Expectedly, the results of the national tiger estimation by new method have confirmed the worst fears. Though the results are out for only six states of India, the shape of things to come is more or less clear. The tiger numbers in 16 of the 28 tiger reserves have sharply declined by more than 50 per cent as against the 2001 estimates.
Now there are only 490 tigers in the tiger reserves of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. The results suggest that tiger populations have declined in Madhya Pradesh by 61 per cent, Maharashtra by 57 per cent and Rajasthan by 40 per cent. In short, on the basis of these trends, even a diehard optimist will accept that there can not be more than 2,000 tigers, this too by any stretch of imagination, in the country as against the last official figure of around 3,700.
Already tested in a pilot project, the new method certainly is robust, comprehensive and has a potential for yielding results of well-corroborated relationships. There is, however, no point discussing about its finer intricacies. As such field exercises of wildlife population estimation, whether the old or the new, have to be conducted under absolutely uncontrolled and dynamic conditions of forest ecosystems, rather than under optimum and laboratory conditions, involving thousands of forest guards of various levels of intelligence and attitude throughout the country, no method even in the distant future will be foolproof and reliable enough for the “dissenters”.
The method has yielded the most essentials for reviewing the tiger conservation policy: population trends and condition of tiger habitat in the states. The excellent feature of the method is actually the courage and conviction of all those forest officers across the country that made sure that the quality of data collection in the field was as good and honest as possible. Mind you, the results from this method were, to a great extent, also based on the data collected by thousands of forest guards. These are the same forest guards who were also involved in data collection for the old method. So, there is no scope for accusations and counter-accusations.
Now, what recourse the country is left with? Waiting for every single result to come out by the year-end before soul-searching? Looking around for scapegoats for quick hangings? Or, taking stock, narcissistically, of what was done in the past to strengthen tiger conservation in the country? Let us not self-delude ourselves by taking any of the above. It is in the interest of the tiger that we do not rebuff or rubbish these figures, and take them as a challenge, rather than heap of guilt for strengthening conservation.
We must accept the home truth that saving tigers in a country like ours, with its inherent problems of politics, population, and poverty, is a Herculean task. This is a very unsettling truth that in the absence of a stronger and aggressive pro-tiger policy, we can only prolong its extinction temporarily, and the tiger population will never reach a safer status.
Let us again focus on this critical figure of 2,000 and act swiftly and determinedly. Given an honest chance the tiger can still bounce back, he knows how to survive. Here are some practical suggestions for consideration:
* The regular staff of the tiger reserves involved in multifarious duties of management should not be expected to patrol the area very effectively. If nothing wrong is exposed, it does not mean that everything is all right inside. On the lines of the “Operation Amba”, so successful in saving the Siberian tigers in the far east Russia, every tiger reserve should have several well-equipped permanent anti-poaching squads for intensive day and night patrolling. It has to be very clear that these squads should not be assigned any other job of wildlife management.
* The laws dealing with the poaching of all the wildlife species, or at least of the tiger, under schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, should be made very stringent to also serve as deterrents. The seriousness of punishment should be comparable to that of a homicide. Speedy and conclusive trials should be conducted in the cases of tiger poaching to ensure that the accused and his accomplices cannot get any psychological relief.
* The government may also think of designating special courts at least in all the tiger reserve districts for disposing of the cases of wildlife offences, specially those of tiger poaching, within a short timeframe.
* The judiciary should be imparted special training to understand the helplessness of forest employees in detecting wildlife offences and apprehending offenders in the forest. That too in the absence of independent witnesses! This special training will also help the judiciary not to turn philanthropic at the wretched sight of a supposedly poor accused, or become prejudiced against the prosecution. The Sansarchands themselves do not kill or poach tigers, it is generally the locals, living in and around a wildlife protected areas, which do the job for bigger fishes.
* The SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act should be revoked at least for the staff of every tiger reserve in the country. The forest employees dread this act like nothing, and this considerably affects their morale. The police also lose no time in taking action against these employees, and an upholder becomes an accused, or worse, a laughing stock, in the eyes of his colleagues and acquaintances. Under these circumstances, the staff starts looking the other way when an offence is committed in their areas. Foresters should be empowered suitably so that while arresting accused, seizing illegal material from them, or taking any action in good faith they may not be implicated under this act.
* All the villages should be relocated outside wildlife protected areas. The oft-repeated catchword “coexistence” when observed in its “true” sense held good till a few decades back and later it gave in to the mindless sportsmanship, and the materialistic and expansionistic attitudes of the people, bringing the tiger to the verge of extinction. We must, however, ensure that our “relocated brethrens” are well provided for in all possible respects in their new environment, and they do not consider themselves as “displaced” or “dumped”.
Past experiences tell us that villagers are afraid of laxity in after-cares rather than relocations themselves. Therefore, the relocated should be given a much better package for their sacrifice for tiger conservation, besides regular eco-development inputs.
* As far as tiger conservation in managed forests is concerned, given the overburden of multifarious responsibilities of forestry, it has to be very low in priorities. This is quite understandable, but unfortunately has resulted in a very low degree of wildlife protection in these areas. Territorial divisions are in urgent need of serious orientation of tiger conservation to the staff, required strength of game watchers and anti-poaching squads under the unified control of respective conservators.
* The last and the most difficult task is to develop strong coordination between the forest, police, and the judiciary by helping them understand each other’s points of view for a collective and effective course of action for tiger conservation in the country. As socio-politico-legal scenario exists today, it will be unfair to expect the impossible from the forest department alone.
Needless to add, filling up the vacant posts of frontline staff, giving the staff appropriate incentives, and obtaining their willingness to work in a wildlife protected area are very important.
Dr Rakesh Shukla is a research officer at the Kanha Tiger Reserve. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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