The plight of the tiger is well-documented: Its slipping fortune from a healthy 40,000-odd at the turn of the century to an alarming 1,400 currently; the loss of over 80 per cent of its habitat since then, and the relentless slaughter first for pleasure and trophy; now for rugs and robes and an apparent cure for impotency.
But, haven't we worked to save the tiger? Made it the national animal, created a special conservation initiative, the biggest of its kind i.e Project Tiger in 1973 with no less than 38 tiger reserves , don't we have the most stringent protectionist laws, didn't our Prime Minister set up a Tiger Task Force to tackle the Tiger Crisis in 2005?
Yes, but we have fewer tigers than what we started with in 1973; two reserves, Sariska and Panna have been emptied, all their tigers killed for the market. In 15 others extinction beckons. The laws are ineffective, unless implemented. For all the stringent punishment that the Wildlife Protection Act dictates, we have barely managed to convict one per cent of poachers.
And, the Task Force notwithstanding, the Tiger Crisis is far from over-it just got worse.
Welcome to 2010. Twenty days into the year, and we lost six tigers-four of which are probably poaching cases. One of these was killed-by posinned arrows and country guns, tied to a bamboo stake-the meat cooked and eaten-and the skin sold for a neat profit.
Welcome to 2010, the International Year of the Tiger.
It wasn't any better last year. In 2009, we lost a tiger almost every fourth day-85 tigers in 365 days. These are only the recorded instances-minus all those skins that sneaked out across the border, and beyond-largely to China which writes its own laws on consumption of tiger derivatives even as it signs on international treaties dictating otherwise. We have not taken into account generations lost when tigresses are killed, leaving behind cubs-who either starve to death or are condemned to captivity. In and around Tadoba in Maharashtra we lost five breeding tigresses in an year.
It's an emergency, says the honourable Minister of State (Environment and Forests,) Jairam Ramesh. Good, that we are finally acknowledging that tiger numbers are falling, but what have we done? Reserves continue to be manned by a skeletal staff-who are overaged, underequipped, underpaid-if paid at all. The centre has sent strict guidelines to the states regarding protection. But the states are simply not interested, funds are delayed, apathetic officers still man reserves. For all its good intent, Project Tiger, forgive the pun, remains a Paper Tiger.
Little wonder then that the last bastions of the tiger are falling-in Kanha, the ‘crown jewel', tiger numbers have crashed alarmingly, Kaziranga-a success story, lost 15 per cent of its tigers in the space of an year (Novemebr 2008-Dec-2009), and Corbett-where Project Tiger was born- five tigers have died have died in a month days in the cusp of this year.
To be fair, the minister said a firm no to mines bordering Tadoba and an observatory near Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu, but these are few victories in many such battles. Unless the government takes a firm stand that protected areas are simply no-go areas for highways,mines, dams, power projects-we are going to lose the tiger.
Unless we have a force, on the lines of our army, protecting the tiger, now-each reserve will soon be a Sariska, or a Panna.
And our national animal, extinct.