The preliminary results of the tiger census released by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) once again prove that our prized national mascot is in dire straits. The study, conducted over the past two years, states that the initial estimate from 16 of the country’s 28 tiger reserves indicates a 65 per cent fall in the number of tigers in the four central Indian states in the past five years. The full results of the study are not expected until December. But the early figures indicate that the most recent census figure — a count of 3,733 — was far too optimistic. The last major census, undertaken in 2002, relied on pugmark sightings. The current study uses camera ‘traps’ triggered by passing animals, as well as empirical evidence culled by hundreds of wildlife officers tracking droppings and pugmarks.The results are scary. But what is truly alarming is the lackadaisical attitude of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). MoEF Secretary Prodipto Ghosh termed the report as an “academic exercise” that was not an official survey. This is surprising as the WII is an MoEF-funded institute and Mr Ghosh the chairman of its governing body. He went on to add that it is pointless to “compare the new numbers with the last census because methods are different”. If we go by this logic, then one of the two sets of figures is wrong. Moreover, instead of trying to mislead us by talking about the different counting methods, it would be better to admit that there is a problem that needs serious and urgent redressal. Conservation strategies need to be firmed up and firmed up quickly. In an age of public-private partnership, the MoEF’s hush-hush approach will not serve any purpose.
The MoEF is an ignored ministry. What best illustrates this apathy is the fact that six top positions in the ministry-mandated authorities are lying vacant. Conservationists have called for the bifurcation of the MoEF. That way, there can be a separate ministry for forests and wildlife headed by officers from the Indian Forest Service. But this has not happened because of mandarin politics. States are also to be blamed for the fiasco. Forests is a state subject but states have flouted ministry guidelines. But the time now is not to fight over who is to blame for the sorry picture, but to find out the best possible way to save our tigers.