January/February 1993: The author, ‘Billy’ Arjan Singh was one of the first to blow the whistle on the sinister motives of the shikar operators who insisted on minting fortunes out of shikar, even when presented with evidence that the great cats were headed towards extinction.
Today, two decades after Project Tiger was launched, Billy shares with Sanctuary readers his concerns for the deteriorating environment in which tigers are sought to be protected and offers some radical views on how the problems facing the tiger might be solved.
IN NOVEMBER 1969, the General Assembly of the International Union for Nature and Natural Resources met in New Delhi. Amongst other papers presented was one by Kailash Sankhala stressing the deteriorating status of the tiger, seeking intervention in its protection. At the conclusion of deliberations, which generated a great deal of sympathy and alarm at the declining census figure of 1,827, I submitted a resolution calling for a ban on tiger shooting, which supposedly earned much-needed foreign exchange for the country. The Assembly then passed a resolution proposing a moratorium on hunting until further studies and protective measures ensured favourable population trends, and also suggested its replacement by the tourist potential of the tiger.
The acceptance of the Resolution put 26 Shikar Companies out of business. Although expressing concern for the deteriorating status of the tiger, the outfitters still did not see fit to transfer their resources to tourism. Instead, they claimed that tiger-hunters were prime conservationists as their activities kept poachers away. One of them even submitted a writ petition against the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve in the Supreme Court. Having failed in his attempt he thereafter went on to open a hunting business in Indonesia!
In 1970, at a joint meeting of the IUCN and WWF in Switzerland, Guy Mountfort proposed an all-out effort to save the tiger. He was authorized to offer a million dollars to the Prime Minister of India to assist in the setting up of a project to protect the Indian tiger. Mrs Indira Gandhi reacted with alacrity and appointed a Task Force which initially identified nine project areas. A Steering Committee headed by Karan Singh, Minister for Tourism and Chairman of the Indian Board for Wildlife, was also set up.
Unfortunately, however, the Project took off on the wrong foot. Forests were on the State list of subjects in the Constitution and as wildlife was to be found mainly in the forest, the subject was attached to the Forest Department. The Forest Department is a commercial organization, and the priorities for postings amongst its staff incumbents are with Social Forestry, the Forest Corporation, the Plantation Division and the Territorial Division. Wildlife, with no economic affiliation, is shunned by all administrative personnel and is considered a ‘punishment posting’ for drop-outs, the inefficient and the corrupt. Moreover, though wildlife areas must be viable, the various departments are not willing to allocate further land to wildlife, particularly as the Wildlife Act does not permit commercial operations in these areas. Furthermore, tree felling amounts to habitat destruction and militates against the concept.
It is obvious that forestry operations cannot be permitted in wildlife zones, and equally obvious why the Department will not allow forested areas to be transferred to wildlife. Wildlife and forestry are antagonistic subjects and cannot meaningfully be managed by the same facility. A clean forest floor is the dream of a forester. It is an anathema to the wildlifer. The precept that wildlife will exist where there are forests is entirely misplaced; trees may be planted, but extinction is forever. The aesthetic reason for saving wildlife because of the animism in the Hindu religion is an out-dated concept which the forests, unlike the days of the Emperor Asoka, cannot apply today.
PROJECT TIGER WAS inaugurated at the Corbett National Park in 1973. The fund-raising appeal by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands caught the imagination of the world, and 1.8 million dollars was collected, mainly from school children, in a year. The euphoria of accomplishment inspired this international effort to save the tiger and originally a species-oriented project became the spearhead for the salvation of the ecosystem. The numbers game, however, continued to dominate the effort, and census figures were inflated to impossible numbers by Field Directors relying on pugmark tracings by untrained and irresponsible personnel. The Corbett Park figure, for instance, was probably at a saturation density of 44 in 1972, but was escalated to reach a figure of 112 by 1985-89! The Dudhwa National Park eventually hit on an ad hoc number of 51, based on pugmark tracings of tigers, some showing five toes! Compared to the Serengeti National Park in Africa with a 5.5% increase for the highly social lion, an overall increase of 25% was sought to be presented for the solitary tiger. Censuses were actually treated as status symbols by individual Directors, each claiming to have more than the other at ‘his’ reserve! My suggestion at an Indian Board for Wildlife Meeting that Field Directors should be switched around, during census time, was, needless to add, disregarded.
COUNTING TIGERS and presenting unbridled figures continues to be the order of the day. The figures, however, began to look so ridiculous that it was inevitable that realistic estimates led to a ‘population crash’. One by-product of this has been the reverting to species-oriented management in an effort to preserve the ecosystem.
The various State Forest Departments have had charge of wildlife for nearly forty years, during which period its status has continued to deteriorate due to adverse pressure from an exploding population. Forests and Wildlife were put on the Concurrent List, but the States continue to disregard the advice of the Centre. The Forest Department is thus still in absolute charge of wildlife. A separate cadre for wildlife exists in name only. The posts of Honorary Wildlife Wardens, selected from committed individuals, have been largely abolished. Persons who clash with the functioning of a corrupt Department are harassed and victimised. I speak from personal experience.
There are two methods of initiating reform. To examine why a thing cannot be done, or how it can. The time has come when policy makers must accept that there is no choice. The Forest Department, with their parochial commitment to the local public who are antagonistic to wildlife, cannot be its saviours. Unless tigers can be given a weighted franchise, wildlife should either have a separate service, as in the United States of America, or be attached to the Ministry of Tourism, as in Africa.
I shall now examine the overall methodology whereby conservation of wildlife could shake loose from the stranglehold of the Forest Department and function in some other manner, for the onus is on the policy makers to be the crusaders and for seasoned administrators to decide how the mass genocide of a vote-less species may be averted.
The committee which recommended the creation of the Department of Environment, of which I was a member, submitted its report to the Prime Minister on 15 September 1980. At the conclusion, I submitted a note which read: “I maintain, with absolute conviction, that the fragile status of wildlife, which has deteriorated to crisis proportions due to abusive practises as a state subject should be taken over immediately by the Department of Environment to be administered by a Central Wildlife Service”. The Committee Report also includes a note by Dr Nagendra Singh, President, Indian Academy of Environmental Law, which says: “In regard to the protection of wild animals and birds, not only can the Central Government control their protection and preservation, but certain forests and sanctuaries of national importance can be acquired by the Central Government under its powers of acquisition of property under Entry 42 of the Union List. In the State of West Bengal vs the Union of India, 1964, the Supreme Court has held that the Union could acquire lands including forests and sanctuaries. The power of Parliament conferred by Entry 42 is not restricted and is capable of being exercised in respect of the property of the States as well.
ORIGINALLY A COMMITTEE presided over by Dr MS Swaminathan agreed to my suggestion for a separate Wildlife Service, but the Chairman, ND Tiwari, vetoed the idea. Later the Janata Government tried to revert Amendment 42 to the State List, but were unable to do so. The possibility, however, still remains. The attitude of State Governments is best exemplified by the actions of Uttar Pradesh whose Chief Minister actually cancelled the Wildlife Budget in 1978, with the remark that “a poor State cannot afford luxuries.”
Some of us, having lost faith in the intentions of politicians, wonder whether perhaps the time has not come for the army to be invited to assist in protecting wildlife – as it is already doing in several frontline areas. The idea is not so far-fetched as it may sound at first. In Nepal this is indeed the role of the army. Units or Training Centres, close to Parks, could easily ‘adopt’ wildlife areas. Occasional flag marches, in addition to regular training programmes for armed forces would certainly discourage the intrusion of poachers and plunderers of all kinds.
If this is the only way to save the tigers of India, then so be it.