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Why the elephant must be India's national animal

A debate has recently started in the country about replacing our national animal — the tiger — with the lion. Before we proceed further into the touchy topic, we must look at the impact this tag has had on tiger conservation, and if such fancy labels at all help to protect such endangered species.

ht view Updated: May 29, 2015 23:20 IST

A debate has recently started in the country about replacing our national animal — the tiger — with the lion. Before we proceed further into the touchy topic, we must look at the impact this tag has had on tiger conservation, and if such fancy labels at all help to protect such endangered species.

Nearly 45 years ago, a similar debate was sparked off when Member of Parliament Karan Singh suggested to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that India’s national animal should be the tiger and not the lion.

Some believed that Singh’s suggestion was based on the fact that his pet’s name was ‘Tiger’. But that was not the case; Singh truly felt that the ‘national animal’ tag would help the endangered tiger to get a new lease of life.

That was the beginning of the Project Tiger, a focused scheme to save this species. By 1972, the tiger became our national animal. Today we have nearly 2,200 tigers and nearly 500 lions in the wild. Irrespective of this VIP status, India’s tiger population have fluctuated over the years. From 1,800 tigers in 1973, to 4,000 in 1988, to 1,400 in 2007, to 2,200 today, we are where we were in 1973 just after the tiger became our national animal.

There were barely 20-25 lions around Junagadh in Gujarat at the turn of the 20th century and each one was looked after by the then nawab of Junagadh who in a way was their custodian. He managed to breed them, and with his great zeal and passion for each one of them, their numbers slowly increased.

The nawab also carefully controlled hunting of the lions. Today, some 120 years later, they are approximately 500 of them. Lions were always scarce in India’s history and I think they were imported by the kings and carefully bred for hunting.

The lion was a royal symbol and a must-have trophy when a prince was to become king. Most of our royalty kept lions in their menageries and private hunting reserves. Over the thousands of years, many lions must have escaped, sometimes creating small feral populations.

Their scarcity was documented in a book entitled Oriental Field Sports (1807). The author of the book, captain Thomas Williamson wrote:

As to lions there are none in Hindoostan. The only one ever seen in that country was that sent from Ghod in 1781, as a present to Mr [Warren] Hastings, then Governor General of India

Lions were considered a unique animal and had been brought from the north of Persia, where it was said to abound.

I am of the opinion that the lions in Gir are remnants of a historic population introduced in this country and that they are uniquely Gir lions and not Asiatic lions. They are gentle in nature compared to their fierce African counterparts and have done well in the last century, especially after they lost the tag of ‘national animal’ to the tiger.

Tigers, on the other hand, have fared poorly in the last 25 years. Huge poaching pressure and a booming market for their skins and bones depleted their population and even though it is India’s national animal, the political will to save it has been absent for long.

Even in the prestigious tiger reserves like Panna in Madhya Pradesh and Sariska in Rajasthan, tigers have been killed but no one has yet been held accountable for this immense loss. Tiger populations have been dipping alarmingly across the country and at the turn of the 21st century, many experts believed that the tiger was on the road to extinction.

Despite these losses, many innovative interventions have been ignored and others have faced severe bureaucratic delays, leading to the wiping out of many local populations of tigers.

Lions, on the other hand, have fared much better. They were all in one area and the state of Gujarat attached great significance to their population. The political will to save them was high and there was a pride associated with keeping them safe for the future. As chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi provided better protection to them and his personal interest made a difference to their numbers.

Lions are unique to Gujarat and the pride of the state. They will always do well there and do not need the tag of national animal. The tiger — even with this tag — has done poorly since 1973. Even though it is our national animal, we have failed to understand its needs properly.

If the species has to do well in India, it will require new and innovative policy measures. The time has, therefore, come to remove this precious tag.

Our national animal should neither be the lion or the tiger because this tag has not helped in their conservation.

This is a moment to change course. I am suggesting a new national animal, one of the great symbols of India, an animal deeply embedded in our culture and an animal that commands respect among people: The Indian elephant. This animal has changed the history of the world, and India mastered the art of domesticating it thousands of years ago.

It changed the course of many battles and was the vehicle to transport timber and a host of other heavy materials. This service not only facilitated great architectural feats across Asia but also created infrastructure for development. It would have been impossible to create the railway tracks of the 19th century without the working elephant.

The animal’s religious significance is also well-known the world over. India has 30,000 Asiatic elephants out of a total world population of 50,000. This is the wild animal that has served our nation. It is truly our national animal and deserves this tag. My vote is for it.

Valmik Thapar has spent 40 years serving the wild tigers of India
The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 29, 2015 23:11 IST