It is now unofficially official. There are less tigers in India now than there were in 1972 when conservationists and the government went into panic mode, banned hunting, set up Project Tiger and took tough steps to bring the tiger back from the brink. There were believed to be 1,827 tigers then; the figures released on May 23 reveal 435 tigers across the four central Indian states that historically have been home to 33 per cent of the total population (25-38 per cent). Simple arithmetic provides a total, today, of around 1,300 tigers in the country; some tiger biologists believe the actual number may be less than 1,000, perhaps even as few as 800.
We do not need to argue the numbers: whichever way you look at the tiger’s situation, it is dire; it is a national crisis. But is the government bothered? Do we see the Ministry of Environment and Forests galvanised into action now that their own Tiger Conservation Authority and Wildlife Institute of India project is providing data that confirms what conservationists have been saying for the last few years. Tragically not. What we find is a government at best silent, at worst still disowning and denying the figures. What will it take to convince it? We have had facts and figures and images of Indian tiger skins poached and swamping Tibet; we have had Indian tiger biologists with scientific data to back their arguments, we have had children petitioning the PM in for the tiger’s cause, we have a high-profile tiger reserve (Sariska) lose all its tigers; we now have a major ‘official’ study showing exactly where tigers can still be found and from where they are missing, a study showing how fragmented their habitat is, how precarious their existence: yet, the point is argued and denied.
The issue is not people versus tigers, it is not that wildlife conservationists ‘bicker’ or put their egos before the tiger, it is not that there is a controversy within the informed community as much of the media like to portray; the major stumbling block to saving the tiger is simply that those with the mandate and muscle to maintain and protect natural India are failing to do so. The true battle is people — the forest-dependent people especially — and tigers versus the government. It is not only the tiger and other wildlife that is being squeezed. It does not take much newspaper reading even for city-dwellers to know that the farming communities, the tribal populations and other marginalised people are equally being sacrificed in our shining India march towards a global economy and double-digit economic growth in emulation of industrialised countries elsewhere.
I am distressed that so many individuals — human and wild — are treated as dispensable; distressed by the sad direction that India has taken, when she had the chance to harness all her wonderful talents and diversity and show the world a new path, a new sustainable, environment and people-friendly direction.
But emotion alone is futile; we must forge alliances and speak out in one voice to prevail upon the government that a new and professional system of wildlife care and management is required and must be instituted: one that involves and gives respect to all those living in and around the wilderness areas, that is transparent and accountable, that understands that knowledge is the basis for creative care and that science and research are required to provide that base. We do not have this now. The present poaching profile is that of serious organised crime and it will not disappear only by patrolling and regarding all local communities as potential poachers. We need a management system that understands that they are custodians of the most precious resources, not rajas with fiefdoms. We need a system that keeps communication channels with the wider world open so that it can evolve. If India’s wild areas are to survive, if India’s environment is to remain conducive to human survival, such changes must happen now.
In the MoEF, wildlife tends to lose out to other environment activities; it needs its own service, it needs to be an independent cadre with professionally trained and oriented specialists. It needs to have dedication and backbone. It needs, for example, to be able to stand up in the international arena and ensure that the pressure being put by Chinese tiger-farm investors to re-open the tiger bone trade in China is quashed.
There is no time to lose. China has indicated that it intends to open its national trade in farmed tigers. This would be a disaster for the wild tigers of the subcontinent. Having a ‘legal’ pipeline would make it too easy for illegal tiger parts to be traded without detection. Wild animals will always be preferred because they are way cheaper to obtain. At the upcoming international meet on the trade of endangered species (14th CITES Conference of Parties), it is crucial that India, as the most important tiger range state, joins the international community and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners in speaking out against any such move. This is not just a Chinese issue; this is of global significance — a world with or without tigers? The cards are in India’s hands. Now is the moment to decide.
Joanna Van Gruisen is a wildlife photographer and former editor, TigerLink News