My latest tiger story..

Posted by: Prerna Bindra on

My latest tiger story...

Dr George Schaller's comment on the story!

Many thanks for the tiger article. It is really superb and should be distributed widely in whatever form possible. Congratulations.

FADING TO BL ACK

What ails our ‘star' tiger reserves?
Are our politicians serious about saving our big cats?
What needs to be done, and what can you do?
The answers you need, by Prerna Singh Bindra

 

You couldn't have missed it on TV - the lost, bewildered look on
Stripey the cub's fuzzy face as he waits for his mother to return to
their forest home. "Maybe she won't", the advertisement warns.
She didn't.

At least, that's the way it happened in the real world, last
September, when two tiger cubs were found cowering in a
field bordering the Tadoba Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. There
was nothing ‘cute' about them when they were discovered:
Bulging, listless eyes staring out of gaunt, emaciated bodies...
They looked like death.

But they live, if you can call it that, in a cage in Nagpur zoo. Their
mother? Officials believe she was the 40 kilograms of bone and
skin recovered from Nagpur railway station in November. She was
the fifth tigress to have gone ‘missing' from the region in a twelve
month span; each left behind orphaned cubs, who either died or
are living in captivity. An entire generation of Tadoba's tigers lost
to the wild.

* * *

Northwards, in Rajasthan's Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, two
sub-adult tigers recently lost the battle for survival. Looking to carve
out their own territory, as young adults do, they had moved to the
Keladevi area of the reserve. (Only a third of Ranthambhore - the
national park area of about 260 sq km - is effective tiger habitat;
the rest, including Keladevi, is ‘highly disturbed', containing no less
than 300 villages.) Natural prey is scarce in the area, so they killed
two goats. It was to be their last supper - the goat carcasses were
poisoned by villagers in retaliation; the tigers' bodies were found
on March 7.

* * *

Most nights, in a remote corner of the tiger's northwesterly limit in
India, you can hear the ‘Dholkhand' tigress calling for a mate. Her
chances of finding one are bleak - there are no other tigers here, on
the western side of Rajaji National Park, which had eight recorded
tigers between 2000 and 2003.

There are tigers on the eastern side, including two males in their
prime who would do very nicely for our lonely tigress. Except the
eastern and western sectors of Rajaji are bisected by a railway line,
a canal, a highway, ashrams, and villages, rendering it virtually
impossible for tigers, and other wildlife, to move freely between the
two sides. In western Rajaji this has dire connotations: When the
Dholkhand tigress dies, it will be the end of Panthera tigris in this
part of the world.

* * *

Kanha in Madhya Pradesh is another example. On holiday in the
park in December 2008, I saw deer, a leopard, wild dogs, pugmarks,
tiger cubs. But heartbreak awaited on my way back from the last
safari. There was commotion at the gate; a cheetal skin had been
seized. I remember stroking the soft spotted pelt, running my
fingers over the bullet hole. Somehow it seemed a bad omen.
News coming in from the park was rarely good after that.
Protection hit rock bottom last year; the tiger mortality rate
increased significantly and in one range, Mukki, tigers seemed to
have vanished altogether - there were no sightings, virtually no
signs. The director at the time was even alleged to have killed a cub
in a hit-and-run accident while ‘under the influence', though this
was vehemently denied.

I visited the park again last month and found that matters have,
mercifully, improved under new leadership. Increased vigilance
has resulted in a slew of seizures - two leopard skins in December,
a gang of hunters arrested with sambar meat in February. Yet by
no stretch of the imagination is Kanha safe. No less than four tigers
with leg injuries, possibly from failed leg traps, were seen between
November 2009 and January 2010. The presence of ‘suspicious
persons' has also been reported in the park: Wildlife trade experts
believe that Kanha is just too close for comfort to Katni, the base
for the Baheliyas, a notorious hunting tribe; with the highest tiger
numbers in Madhya Pradesh, it makes for a very tempting target.

"One of the reasons why tiger losses in places like Kanha or Corbett
might not be so apparent is that they are among the larger
tiger reserves, where fortunately the ‘recruitment rate' is still
good - there are presently a number of tigresses with cubs in
both these parks ", says Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection
Society of India. The worry is that these critical source or breeding
populations within the core zones of our ‘best' tiger reserves
are under threat, yet no effective monitoring or protection
mechanisms have been put in place. If poachers feel they can
target these areas with impunity, the tiger is doomed.

What Price Commitment?
If the situation on the ground is this bleak, a large proportion of
the blame must rest with state governments, which have not
prioritised conservation. The central government has set strict
guidelines regarding tiger protection, but the most it can really do
is act as a funding agency or a mentor - it is the states themselves
that must act. And they- well, most are simply not interested.

"Most states have failed to notify buffer areas of tiger reserves, a
legal imperative and crucial for the future of the species, since
they serve as a filter between human habitation and tigers," says
Dr Rajesh Gopal, Member Secretary, National Tiger Conservation
Authority. Also, tigers are territorial animals commanding large
home ranges, and buffers serve as transient homes for young
tigers on the lookout for their own territories. As of now, 28 of our
39 tiger reserves do not have notified buffer areas. And delays in
notification are not, Jairam Ramesh says bluntly, "due to laziness
on the part of the state governments, nor are they accidental.
They are deliberate - to allow easier approval of projects with
grave environmental consequences, which threaten biodiversity
in these areas."

Bittu Sahgal, editor, Sanctuary Asia, agrees: "The forest rug
is literally being pulled from under the tiger's paws by state
governments, most of which indulge in tokenism. More than half
of all tiger habitats that enjoyed good health on the day Project
Tiger was launched in 1973 have vanished. Mines, dams, roads,
power projects and nuclear reactors are all planned inside or
within impact range of tiger habitats."

Scientists say that a population of 20 breeding tigresses (and
about 75 adult tigers) in a secure habitat of approximately 800
sq km is essential to ensure a safe future for tigers in a reserve
forest - any fewer and the scales tilt towards rapid extinction.

That's science fiction, given the ground realities: Barely two or three
of our 39 reserves can support such numbers. Nature's answer
lies in tiger corridors - green ribbons that connect tiger habitats,
so that genetic vigour is maintained and source populations can feed other forests. Yet this vital connectivity is being threatened
by a slew of ill-planned development projects - for example, the
Human Dam project in Vidarbha, which got a green signal from
the Supreme Court in November 2008. The project will submerge
Tadoba's connectivity with the crucial central Indian landscape,
which includes the Nagzira and Pench national parks; camera
traps have proved this corridor to be a well-worn tiger trail.
Such habitat fragmentation can have significant implications.

Already, the combination of a poor prey base and tiger corridors
devastated by mining have accelerated the human-tiger conflict in
Tadoba, with around 50 people having been killed by tigers in the
past four years. In the Sundarbans, the press of human population
and lack of prey base have locked tiger and man in a battle for
resources. In Corbett and Kaziranga, it is the unchecked growth
of tourism resorts that has blocked tiger routes. Conflict takes its
toll on tigers too - they are killed in retaliation by villagers, and by
poachers who capitalise on the grievances of villagers.

Mercifully, Jairam Ramesh has taken a tough stance on some
obvious disasters, such as the proposed expansion of NH7 that
would cut into the Kanha-Pench tiger corridor. His ministry also
turned down a proposal to allow Adani Mining Private Limited to
mine for coal at Lohara, on the outskirts of Tadoba. But these are
rare victories, as the minister himself points out: "There are no less
than 40 power and coal projects coming up near Tadoba - [just]
one has been refused permission."

‘Rival' ministries have also not taken kindly to environmental
hurdles being placed before some of their key projects, and a battle
has erupted within the government. At least three ministers in
the UPA cabinet are gunning for Ramesh: Kamal Nath (Minister
for Surface Transport - and ironically, former Minister for
Environment and Forests) is rooting for highways through national
parks; Praful Patel (Minister, Aviation) allegedly advocated an
Adani Group powerplant in his home constituency, which is near
Nagzira, another important tiger habitat; Union Power Minister
Sushilkumar Shinde is reportedly upset because the clearance for
the Athirapally hydro-electric project was retracted as it would
have drowned acres of prime rainforest. In an interview to M
published earlier this year [M: January 2010, ‘Climate Consciousness
and the Wild Agenda'], Ramesh admitted that he was not
everyone's favourite man of the moment, adding: "Ecological
security should be an overriding concern for everyone, not just
the Minister of Environment and Forests. It should be as much
the concern of the power ministry, the coal ministry - and that,
unfortunately, is not the case right now."

"Ecological security should be an overriding concern for everyone..."
The Prime Minister has said as much several times. Why then has
there been no real change on the ground? Why is the special Tiger
Protection Force, announced over a year ago with such fanfare, still
dysfunctional? Why is the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau neither
equipped nor staffed adequately? And crucially, why has Project
Tiger been allocated less funds than it was the year before? Its outlay
in the Union Budget has shrunk to Rs 196 crore in 2010-2011 from
Rs 204 crore in the previous financial year! Compare this with the
Commonwealth Games budget (ironically, the Games mascot is
Sheru the tiger) of Rs 1620 crore, or even the (failed) Ganga Action
Plan which bagged Rs 500 crore!

A reduced budget will mean, among other things, that the crucial
task of relocating villages from within core tiger habitats will
be further delayed. The central government had announced an
enhanced package of Rs 10 lakh per family for people to move
out of ‘sensitive' areas, to create the inviolate space tigers need to
survive. No less than 702 villages await the move, but where will
the money come from now?

Endgame
Despite all of that, there is hope. India still does a better job of
protecting its tigers than any other home range country. It's just
that in this case, ‘better' is not quite good enough. It is in India that
the maximum number of wild tigers live; it is on us, therefore, that
the onus of saving the tiger rests. "The good news is that we finally have a new department for forests and wildlife, which will lead to
more focus and better governance of wildlife related issues. This
has the potential to trigger the change necessary all across India,"
says Valmik Thapar, India's best known tiger expert. There is some
positive news as well from parks that had been written off - Buxa,
Palamu, Nagarjunasagar and even Indravati, which has been
under siege by Naxals for a decade.

What the tiger requires is simple to articulate - areas free of
human interference, plentiful natural prey - yet immensely
difficult to execute. In India, with its booming population (of both
people and cattle) and current nine percent GDP growth fixation,
ecological concerns are usually the first to be sacrificed at the altar
of development. People, ultimately, believe people must come first.

What needs to be understood, therefore, is that saving the tiger is
not a ‘luxury', and the loss of a tiger is not just the loss of a tiger. It
is the snapping of yet another strand of the ecosystem on which
we all depend. No less than six hundred rivers and streams flow
out of the tiger's forests in India. (The ancients understood this
connection, which is why the tiger is revered as the Water God in
many cultures.) Our forest cover also neutralises over 11 percent of
our annual greenhouse gas emissions [see envfor.nic.in/divisions/
ccd/GHG _report.pdf for more details] - it is our insurance against
a warming world. Saving the tiger, therefore, is not about having a
‘pet cause', it is not even a ‘moral' imperative; it is an ecological and
an existential imperative.

It is not about us saving the tiger, it is about the tiger saving us.


OTHER BIG CATS ON DEATH ROW

To those who believe that talk of big cats going extinct in India
is just a doomsday prophecy, I have three words: ‘Acinonyx
jubatus venaticus' - the Asiatic cheetah, extinct in India since
1947, when the last three were shot in Madhya Pradesh. All India's
big cats - leopards, lions, snow leopards, clouded leopards and, of
course, the tiger - are endangered.

The Asiatic lion is arguably the most endangered big cat in the
country today. There are only about 411 lions, all confined to the Gir
National Park in Gujarat. Despite the 13 percent population growth
(since 2005) recorded in the 2010 census, fears persist that an
outbreak of disease could wipe out the entire population. Panthera
leo persica is especially vulnerable to disease since it descends
from a gene pool of the same two dozen left at the end of the 18th
century. Experts assert that some lions must be translocated to Kuno
National Park, Madhya Pradesh, an alternate habitat that has already
been prepared. Unfortunately, Gujarat refuses to part with ‘its' lions.

Even the leopard may beat the tiger in the race to extinction. For
every tiger skin recovered, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau
reckons that some twenty leopard skins are seized. India lost no
less than 115 leopards in the first three months of 2010 - that's more
than a leopard a day. But it is conflict rather than poaching that will
probably prove to be the leopard's nemesis. Not a top predator, it
lives on the fringes of the forest, preying on small game like barking
deer, cheetal and langur. With its habitat degraded and natural prey
poached, the leopard has been forced to set up camp near human
habitations, living off dogs, goats and small cattle - and occasionally,
man. This results in retaliatory killings.

Sadly, the leopard has no champions for its cause, no public
campaigns for its survival.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE

1. States and the central government need to prioritise tiger
conservation. No compromising on tiger habitats and corridors in the
name of development.
2. Relocation of people from critical tiger habitats is a must.
3. Communities located near reserve forests should be made partners in
conservation. Their dependence on forest produce needs to be
reduced. Compensation for cattle kills must be paid promptly.
4. Forest guards require state-of-the-art training and better equipment.
People heading our national parks must be appointed on the basis of
ability and passion.
5. Increased vigilance and protection to prevent poaching of both tigers
and prey. Also, improving conviction rates for wildlife crimes -
currently at less than one percent.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Be informed: Know the issues so you can articulate your position
effectively. Use the RTI Act to find out more about how funds for
conservation projects are being allocated and utilised, or on what
basis development projects in sensitive areas are being cleared. As a
concerned citizen, you can even file a PIL against the many assaults on
tiger habitats.

Speak up , get organised: Be the tiger's ambassador among your
family, friends, colleagues. Write to editors urging them to highlight the tiger's plight. Get like-minded people together and form a watchdog
group for a forest near your city. Be a pressure group to push governments,
forest departments etc in the right direction. Write to the MP/MLA from
your constituency; let them know the ‘green vote' is a factor.
Use your profess ion: If you're a teacher, help your students imbibe
the lessons of conservation. If you're a lawyer, lend your time to fight
conservation cases. If you're a journalist, write on conservation issues.
If you're a graphic designer, help an NGO design a poster or pamphlet.
The avenues are endless, you need to find how your core skills can be
leveraged.

Donate your time and money.

Minimise your ecological footprint: Everything that you
use impacts the tiger's habitat - the water that overflows from your taps,
the paper you use, the electricity you waste (which may be generated
from thermal plants that encroach on tiger habitats). Conserve.

Published in (Published in M maf, May 2010 issue)