat and in the surrounds of almost every known tiger habitat. Insurgency in Manas. Mangrove destruction in the Sundarbans. Flooding in Kaziranga. Hundreds of fishing licenses issued in Pench. On top of all this, a sum of $68 million had been canvassed and granted for a project which threatens the stability of the best of our tiger reserves. Labelled Biodiversity Conservation through Ecodevelopment, the project sought to introduce economic development into the surrounds of tiger reserves and thus alter the very nature of local communities. This project was tagged on to the World Bank Forestry Projects, using the same consultants, executing agencies and strategies. Project Tiger Steering Committee Members unanimously opposed this step, advising the government to proceed with caution and at least undertake an environment impact analysis before implementing the project. But the MoEF went ahead, preferring to follow the advise of sociologists from the Indian Institute of Public Administration, some of whom had never stepped into a tiger reserve till they were called upon to work on the ecodevelopment project.
This penchant of forest officers and NGOs to enter the hypnotic world of consultancies and foreign travel has become yet another threat to the tiger. The distant shores to which they travel, mainly Washington, quickly replace their own country as the prime source of instruction and inspiration (and loyalty?). Meanwhile natural India disappears. All too often apparently generous ‘grants’ from lending agencies such as the World Bank are the thin edge of the wedge behind which larger loans and development projects hide. The same World Bank which put out a pittance for an ill-conceived ecodevelopment exercise in the Palamau Tiger Reserve also financed a dam to drown forests in the core area!
Wrapped in silken cocoons of obedience, not one forest officer or NGO-consultant protested this calumny. “But very strict terms and conditions have been imposed” such turncoats respond weakly, trying in vain to justify their unholy involvement with the World Bank. They know that over 90 per cent of all River Valley Projects constructed in India have violated the ‘terms’ on which they were cleared. But they also know that the cost of dissent is high and that acquiescence brings rich rewards. Such people help exploiters hive great slices off the tiger’s home.
Meanwhile, senior administrators and foresters negotiate lucrative post-retirement consultancies while supporting forest-consuming projects. These involve huge loans which can only be repaid by further commercially exploiting our fragile forests. The tiger seems safe nowhere, not even in areas specifically set aside for its protection.
Outside such protected areas we knew that extremity – extinctions were at an advanced stage. The corridors connecting Bandhavgarh and Kanha in Madhya Pradesh, and Corbett and Rajaji in Uttar Pradesh were all but gone. We had become used to saying that 60 per cent of all tigers lived outside Project Tiger Reserves. This is no longer true. It is open season on tigers these days much to the joy of poachers. India has probably lost half of all the tigers that were alive in our forests as few as ten years ago.
Our concern at this juncture however, centers around an equally crucial matter. Over 3,650 seizures of all descriptions of wildlife, representing the mere tip of the proverbial iceberg, had been made across India in the past three years. The tiger was the worst sufferer of this assault because its bones and other body parts had begun to command very high prices in the international market. We suspect that this is a prime reason that a smear campaign has been launched against leopards. Estimates suggest, for instance, that more than 400 leopards were shot or trapped in Uttar Pradesh in the past 12 months on the pretext of their being cattle lifters or man eaters. Himachal Pradesh is another state in which the leopard seems about to be wiped out. Leopard bones and parts also go towards feeding the ungodly trade. The game seems so starkly simple: first cut down the forests and then when carnivores are forced to stray outside in search of survival, mow them down. If this continues much longer the leopard will fast follow the tiger down the road to extinction.
A vibrant and fiercely independent press, consistently reported such events. This pressure began to show some results when, on January 13, 1994 a special Tiger Crisis Cell was created within the MoEF in response to the many alarms and criticisms which were doing the rounds. After several meetings and futile attempts to get the Ministry to act, a disappointed Billy Arjan Singh resigned from the Cell on August 25, 1994. Meanwhile, through a judicious mix of bowing and scraping before politicians and threatening (with exposure) closed-minded officials, the rest of us cajoled a sluggish system into stirring from its stupor. Trying to make the system actually work was another matter altogether. Apart from the extraordinary effort of some officers who seemed even more motivated than we were, department after government department responded to the tiger crisis by trotting out lame excuses to justify inaction. In our discussions with key forest officers it seemed painfully obvious that they had no stomach for the battle we wanted them to fight for the tiger. Sadly, they seemed more interested in the World Bank Forestry Project and GEF Ecodevelopment assignments, trips to Washington and petty politics. Not for than the dirt and dust of the tiger trail. The fashions of Indian foresters had changed. Billy Arjan Singh had seen many such betrayals of the tiger before and had no time for anymore. He chose to focus his attention on the field in Dudhwa where his fight against poachers, timber mafias and government apathy continues. In the last 30 months he and his team seized over 20 tiger skins from poachers. They would have much preferred preventing the deaths, but even they are not authorised to launch armed anti-poaching patrols. This is the prerogative of the Forest Department.
PEOPLE AND PARKS
There are only two groups of people in India who seriously want to protect natural forests from commercial exploitation – wildlifers (whose voice is loud and clear) and true forest dwellers (who are capable of exerting political pressure on politicians). But there are many hurdles to cross before any real unity emerges between these two groups.
In Madhya Pradesh we spoke to some of the oustees of the Tawa Dam whose anger and confusion was poignantly articulated by an activist called Sunil from the Kisan Adivasi Sanghatan in Kesla, M.P: “We have no place to go. Nowhere to turn. We have no course but to cultivate muddy margins of the Tawa reservoir in the Bori Sanctuary area. We would rather die than face displacement once more, whether by a mega-project or by Project Tiger.” We explained at length that a policy decision against forced displacement had already been placed on record. Not only was there no question of forced displacement, but we wanted to find a way to work together with those who lived near the forest to protect it from commercial exploitation. We spoke of sitting together with local people and arriving at an understanding of the need to protect the tiger’s domain, while ensuring peoples’ right to life and livelihood.
If wildlife and community interests were stitched, ours would become a potent force which no state government could ignore. This union, for instance, could demand that funds be allocated for schemes which would benefit both the forest and the people who live around it. This is a crucial possibility because Collectors in every district control budgets which are generally spent on projects which wind up harming local communities and wildlife. These funds could easily be used to guarantee 100 per cent employment for adivasis in the labour-intensive task of soil and moisture conservation works and forest protection. This would enhance the area’s biomass, ensure water security and protect soils. This would benefit both people and wildlife. Understandably, thanks to the Tawa experience, Sunil was distrustful of all government schemes. Besides, he bristled at the thought of equating the issue of wildlife protection with that of justice for the people whose cause he represented. He agreed, nevertheless, that the tiger was a part of our ancient heritage and that everyone could playa role in its protection.
It will take time and sensitivity on both sides of an imaginary divide to accept that it is so-called development which threatens the existence of traditional forest dwellers, not the tiger. In Maharashtra this fact was underscored once again this year when hundreds of Korku adivasi children died under tragic circumstances in and around a town called Dharni, just outside the Melghat Tiger Reserve. A few years ago many Korku children had died in Dharni, but obviously no lessons had been learned. Once forested, Dharni is now a typical semi-urban sprawl, where, without their forests to nurture them, Korku communities depend largely on government schemes and doles. They are therefore subject to the lethal pincer of corruption and callousness. Inside the Melghat Tiger Reserve, only a few kilometres away, the picture is quite different. Thanks to protection in the name of the tiger, Korku culture is alive and well here. People can access tubers, herbs and medicines as their forefathers once did because the natural forests which act as their safety nets, are intact. Not surprisingly, Korku children living in communities inside the Melghat Tiger Reserve are relatively healthy and safe. If we could offer them the employment guarantee referred to above, they would be free from hunger and malnutrition and, more importantly, their culture and dignity would remain ever strong and intact.
Forging links with peoples’ groups has become even more vital than before because in the cities environmental groups have begun to fall like nine-pins before the financial and political might of the development lobby. The denotification spree confronting the protected area network is evidence enough of this trend as over 45 sanctuaries are poised to lose their special status to enable mineral, timber and land wealth to be extracted by large businesses. Heavily dependent on the corporate sector and the government for their financial survival, many large NGOs cannot or will not drum up the courage to oppose such destruction. But it will take statesmen within the groups to forge the much needed unity between forest people and wildlifers. Perhaps some sort of “minimum programmes” require to be defined in defence of wildlife and communities comprising Baigas, Gonds, Chenchus, Korkus and other forest dwelling people who have no need for urban facilities or even for the thousands of rural development schemes which have proven to be so extravagantly unworkable.
Alarmed at the sheer pace of increased poaching incidents, but helpless in light of the fact that it is no more than an ‘advisory body’ the Tiger Crisis Cell began to place on record at the ministerial and administrative level all the facts it was able to glean from files, consultations and investigations. One particularly crucial document titled the Subramiam Report (commissioned by the MoEF) had provided endless recommendations to counter tiger poaching but none of its sage advice was ever implemented. Mountains of such advice litter government offices at the Centre and the States. The advice of the Tiger Crisis Cell suffered the same fate. We became aware of the fact that the government’s intentions were suspect as far back as December 1994 after the MoEF had repeatedly refused to take cognisance of our advice and had reneged on very clear commitments.
On January 11, 1995, an anguished three-page letter was therefore addressed to the then Environment Minister on behalf of all the members of the Tiger Crisis Cell. Extacts read as follows:
- We regret to state that our advice has been lightly taken and steps have sometimes been taken which are diametrically opposed to our recommendations... if the Ministry is not going to listen to those it appoints to advise it, then it should be prepared to face public criticism which its action or inaction is bound to have on the future of Panthera tigris.
- An anti-poaching Task Force should be immediately enabled to seek, search and destroy poaching gangs which are operating without let or hinderance. The force will have to be strong on three separate fronts i) Investigation and detection ii) Seize and Capture and iii) Legal follow-up.
- We require no further meetings, nor any new ‘Action Plans’. This stage has long passed.
Even this communication was stonewalled, as were scores of private meetings, appeals, newspaper reports and exhortations. Meanwhile, the demand from China, Japan, Thailand, Korea and Vietnam for tiger bones, bear gall bladders, rhino horns and what have you, began to outstrip that of furs and trophies from countries such as the USA, France, Italy, Germany, and the U.K. The wildlife trade had become almost as lucrative to global crime syndicates as drugs and armaments. Deciding to work with whatever limitations existed, members of the Tiger Crisis Cell travelled to the far corners of the country to see how the defence of tigerland could be shored up with the help of existing infrastructure and to prepare a shopping list for future protection. The effort met with some success, notably in Madhya Pradesh where the head of the Tiger Cell actually nabbed a senior politician red-handed and even recovered two tiger skins from the house of one of his relatives. But the Crisis Cell’s effort were by no means successful enough. Particularly when you consider that India happens to be among the world’s softest targets for the global wildlife trade. The tragedy, we discovered, was that only a tiny minority of officials cared whether the tiger lived or died.
From the poacher’s point of view institutionalised corruption and red tape in India present ideal conditions in which to make a killing (pun intended). Apart from ports, airports and unprotected borders, even the postal service is used to transport ivory from Cochin to Bombay... from where the foreign post office readily redistributed consignments! That this was a country-wide strategy became obvious when tiger bones were seized from inside the General Post Office in New Delhi! These facts were reported in the press, even in mainline papers like the Economic Times (March 28, 1993). But the authorities remained unmoved. Unfortunately, because of the way wildlife laws are structured in India private initiatives to prevent or apprehend wildlife offenders are difficult if not impossible to implement. And, as we discovered, apparently powerful bodies such as the Steering Committee of Project Tiger could easily be thwarted by the simple expedient of stymieing it in the crossfire of bureaucratic red tape and cold refusal to follow its advice.
Inevitably, however, the many press reports which appeared caused international attention to be drawn to the fate of the tiger. Several credible wildlife organisations from around the world sent its representatives to India to establish what the reality was on the ground. They confirmed what the Tiger Crisis Cell had stated all along. Telegrams of concern and hundreds of appeals to save the tiger poured into the country. But to date even this has not resulted in ground action in defence of the tiger. Nevertheless there are some signs that a government which is so openly enamoured of foreign collaborations and dollars may still bow to international public opinion, though it continues to display little respect for the sentiments of its own people outside of an election year.
The infamous figure of one
It is commonly known that poachers and traders have successfully infiltrated both the police and forest departments. An officer of one of the nation’s premier investigative agencies was actually discovered to be working with wildlife traders! Little wonder then that we were losing a tiger each day to the deadly trade. But perhaps nothing illustrates the failure of tiger protection in India more than the presentation of a paper by the ex-Director of Project Tiger, at an historic Tiger Crisis Cell meeting in 1995. The paper suggested that only one tiger had been killed that year by poachers! It seems that tiger deaths were never reported on time to the Project Tiger Directorate. Moreover, the Director took the position that seizures of bones and skins be delinked from poaching unless they were freshly caught (the logic still eludes us). While evidence including police reports and press cuttings confirming tiger deaths mounted and the tiger crisis had virtually engulfed all who were concerned at the threat to the species, the Director of Project Tiger was, preoccupied with World Bank related ecodevelopment issues in distant Washington. Content perhaps with the position that the birth of cubs in the forest somewhat countered the impact of poaching, he frankly admitted: “I am not a tiger watcher or wildlifer. This is not my interest.” His superiors were often worse. In January 1995 a letter from a senior MoEF wildlife official to the Madhya Pradesh government provided creative suggestions on how to use (misuse?) the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 to allow fishing inside the core area of the Pench Tiger Reserve *(see page). In May this year, based on that advice, 305 licences were issued in blatant contravention of the law. This raised a storm of protest and the threat of law suits. The very same officer then wrote to the Madhya Pradesh government in July asking for an explanation as to how and why the licences were issued. The harassed Chief Wildlife Warden of Madhya Pradesh was forced to remind the MoEF in writing that he was virtually compelled to create new ‘fishing rights’ by the selfsame Central Government officer. Political pressure obviously had reared its head in this sad episode, leading otherwise sincere officers to contradict and compromise themselves. This is the key tragedy of the tiger. Caught between Centre and State relations across the board in India, the tiger is wilting. Scores of misdeeds, even more alarming than the example quoted above have become the order of the day. Some stories are so bizarre that one wonders whether the rule of law is even at work in India. Orders, counter-orders and violations of the law by the enforcers of the law does little for the morale of protection staff who must weigh the consequences of risking life and limb in remote forests against the open pillage of the forests in their charge by their own superiors through ‘official channels’. Perhaps, as seems to be the case in so many other sectors, the fate of the tiger will vest in the uprightness and moral authority of the Supreme Court alone.
The whole business of grabbing land for private profit is destabilising the protected area network. No government officer or committee is permitted to release land for any purpose whatsoever from a notified sanctuary or national park. This power vests solely with Parliament or the Legislative Assemblies. As we go to press, however we learn of several instances where sanctuary lands are about to be released for irrigation or tank projects *(see page). If the concerned state government forest departments do not act to prevent this, perhaps an individual or NGO might be forced to take further legal recourse to challenge Chief Wildlife Wardens who have given written assurances that such releases would actually improve the habitat for fish, birds and even tigers! There seems to be no bottom to the tiger illiteracy vat.
In defence of their stances, such officers normally take the view that the media sensationalises issues, or that individuals tend to play up the tiger crisis to promote themselves! Bureaucratic talents against the interests of the tiger seem to have come out of their closets. This serves the politicians of the day only too well as it protects them from public censure and allows them to twist laws to favour their own political ends. Such conniving will bury the tiger. The decline of the tiger was no sudden event. With such games being played for a full five years, the striped predator slipped to its lowest ebb in India. The crossfire between poaching and land-alteration for mines, power plants, dams was just too much for the cat. The leadership drift within Project Tiger could not have come at a worse time. The doomsday clock for Panthera tigris’ has begun to tick.
KAZIRANGA – Ray of hope?
In a sea of disappointment, Kaziranga seems poised to stand out as an exception. While the last State election fever was raging, we both visited Manas and Kaziranga on behalf of the Tiger Crisis Cell to assess ground realities in light of depressing reports about poaching and habitat loss. We also wanted to probe the reasons for the neglect of this national treasure trove on the part of both Central and State Governments. We were awestruck by the sheer magnificence of both wildernesses. In Kaziranga we discovered that despite severe problems and an abysmal lack of political support over years, a team of three rangers, supported by loyal colleagues, managed somehow to keep the park protected. Often the rangers had to borrow money at a personal level to pay for petrol, elephant feed and even for the salaries of guards. All this because the State Government treasury refused to release funds for field work. Ironically, more than Rs. 80 lakhs had been paid into the treasury by the Central Government for anti-poaching measures to protect the rhino.
Fortunately, things have improved. The dedication of the rangers and their team is now supported by demonstratable political will exerted by no less a person than the Forest Minister of the new government. A dedicated group of local supporters who have always tried to mobilise political will in support of Assam’s wildlife had managed to break barriers of communication between government departments. Funds have now reached the field and the morale of the field staff has risen dramatically. We can expect an immediate recovery in terms of habitat and species security including security for rhinos and tigers which are under assault by poachers.
Kaziranga is a virtual Noah’s Ark for a variety of wild species including elephants, rhinos, wild buffaloes, hundreds of local and migrant bird species and even for aquatic animals such as otters. Kaziranga also happens to be a virtual nursery for Assam’s fisheries. Species such as the chital fish breed here in the many beels and rivers and then, when the Brahmaputra breaks its banks this fish seed is distributed virtually throughout the valley and all the way to West Bengal and even Bangladesh.
As of now the battle rages, with NGOs, field staff and some extremely dedicated forest officers coordinating their efforts in defence of Kaziranga. Will they succeed in the long run? We can only cross our fingers and hope that they do... and that they serve as an inspiration to others all across India who could learn from Kaziranga about strategies to win battles to save their own green havens.
Linking to save the tiger
Confronted with government’s virtual refusal to act, several hundred people from all walks of life, (including many government officers), decided to coalesce in defence of the tiger. On February 17, 1995 a forum called Tiger Link was formed when people from around the country met in New Delhi to defend Panthera tigris. The first task was to prepare a list of individuals in India and around the world who could be relied upon to act. They were then provided with information and each was linked by way of a directory of contact numbers and addresses. Quarterly communications led to many decentralised initiatives and news from obscure tiger habitats began filtering in to complete the picture of the fate of the tiger. While some good news came in about new habitats and secure tiger populations, by and large the reality of the crisis turned out to be even more harsh than we had anticipated. Tiger poaching incidents used to go virtually unreported, but now they were being tabulated in a bloody list which no one could refute.
To reverse the slide Tiger Link constituents took it upon themselves to motivate field staff. This included the distribution of several Tiger Link awards to hitherto ignored field workers. Additionally, power boats, four-wheel-drive vehicles, wireless equipment, sweaters, shoes and even rations for elephants in Kaziranga were rushed to vulnerable hot spots. At last count, the NGO network working through Tiger Link delivered an unprecedented sum exceeding five million rupees worth of assistance in kind directly to park managements.
But such efforts can hardly be expected to replace the muscle which the Planning Commission and Finance Ministry could and should have pumped into the vital wildlife sector. When you consider that 22 per cent of our country’s land mass is in the charge of the Indian Forest Service, it defies reason that it should be so openly sidelined and starved of funds. In Madhya Pradesh alone over Rs. 650 crores is taken from the forest as revenue each year, yet the state allocates less than two crore rupees to protect its forest wealth. In this scenario, timber and poaching mafias are having a field day. And despite all denials one tiger continues to lose its life almost every day while thousands of hectares of tiger habitat are lost to commerce in Madhya Pradesh each year.
A hurtful dilemma confronts those of us who still possess the strength to search for and defend obscure wildernesses across the length and breadth of the nation. Should we savour what remains... or mourn the passage of what we see being lost? And how are we to convince a nation of dollar-seekers that wildlife has an intrinsic worth? That the tiger is the very soul of the Indian subcontinent? That the jungle has been and always will remain the inspiration for our civilisation? And that without the forest, the economic backbone of our nation would crack... to the harsh accompaniment of drought, soil sterility, starvation and disease?
Fortunately nature is extremely resilient. For all our assaults it is still not too late to save the tiger and its home. We therefore call upon the Prime Minister to immediately convene a meeting to which the Chief Ministers of India’s tiger-range states should be invited. The fact that we have less than 1,000 days to save the tiger can still be driven home and we have no reason to believe that such leaders will continue to refuse to act in the face of direct evidence that the tiger will be lost to the nation. The fact that the tiger habitats are also our finest water catchments and that hundreds of forest cultures would automatically be protected in tiger habitats, cannot but help our case. With the help of wakened leaders it is still possible to jump-start a dying protection force and mollify antagonistic local communities which once protected the forests.
This is, however, the last and final call to save the tiger. Apathy, procrastination or politicking among the main players at this stage will drive the final nail into the coffin of what is arguably the world’s most charismatic animal. One of the first steps that requires to be taken is to bifurcate the Ministry of Environment and Forests so as to protect the nation’s ecological interests which are consistently being sacrificed inside the MoEF by officers whose loyalties seem to fall on the side of economics. This divide exists even within the Forest Department, with the wildlife wing being given insultingly step-motherly treatment at every stage. The Environment Impact section of the MoEF is badly in need of orientation and training. It is staffed by officers whose perspectives are seriously lacking in ecological insights. And those officers who do display such insights are generally sent into professional oblivion because they ‘do not toe the line’. It is such fractured policies and biases which are in control of the ‘assembly line for clearances’ in the MoEF. The tiger is only the most visible victim of such a tragedy. In truth every single Indian suffers as a consequence of this one ministry not being taken to task for failing the nation.
To conclude, it may be worthwhile to recap the circumstances surrounding the exploding tiger crisis: The failure of the bureaucracy and the wildlife wing was not on account of any lack of warning about the tiger crisis. Alarmed at having uncovered the largest seizure of tiger bones in the history of free India in 1993, Project Tiger Steering Committee members prompted a series meetings, seminars, and discussions between knowledgeable scientists, naturalists and institutions. The graphic picture which emerged suggested a reversal of most gains made over the past 20 years. But the Project Tiger Directorate, through which the government had to act, turned a blind eye to the crisis. Just when the tiger most needed charismatic champions it found itself deserted by officialdom. Men such as the late Kailash Sankhala, the first Director of Project Tiger, had been replaced by officers who looked for instruction from ecologically illiterate national and international agencies (such as the World Bank).
Violating Madhya Pradesh... Trouble in the Tiger State
Madhya Pradesh has been declared a Tiger State because it harbours the world largest tiger population. Sadly, for most politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen in M.P., this has not stopped them from acting to ruin the cat’s chances of survival into the future. Taking advantage of the fact that the ‘system’ expects enforcement of the law by the very agencies that condone or violate the law, irrigation departments, politicians and businessmen have been pillaging M.P.’s most precious forests with impunity for years. These are merely representative examples of clear-cut violations:
1. Pachmahri Sanctuary: 40 hectares of land released from the sanctuary for Amadehi Tank Project. MoEF letter No. DO 8-514/84-FC(PT) dated August 2, 1996 states: “The proposal was approved after receiving the advice of the Chief Wildlife Warden of Madhya Pradesh that impounding the water would in fact improve the quality of the habitat for the animals.”
Note: No land from either a sanctuary or national park can be released without prior approval of the Parliament. or the concerned Legislative Assembly.
2. Madhav National Park: 1.600 hectares of National Park land notified in the first instance in 1983 was released to the irrigation department for the Sindh Phase II Project. Inexplicably, within this land area seven mines were allowed to operate. The MoEF, vide their letter No. 8-96/91/FC dated 13, December 1996 condoned the offence in writing:
I am directed to refer to the Chief Minister, Madhya Pradesh D.O. letter no. 4337/CMS/95 dated 1.11.95 addressed to the Minister (Environment and Forests) regarding above mentioned subject and to say that as a very special case this Ministry has decided to grant permission upto 31st March. 1996 only, for removal of existing material and completion of mining operations in already broken up area in respect of 7 mines located in the proposed extension area of Madhav National Park.
By accepting the State Government’s ruse of categorising the affected land as a “... proposed extension of the Madhav National Park” the MoEF flouted its own stated position based on the 1991 Amendment to the Wildlife (Protection) Act that notified reserved forest land in national parks are deemed in the first instance notification as National Parks.
3. Noradehi Sanctuary, near Sagar: 34 hectares of sanctuary land was released in 1991 for the Nirandpur Tank Project.
4. Gangau Sanctuary: This sanctuary has been notified, but has been ‘hidden’ from the public eye by not ‘listing’ it in State and Central Government records. Discovered recently, it was found that five serious FC Act violations in relating to mining of white sand stone are taking place within the area. Scores of other FC Act violations involving tree felling have taken place. Adjescent to the Panna Tiger Reserve, Gangau is a vital corridor and habitat for the tiger.
5. Pench Tiger Reserve: In an effort to encourage fishing in a new dam reservoir in an area which never had any subsistence or traditional fishing communities. the MoEF in a letter no. 1 (7)-2/94-pt dated January 17, 1995 stated: “in the Pench Tiger Reserve the Totladoh Reservoir is artificial one created due to a dam downstream about eight years ago. This is not an in situ lake so if any use of bioresource of the pond ultimately help the improvement of better management of the reserve by reducing their dependence on illegal felling of trees and poaching of wild animals and also increasing the interface of people with the park authorities. This may be explored as envisioned in Sections 35 (6) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act.”
On the 30th of may 1996 the chief wildlife warden of MP issued more than 300 fishing permits in the core area of the Pench Tiger Reserve. On being questioned in July about this decision by the MoEF, the MP state government in a letter to MoEF date 18.9.96 stated:
The perusal of the above letter makes it abundantly clear that the matter of traditional rights of fishermen was raised for the first time by the government of India and it was at the specific instructions of the government of india that the state government examined the matter in the light of sections 35 6 of the wildlife conservation) act. For ready reference a copy of facts dated 15.7.92 of joint sec. government of India. Mr. S.S. Hasurkar and your letter dated 17.1.995 is enclosed herewith.
It is clear from the perusal of these letters at that point of time the state govt. was in favour of stopping fishing in Pench National Park area and was acting accordingly. But the state was compelled to change this stand due to Govt. of India’s instructions.
Following the poaching trail in Madhya Pradesh, we discovered that a tiger skin had recently been seized from poachers in Bandhavgarh, three tigers had been poisoned in Pachmarhi and another skin confiscated from the forests of Panna. Organised, gangs virtually had the forests of Madhya Pradesh by the throat. Jabalpur, Bhopal and Raipur were major ‘control’ centres from where political and financial support flowed to operatives who based themselves in tiger habitats.
An estimated 25 per cent of all tigers in India are found in Madhya Pradesh which is why it was declared a Tiger State. But everywhere we went, from Panna, to Bandhavgarh, to Pachmahri, Bori and Churna, however, we discovered to our dismay that protection was hopelessly inadequate. Vehicles were run down and the staff ill-equipped and demoralised. Faulty policies had pitted people against the forest department almost everywhere in ancient hostilities which would take decades to mend.
By contrast, internationally-connected poaching gangs in India had access to the latest four-wheel drives, automatic weapons, powerful wireless sets... and powerful politicians. How could we expect underpaid forest staff who had to patrol their turf on foot with little more than lathis (sticks) in their hands to risk life and limb against armed and organised thugs? To make a beginning we had to start from scratch... from the forest guard himself. Incentives and award schemes, welfare measures, medical facilities, sweaters, shoes, clothes are the bare minimum which must be reached to the 20,000 forest guards who are the guardians of the tiger’s domain.
Fortunately, the Madhya Pradesh Police responded well to the situation and they created a Tiger Cell under an officer of the rank of Inspector General. In a span of two years, working closely with the Forest Department this special Cell apprehended over 200 poachers and confiscated 70 leopard skins/bones and 25 tiger skins/bones. This was over and above the seizures made by the Forest Department itself. This success suggests that the future course of action for all tiger-range states must include Police-Forest Department coordination. Seizures in M.P. and at Dudhwa are a vital indicator of the scale of poaching.
One might have hoped that well-funded environmental organisations would have stepped into the breach, but they too carried unweildy bureaucracies of their own, virtually supported by government grants and largesse. More often than not, therefore, the larger NGOs chose to look the other way when they were asked to criticise government or ministers openly. Large donations, nevertheless, poured into such agencies from the international community over the years in the name of the tiger. No amount of wriggling now can obliterate the fact that these badly needed funds remained unutilised for years as poachers ran riot through tigerland. Meanwhile, the gigantic green enterprises wrapped themselves up in self-wovenwebs of rhetoric and petty-foggery. Instead of heeding the advice of those who routinely dirtied their feet in the field, such organisations placed a premium on individuals with the ability to produce a good turn of phrase and, of course, money and still more money.
Looking back over the past two decades, it seems clear as day that after the late Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, wild animals and their habitats have meant little to successive Indian Prime Ministers. Caught in a web of dollars and cents they continue to squander a fabled heritage. With new information coming to light each day, it appears that the damage done to natural India in the last ten years may well rival that which was inflicted by the British in their last hundred years of colonial occupation. Not even the wealth of Crocus will bring back what we have lost. Local extinctions of animals as diverse as frogs, sarus cranes, elephants, rhinos and tigers have been taking place such purposeful regularity that one might be forgiven for believing that this was a part and parcel of our national policy.
We cannot help but believe that somewhere all of us have failed the tiger. A tiny bunch of us may have decided not to give up hope, but we are fighting in the eye of the storm and already, well-entrenched forces have begun to work against us. To prevail, many others must enjoin our battle. Media people, tribal activists, lawyers, politicians and even industry associations... all who care about the fabric of India must form part of a network in defence of our wilderness which is the tiger’s home. Without this there is little hope.
Ranthambhor... A Lost Cause?
The authors visited Ranthambhor Tiger Reserve very recently. What we saw inside and around the Park gave us reason to believe that the tigers of this once-secure fortress for wildlife are unlikely to survive the turn of the century. This is all the more alarming because a Delhi High Court and Supreme Court-Appointed Committee has already instructed the State Government to take appropriate action after identifying several key problems. It was obvious that none of these suggestions had been implemented. When questioned, the Park officials including the Ranger stationed at Lakarda stated that they were helpless and unable to execute their responsibilities to protect the park. There is a serious breakdown of leadership here which explains the low morale, deterioration of the habitat and the increased incidence of poaching which has hit Ranthambhor.
EYE WITNESS ACCOUNT
To ensure that the Park management had the opportunity to explain the actual position on location, we travelled in the compnay of Dy. Director (Core) through Lakarda, Semli, Bakola, Baghdeh, Kachida, Tambakhan and then back to Jogi Mahal via Milak Talao. Enroute we came across six obstacles across the road, presumably positioned there by villagers. It was evident that the roads we traversed were not regularly patrolled. This we believe to be one of the key reasons for the deteriorated state of protection of this crucial tiger habitat.
We were shocked to see a herd of over 150 buffaloes grazing right next to the guard hut at Lakarda. As if this were not bad enough, we noticed that the herders were absolutely confident that they would not be stopped, and even stepped into the chowki when we were there in the company of the Dy. Director (Core) to collect animals which had walked up to the gate. The livestock was said to belong to the villagers of Uliana.
When we passed by the Kachida water body we saw another large herd of cows. The forest road had been so trampled that it resembled a village road. Two months ago exactly the same situation had presented itself to one of the authors when he visited Ranthambhor in the company of the Chief Wildlife Warden. Clearly this is a regular occurance. Apart from the direct damage caused to the very core areas of Ranthambhor by grazing, the more alarming aspect of this breakdown of authority is that several other villages which are currently cooperating with NGOs by desisting from grazing their cattle inside the Park, stated that they too would bring their animals inside, since no one seemed interested in stopping livestock from entering the precincts.
We also took another route through the forest through Nalghati, Guda, Bodal, Mor Dongri, Lahpur and Gehlia Sagar. From here we had to retrace our route as the road was waterlogged, however, we were able to spot the pugmarks of tiger near the lake. The impact of the Bodal and Mor Dongri villages was exceedingly adverse. More than a kilometre from habitation we saw stumps of trees and heavily grazed ground vegetation. Villagers at Mor Dongri pointed out where the Taj Mahal Hotel group wanted to set up a new tourism infrastructure.
SECURE THE PARK
We learned that there was a suggestion that the Bodal gate be opened to tourists, probably to accommodate this new project. We wish to place on record our strong opposition to this proposal as the staff of the Park are unable to protect their areas from one end of the Park and opening another end would be tantamount to a death sentence on the habitat. It would also send a very wrong signal to local villagers that only the poor must make adjustments to save the tiger while the tiger can be made to adjust to the needs of the rich. This must not be allowed to come up under any circumstances as it will further impact on an area which badly needs rest from disturbance. If the tigers of Ranthambhor are to have any chance of survival it is essential that we give back to them their habitat, even if this is done in small stages patch by patch.
In our estimation, the actual undisturbed core of the Ranthambhor Tiger Reserve is now less than 50 sq. kms., largely surrounding the three lakes around Jogi Mahal and part of the Nalghati Valley. This area is not enough to support any more than six or eight animals for any extended period of time and these too are vulnerable to poaching as we have seen time and again.
Perhaps it is time for us to combine two initiatives immediately: 1. Physical obstruction to the entry of cattle and carts must be established at all the 82 exit and entry points of the Park. On the North side some of these include Amar Ghati, Kachida Ghati, Gudlia Ghati and Dhumdarmal Darra. On the southeastern and southern side the vulnerable points include Bhanuar Kho and Khatola Ghati.
The above steps would need to be supplemented by coordinated employment guarantees to at least one member from each family living in the affected villagers. They could be asked to work on soil and moisture conservation works which the Park authorities confirm are badly needed in the periphery of the Park. Areas to the north which are badly in need of such attention include Uliana, Shyampura, Padli, Bhuri, Pahari, Naipur, Ramsinghpura and Sherpur. Towards the east and southeast (Khandar) the priority areas for soil and moisture works include Talaora, Mei, Faria and Chhan. The south and southwestern aspect include Kalibhat, Lahsora, Laxmipura, Phalodi and Kwalji.
We also believe that the idea of vaccinating cattle and tagging them as a dual means of preventing disease and keeping track of illegal grazing is workable and necessary. In the pinch period, till the fodder potential of private lands and village commons is reestablished, we feel that for a period of three years the possibility of opening fodder banks, stocked with fodder imported into the area, in particularly hard-hit areas must be considered.
Instead of opting for foreign driven projects such as the World Bank-financed Ecodevelopment Project, we believe that coordination between the animal husbandry department, the collector, and the Field Director would deliver considerably larger funds in a more appropriate manner so as to permanently solve the problems of both people and the Park. This would also enable the Park authorities to negotiate reasonable conditions with locals to ensure that protection is not dependent solely on the harsh rule of the stick, but also with the cooperation of a large section of the villagers themselves. That such relationships are indeed possible is best illustrated by the case of the villagers of Doongri who refused to accept monetary compensation from the Park authorities for helping put out a large fire in May, 1996. Instead, they asked, for help to establish a talai (pond) or an annicut to solve their water problems. The villagers of Padli have actually demonstrated their willingness to work towards common conservation objectives in an even more direct manner. No livestock from their villages now enter the Park. They have asked the Park Authorities to help establish a protected grazing pasture outside the forest, but the authorities have not yet responded. Why?
Lastly, we see no good reason to maintain chowkis deep inside the Park. Following the principle of prevention is better than cure, these should be moved to the outside where the staff can avail of basic amenities and can also prevent the entry of cattle before they enter the Park. This will also help staff to pick up information regarding poaching, plans to illegally graze cattle etc. The chowkis at Lakarda, Kachida, Sultanpur and Guda should be moved out without delay, to be replaced inside with no more than very basic watch and ward facilities. A list of immediate steps to be taken have been forwarded for action to the Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan. Hopefully, the Chief Minister and his Cabinet Colleagues will provide him with the necessary support to take action to save the tigers of Ranthambhor and other habitats in Rajasthan.
Published in Sanctuary Asia XVI No. 5, October 1996.