Home Magazines Cover Story Quo Vadis Panthera Tigris? – Part 1

Quo Vadis Panthera Tigris? – Part 1

Quo Vadis Panthera Tigris? – Part 1

In this first part of a two-part article, Bittu Sahgal and Jennifer Scarlott ask what the future holds for India's tigers, tracing the descent of the once internationally renowned Project Tiger. In Part 2, the authors continue their analysis of India's tiger conservation successes and failures, and conclude with a call for five essential actions to ensure the tiger's future.

Tiger Corbett Uttarkhand Photo: Nayan Khanolkar.

It was mid-morning at Ranthambhore’s Rajbagh lake and we had given up on seeing a tiger. Our consolation was the lake itself, its serenity broken only by the family of wild pigs rooting around at its edge. And then, as if conjured from the very air, she appeared, padding silently down to the shoreline in front of the summer palace. Even from this distance, we could make out her powerful shoulders as she stretched her feline form to drink at the water’s edge.

Thirst quenched, the tigress moved toward a small island in the centre of the lake, stepping and hopping from rock to rock, stripes appearing and disappearing amid tall, golden grass. After a brief disappearing act on the island, she re-materialised near our jeep. Finding the waters of Rajbagh irresistible, she drank again. This time we saw the concentric ripples formed by a tongue as pink as the pinkest lotus flower. 

The tranquillity of our moments with this tigress belied the fearsome struggles of her species’ long history with Homo sapiens. Her ancestors were hunted down through the centuries until the contest between man and tiger reached an all time high, utterly desperate and one-sided. By the early 1970s, with the advent of firearms and industrialisation, wholesale slaughter and habitat destruction brought about a dwindling of the cat to numbers a child could count. 

Coming to the tiger’s rescue in the nick of time, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi proved to be a wildlife visionary by banning tiger hunting in the 1970s and establishing Project Tiger. Some years of relative peace for the cat paid off in slowly-rising tiger numbers, until our tigress’ direct antecedents could reliably be seen in broad daylight, fearlessly chasing their prey through the lakes and grasses and forests of Ranthambhore.

The tiger’s brief moment in the sun turned to night in the early 1990s, as international poaching syndicates turned their attention to the tigers of the subcontinent. Cats began to disappear from the forests, only to reappear in shipments of wildlife contraband bound from Delhi to southeast Asian countries. The resurgent illegal trade in wildlife parts (second only to the global black market in narcotics and illegal arms) became, seemingly overnight, an overwhelming threat to India’s tigers. In combination with the onslaught on India’s wild places by the dams, mines, agricultural and forestry projects, nuclear power plants, ad nauseum that her political and business classes view as the only path to ‘development’, tiger numbers began to drop once more, precipitously. Without concerted action on the part of all who care for this beautiful creature and its forest home, the momentum of events of recent years will seal the tiger’s doom.

The descent of Project Tiger, once the world’s most-admired conservation programmes, began even before the poaching crisis of the ’90s, when Rajiv Gandhi assumed his mother’s mantle following her assassination in 1984. Though an avowed nature enthusiast, Gandhi Junior’s narrow-minded advisors ensured that his tenure benefitted Indian industrial interests more than Indian wildlife. Gandhi made rapid incursions into the gains his mother had secured for wild India. Seduced by promises of huge World Bank (WB) loans, he personally cleared the Sardar Sarovar Project, the largest of the infamous Narmada dams that threatened to drown some of the best tiger forests in India. Across the country, throwing the spirit of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 to the winds, more than a million hectares of forest lands were converted to commercial and agricultural use in short order. Massive timber operations halted by Mrs. Gandhi were restarted. State Forestry Projects began to widen narrow forest roads in preparation for future timber operations.

Tigers prowl along the Rajbagh lake in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, a forest that showcased Project Tiger in the 1970s and ‘80s. Photo: Aditya Singh.

Then in the early ’90s, India’s tigers were hit with a double whammy: concerted international poaching in forests across the length and breadth of the country, and the WB’s India Eco-development Project. This scheme began innocently enough as a well-intentioned outgrowth of the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which created a Global Environment Facility (GEF) to fund efforts to reverse environmental damage in developing countries. The WB, destroyer of nature, quickly insinuated itself as the custodian of GEF funds, and turned the Eco-development Project into a virtual extension of many WB-financed Forestry Projects, whose experts began to earn lucrative consultancies from this new source. Exactly as members of the Project Tiger Steering Committee warned, this proved disastrous for the tiger.

The Project pumped a staggering $68 million into ‘infrastructure’ projects in seven of India’s finest wildlife reserves. The WB touted the programme as a “model for conserving biodiversity through local participation.” But millions spent on roads, buildings, and ‘forestry’ projects in fragile wildernesses and their buffer zones led to increased pressure on wildlife and local communities alike. The money also plumped up the accounts and lined the pockets of some social activists, wildlife NGOs and field biologists, who enjoyed WB largesse while lending it invaluable legitimacy with the government and the public. During the ’90s, India was slated to receive some $6.8 billion in WB funding for massive commercial projects, many of them within or at the doorstep of so-called Protected Areas (PAs). Even if the $68 million allocated in ‘eco-development’ funding had truly served to protect India’s natural heritage, it was overwhelmed 100 to 1 by spending on mines, dams, roads, thermal plants, hydroelectric facilities, prawn farms and fisheries projects, jetties and ports, all of which shattered islanded forests and many of the viable wildlife corridors remaining between them.

Even before abducting the Rio Summit’s mandate by cornering funds for the India Eco-development Project, the WB had launched a programme in 1985 that was equally emblematic of its wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing approach to environmental protection – the Tropical Forest Action Plan (TFAP). An $8 billion programme jointly administered with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Resources Institute in 70 countries, TFAP was purportedly designed to protect tropical forests and the tremendous biodiversity within them. In fact, TFAP has advanced deforestation (and destroyed genetic diversity) through commercial logging and industrial forestry. In India, as in other developing countries, TFAP’s single-species, single-commodity production plantations have replaced natural, diverse forests, wreaking havoc on local environments, wildlife and people.

As the Bank continued to insist that Indian forests “pay their way,” tiger numbers fell. 

Were it ‘only’ for the machinations of enormous, multinational organisations like the WB, saving India’s tigers might be within not-too-difficult reach. But tragically, there is plenty of homegrown blame to be assigned within India’s own political and commercial ranks, starting at the top – the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Peopled by experts and advisors whose loyalties veer less towards tigers and more towards politics for politics’ sake, we have increasingly seen the PMO become the focal point of hardline developers who imagine that the nation’s interests are best served by four-lane highways, nuclear reactors, thermal plants, cement factories, coal mines, steel plants and ports. The fact that the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had created laws to protect our water sources, forests, rivers, lakes and coasts from the adverse impact of such projects was an irritant. So they systematically attacked this protective mantle by inserting clauses to blunt or dilute laws and in some cases by scrapping laws altogether. 

In Goa, for instance, miners lobbied successfully to keep iron ore mines of fewer than five hectares out of the purview of  “prior permission” by the Ministry of Environment. As a result, we see scores of 4.99-hectare mines, some located mere metres from others, dotting the tiger forests of this tiny state. When environmentalists protested, the PMO responded by enhancing the exemption limit for mines from five hectares to 50 hectares! Now, according to Ritwick Dutta, a brilliant young lawyer, “we will suffer the sight of 49.99-hectare mines lined up next to each other until the forests are vanquished.”

Untroubled by the fact that every last tiger had been wiped out from Rajasthan’s Sariska Tiger Reserve, Dr. Manmohan Singh continues to send out dangerous signals to international poaching gangs responsible for decimating India’s wildlife that the Prime Minister’s Office no longer has wildlife protection on its priority list. Photo: WPSI.

The regressive attitude of Indian economists and politicians crossed the line of ecological extremism with the passage of The Forest Rights Bill, or, more long-windedly, The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Passed in December 2006, the bill, which could prove to be the decisive nail in the tiger’s coffin, mandates that each nuclear family of a forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribe receive up to four hectares of forest land. The bill will transfer over 60 per cent of India’s forests into the hands of 8.2 per cent of its population and allow the felling of up to 75 trees per hectare for a range of 14 activities including the construction of irrigation canals and power lines. It requires no clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The end result is predictable… much of India’s remaining forests will end up in the hands of rich landlords, upper caste (the caste system is alive and well in India) power brokers and industrialists. Short-term financial interests will prevail, rather than concern for the long-term economic and social welfare of adivasis, and India’s population as a whole.

The Forest Rights Act can have nothing short of a catastrophic effect on the tiger, and on the rest of India’s wildlife, which currently find shelter in over 90 national parks and 501 sanctuaries. Together, these PAs account for only 22 per cent of the forest area, and just 4.7 per cent of India’s land area. Three hundred major rivers originate in India’s protected forests – widespread deforestation and human activity here will threaten these water sources, and the wild (and human) communities dependent on them.

The Forest Rights Act created a feeding frenzy among politicians of every stripe (every stripe but the tiger’s, apparently), eager to prove their bona fides as sensitive champions of the human rights of India’s most neglected people. Politician after politician jumped on the Forest Rights bandwagon, cheered on by human rights activists and organisations in the naïve and short-sighted belief that transfer of land, in and of itself, would right old wrongs perpetrated against Indian adivasis. In stripping PAs off their protection, what the Forest Rights Act will achieve (as has similar legislation in countries like Australia), is the destruction of wild India, and the further impoverishment and degradation of the very people it purportedly seeks to help. Tigers, literally, will have no place left to hide.

During the time that the Forest Rights Act was being hammered out, tiger poaching reached a fever pitch, wiping out every single cat in Rajasthan’s Sariska Tiger Reserve, and countless others in reserves across the country. To the horror of anti-poaching activists, it was discovered that many of India’s tigers were ending up as ceremonial garb (chubas) for traditional Tibetan ceremonies. When those who knew what was going wrong raised their voices, the response of the PMO was to throw them off the highest wildlife advisory bodies and replace them with more pliable individuals whose committment to wildlife was subservient to the vastly more popular option of distributing forest land rights.

Thus it was that soon after the Sariska debacle – when tigers went locally extinct – Ms. Sunita Narain, head of the Centre for Science and Environment and a long-time (virulent, but inexperienced) critic of wildlife conservation in India was appointed as the Chair of the Prime Minister’s Tiger Task Force. Under her tutelage, the final report turned out like the clichéd Curate’s Egg – good in tiny measure, largely rotten. Paying only lip service to the imperative of saving the tiger, the Prime Minister’s Tiger Task Force report ironically served as a political lubricant and precursor to the Forest Rights Act, which has tightened the noose around the tiger.

Tigers are in the cross hairs – of poachers, of corporations, of heedless politicians, of NGOs and activists who, in the end, should know better. And now, the Chinese government is taking aim, not at its own tigers, having facilitated and encouraged their extirpation decades ago, but at India’s and other tiger range states. China is giving serious consideration to legalising its tiger farms and the trade in tiger parts. If the Chinese government flouts the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and overturns its 1993 ban on domestic trade in tiger bone, the tiger’s descent will be swift and sure. For India’s tiger, squeezed by mounting pressures on habitat, any increased pressure from poachers will lead, in short order, to the same fate as Sariska’s tigers… complete annihilation.

Project Tiger stands de-fanged. Its leadership has faltered. Its political support has virtually vanished. In 2007, as adults abdicate their responsibility for the tiger and the ecological future of the Indian subcontinent, a million young Indian ‘Kids for Tigers’, part of Sanctuary’s vibrant tiger programme, prepare to battle to save Panthera tigris. Theirs is not an easy task, for they are among the least empowered citizens of India, lower on the scale even than ‘the poor’ in whose name the ecology of the subcontinent is being systematically degraded. These young Indians – rich and poor, urban and rural – have more at stake than any politician or industrialist and their entreaty for an ecologically healthy nation should be regarded as a command by India’s political and economic leaders.

Project Tiger stands discredited today because officials in the Ministry of Environment and Forests facilitated the abuse of tiger forests by powerful people for their own narrow political ends. Rudderless, visionless and lacking the missionary zeal with which Project Tiger was launched in Corbett in 1973, adults have let down the one million young Indian ‘Kids for Tigers’, who nevertheless continue to battle for Panthera tigris. Photo: Baiju Patil.

In an era of climate change – with sea levels rising, floods and drought increasing and glaciers in retreat – a new type of adult literacy programme is needed to remind Members of Parliament, Members of State Legislative Assemblies, judges, corporate heads, bureaucrats and social workers that they are not the ‘owners’ of the landmass we call India. They are mere trustees of an ecological legacy that is central not merely to the quality of life, but the very survival of the Indian people.

In Part 2 of this article, we will make the argument that protecting the tiger and what it represents – all of nature – is critical to the economic, social, and environmental well-being of one billion people.

By Bittu Sahgal and Jennifer Scarlott

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVII. No. 3., June 2007 


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