[A] tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage… when he is exterminated, as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support, India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.
— Jim Corbett in Man-eaters of Kumaon
India’s global wildlife icon faces its worst ever crisis with the maximum tiger deaths of the decade reported in the year that just went by, and half the country’s tiger reserves on the verge of losing their big cats.
Tigers are important for the country’s bio-diversity as they head the ecological food chain.
The death of Indian tigers, whose population is now estimated to be close to 1,000, down from the official figure of 1,411 in 2006, could also put the survival of 1 lakh families, dependant on tiger-inhabited forest areas for livelihood, at risk.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NCTA), the statutory body for tiger protection, on Wednesday, termed 2009 as a “very bad year” for tigers.
The authority also rejected Environment and Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh’s proposal to seek funds from the World Bank for protecting tigers.
Ramesh admitted that tiger mortality in 2009 was highest in the past several years.
This year has started on a grim note for tiger conservation efforts, too — three tiger deaths have been reported in the first six days of 2010.
On Wednesday, a male tiger was found dead in the Sampoorna Nagar forest range in Uttar Pradesh. An initial probe revealed that poachers killed it.
Ramesh had earlier said that 17 of the total 37 tigers reserves in India were on the verge of losing their tiger populations. The list includes Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, Valimiki in Bihar, Indravati in Chhattisgarh and Simlipal in Orissa.
India's bid to grow faster in the last 15 years has meant a 30 per cent loss to tiger habitat, exposing the big cat to poachers.
Most forest corridors, which linked one tiger landscape with another, have been lost, restricting freedom of tigers, the tiger census report of 2006 had said. Ramesh admitted that these forest areas were “difficult to get back”.
These years also saw the failure of state governments to invest in tiger protection with half the posts of forest guards lying vacant and the average age of guards being over 50 years. “They had double barrels with no bullets or just had lathis to fight poachers,” said Valmik Thapar, a tiger conservationist.
In this free-for-all decade-and-a-half, wildlife traders like Sansar Chand flourished. “He was arrested in 2005 after Sariska but his network is still intact,” said a senior official of the National Wildlife Crime Bureau.
“We have to make the cost of poaching higher,” Y.V. Jhala, a scientist with Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII), said.
A dead tiger fetches up to Rs 8 lakh in the international market; chances of being punished for poaching, if caught, are just 10 per cent.
In September, NGOs, the Environment Investigation Agency and Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) had found that Myanmar and Nepal were the new routes for smuggling tiger body parts into China and elsewhere.
They also said that the price of tiger body parts in the international market had increased three times in the last three years. The Wildlife Crime Bureau found that a poacher gets up to Rs 20,000 for killing a tiger, a high incentive for families that earn less than Rs 5,000 a month.
Something is in the offing. Environment ministers from nations with tiger populations will meet in Bangkok on January 29 to discuss a strategy to save tigers. A similar meeting of global tigers experts, which will be held in Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand in February, will look at scientific methods to protect tigers.
Despite global efforts, many tiger experts, such as WPSI executive director Belinda Wright, fear that China, which has declared 2010 as the Chinese year for the tiger, is part of the problem.
There are more than 5,000 tigers in farms in China, suspected to be the source of the illegal tiger body parts trade — and less than 50 in wild.
Global efforts notwithstanding, Ramesh wants state governments to adopt the Gujarat model of including locals to protect tigers. The Gir National Park in western Gujarat has over 350 lions and the Charans-Maldharis tribe has protected them for years.
“We cannot stop poaching without help of locals,” the minister said, adding a similar experiment will be started in the Corbett National Park, where van gujjars (forest tribals) will be given responsibility to project tigers.
But many tiger experts disagree with this approach. “It is locals who help poachers in killing the tigers,” said P.K. Sen, former director of Project Tiger. “Tigers need safe havens away from human interference”.
Ramesh said relocation was a difficult task. “We require Rs 2,000 crore every year for relocation and we have just Rs 150 crore”.
Despite habitat loss and relocation issues, wildlife scientists such as Jhala and Wright estimate that the current tiger reserves have a capacity to support 4,000 to 5,000 tigers.
One thing all experts agree on: time is running out for Corbett’s “large-hearted gentleman”.