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Tiger on the edge, nature on the brink

With so much attention, money, reports, committees and conservation focus, why is the tiger population still plummeting? Joanna Van Gruisen and Dr RS Chundawat report.

india Updated: Dec 22, 2008 01:12 IST

Tired of reading about endangered tigers? I think we all are. It is over 40 years since the tiger became our national animal and more than 30 years since it became the umbrella under which many of our wildlife areas and species were to be protected. Though tigers still cling to existence, they are closer to the edge of extinction now than ever before, and with them, many other species, big and small.

With so much attention, money, reports, committees and conservation focus, why is the tiger population still plummeting?

This is a question to be answered before we can hope to reverse the situation. Whether terrorism or tigers, it is crucial to understand the background and to look at the surrounding context in order to generate meaningful solutions; it is essential to get to the truth and to hold offenders accountable.

We have yet to manage this for the tigers. Scientists, conservationists, NGOs and institutions in India and worldwide have put their heart and soul into trying to save the tiger. Yet there is little we can do; the responsibility and the power of protection lies specifically with the Forest Department.

At the inception of Project Tiger (now the National Tiger Conservation Authority — NTCA) in the 1970s, it started well. A system was put in place that showed results; the party at the Centre controlled many states and a common programme was followed. Times have changed, yet the system for saving our natural heritage has not.

The political scenario is different, the threats have changed, demand for tiger parts has grown, the modus operandi of the poachers has developed, science and knowledge outside the government system has advanced, our population has increased and our aspirations have expanded.

As with combating terrorism so with tigers, the government agencies cannot work alone — we are all in this together. Sadly the Forest Department tends to react defensively and negatively to outside expertise and information instead of embracing opportunities to forge ahead more effectively.

In 2002, a Wildlife Protection Act amendment made it mandatory for the state governments to create advisory committees for all sanctuaries; these were to include Panchayati Raj institutions, NGOs and wildlife expert members. Nearly seven years on, none have been constituted. The NTCA was constituted with many experts, though surprisingly no tiger expert; however it rarely meets. These examples underline the problem with the system.

When two NGOs exposed the extent of the skin trade in Tibet and brought back photographic evidence it shocked the world, but not our Ministry of Environment and Forests.

In 2005, the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee wrote warning the Madhya Pradesh government that Panna tigers were going "the Sariska way". Instead of making use the warning to stem the decline, the state's reaction was to insist that such a comparison was "unwarranted and unduly alarmist". In 2008, the department is reluctantly having to accept that there may be only one or two male tigers left and is thinking of introducing females to Panna (HT December 20, 2008)! Who should be accountable?

The all-India tiger census executed by the NTCA and the Wildlife Institute of India to some extent forced the Government to recognise what conservationists had been saying for more than a decade: tigers outside protected areas in the human-dominated landscapes are pretty much gone and even within premier protected areas, they are vulnerable and disappearing. Tigers are resilient; they can breed well and come back if given peace and protection. But it certainly won't happen if our Government plays ostrich!

One of the most important aspects to recognise is poaching; this has threatened tigers for many years now. In spite of all evidence, still very few wildlife managers accept that our much-loved national animal is ending up as someone's medicine, piece of clothing or talisman. Finally the Government did set up a Wildlife Crime Bureau, headed by a diligent IPS officer. But it needs more support and we need to ensure that those caught are appropriately prosecuted.

We could have learnt from the poaching evidence, from the loss of all tigers from Sariska, from the near total loss in Panna, from the warnings of so many tiger aficionados. But no, all that has been learnt is to hide the truth.

We have a systemic failure and our only hope is to begin anew with a completely new system that takes advantage of the fact that wildlife science is now a well-developed discipline. Expertise, sometimes from outside the government, needs to be harnessed to collectively save the tiger while also improving livelihoods and the environment.

To manage our natural heritage, we need - and now have the technology and expertise for - a professional, dedicated federal agency that is responsive to each State's and each area's needs; if we continue to leave it in the hands of an autocratic and outdated system, it will continue to disappear. Let us not forget that if we destroy nature, ultimately we will be destroying ourselves!