Tigers – The Disastrous Decade
Despite the recent brouhaha over increasing tiger numbers, all is not well in its realm, opines wildlife defender Valmik Thapar.
Photo: Baiju Patil.
For 40 years now I have served wild tigers. My life with them started under the tutelage of a Rajasthan state forest officer, Fateh Singh Rathore. He was a remarkable man who believed in two principles for tiger conservation. The first is to protect tiger turf against any exploitation such as poaching, wood cutting, grazing or agriculture. He believed that success in field protection would result in healthy tiger populations and in Ranthambhore, where he worked throughout his life, he not only proved this, but he also put this tiger turf on the world map. His second principle was to welcome all those who believed in this mission and link both the government and non-government sector with a unity of purpose. I worked closely with him and still believe these are the issues that will determine the future health of tigers.
Sadly, in the last decade both issues have suffered severe neglect. Nearly 10 years ago Project Tiger was replaced with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a more powerful instrument for governing the tiger and the states. This is where the rot starts. Over these years the NTCA tried its best to bully the states with hundreds of instructions and advisories that undermined the talents and abilities of state forest officers. Managing tigers is a state subject and from 1974 for more than 30 years, Project Tiger respected this fact and played a positive role in supporting state endeavours. Bureaucrats at the best of times are not known for their innovative ideas and those that arrange to get deputed to Delhi, and this includes both forest officers and administrative officers, enjoy ruling the roost, and issuing endless paper directives that have little to do with site-specific field issues. This is what has happened to the NTCA.
Tiger conservation and its past successes began now to be packaged for a wider audience. In the process, vital issues like field protection got blurred and lost. Over this decade, tigers are said to have gone up from 1,400 to 1,700 to 2,200. This result, according to the NTCA, is based on good science. Is this progress? Is the methodology correct or is it a numbers game? Is there any serious dialogue about this?
P.K. Sen, the former director of Project Tiger and until recently a member of the NTCA is very clear when he says and I quote, “NTCA replaced Project Tiger in 2005 with a huge budget and freedom to spend as it was an authority, but I doubt whether it has achieved desired results in saving the tiger.”
All the reports in the public domain gloss over the failures. Little detail is given about the reasons for the complete extinction of tigers in Sariska and Panna Tiger Reserves, or the absence of tigers in Buxa Tiger Reserve, or the near absence of tigers in Indravati, Dampa and Palamau Tiger Reserves and several others across India. Unless we understand the cause of the problem, how an earth can we find the solution? Public relations is the name of the game. Tiger reserves, like the Mukundra Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, are now declared without any tigers in them. Invasive science that can be well packaged has become the norm. Governments think that relocating tigers from one area to another and radio collaring them is the quick answer to every problem. Some government scientists have even gone to the extent of suggesting that every tiger in India should be radio collared. Yes, the way we are going we will be a land of radio-collared tigers where tigers will have numbers and names and will be followed around by their signals.
As far as I am concerned this is beyond ridiculous.
The famous tiger T-24 was collared and un-collared and medicated for both paw injuries and, believe it or not, constipation! The traumas he suffered at the hands of scientists and others probably created his aggressive and unpredictable nature. He ended up becoming a man killer and eater. Yes, those who know little about tigers are taking decisions for tigers. This must stop. Machli died without any teeth, blind in one eye, and with broken claws. Why was she artificially fed for three years? Why are we trying to play god to wild tigers? Why was the famous male tiger Jai in Maharashtra collared and re-collared… all in a period of months? Why did the first collar stop working inside of two months… and the second within a month? Are such frequent technical failures acceptable? Who are we to invade the tiger’s domain in such intrusive ways? Endless interventions into the natural world can have disastrous results. There is such lack of understanding of tigers in government offices that it is scary. Nearly 10 tigers have been collared and re-collared in Maharashtra itself, and dozens across India in the last few years. And in Maharashtra yet another 22 tigers have been slated for collaring. What for? Have their monitoring reports helped management? From what I gather, the answer is largely “no.”
The current Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) of Maharashtra, Shree Bhagwan, served under Project Tiger in the 1990s and categorically states today: “My personal feeling and observation is that Project Tiger was acting as guide, mentor and supportive authority to tiger reserve managers – but now Field Directors and Chief Wildlife Wardens are not able to find that kind of comfort zone with the NTCA regime. I feel that the previous regime of Project Tiger system at New Delhi was far better than the present system, which has become more of a regulatory authority rather than a facilitator organisation. My suggestion is that the old, ‘Director – Project Tiger’ system be brought back.”
Diktats from the NTCA also govern tourism in terms of the so-called carrying capacity of tiger reserves and the quota of vehicles that can be permitted. This has destroyed wildlife tourism and such diktats are based on a complete ignorance of site specific factors. A former CWLW of Madhya Pradesh, H.S. Pabla puts this succinctly in his book Road to Nowhere, and I quote: “NTCA has been given vast powers to interfere in the working of the CWLW, who was till then the final authority to decide how wildlife and Protected Areas were to be managed in the states.” He goes on to state how the NTCA’s model of conservation is beyond his comprehension! Pabla further states about the restrictions on tourism: “If this situation persists, Indians will have to go abroad to see any wildlife or natural beauty.” I have travelled to national parks across the world and it is shocking to see the kind of ridiculous restrictions in India that states are reluctantly forced to follow. Fearless tigers walk in the middle of a road. They love leading a convoy of visitors. If they did not, they would walk 15 m. off the road and never be seen. Lions in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania take shelter from the sun in the shade of the jeep near the tyres. They choose to. You cannot limit tourism because of that. If you did, Tanzania would lose 17 per cent of its GDP. I believe sensible wildlife tourism, without diktats from those that have no understanding of tigers, can not only boost local economies but secure the future of the tiger. Uninformed bureaucratic interference must stop. It leads to poor governance and much more damage in comparison to sensible tourism that has minimal impacts.
We have in these last years almost destroyed the non-governmental sector. Not only do bureaucrats in Delhi fight amongst themselves, they also fight officers who are responsible for tigers in the state. This game of politics has in recent years alienated the states. NGOs have also been undermined and divided and the unity of purpose that existed in the 1980s and 90s is gone. A lack of trust and with it a wall of suspicion has grown between both sectors.
This is a tragedy and if we are to move forward we must rekindle a passion in all those that genuinely serve tigers. The future lies in partnerships between the best, in and out of government, with much more outsourcing and shared decision-making. This must include lateral inductions from the non-government sector for positions both in the NTCA and as Tiger Reserve Directors. The land of the tiger is no one’s private property and for any progress we require a re-thinking of all our prevailing strategies. It is a wake-up call like no other.
Valmik Thapar has authored several books on wild India and has spent over four decades defending wild tigers.
Author: Valmik Thapar, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 10, October 2016.