Tiger Zinda Hai: Judicial Lens

Apr 09, 2023 06:02 PM IST

Sudhir Mishra and Simran Gupta talk about Project Tiger’s 50 years, the role of the judiciary and India’s success in doubling the tiger population

When every Indian’s heart today is screaming an Oscar (courtesy The Elephant Whisperers) the focus has happily shifted to wildlife and forests. 

Project Tiger is a wildlife conservation project launched by the Government of India on April 1st 1973 to protect the Bengal tiger and its habitats. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Project Tiger is a wildlife conservation project launched by the Government of India on April 1st 1973 to protect the Bengal tiger and its habitats. (Photo: Shutterstock)

In the past few years, fortunately, through visiting several national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and reserves in India, due to being a wildlife romanticist and also due to the sheer passion to protect the tigers and other wildlife animals of our country, we have treated ourselves as Tiger comrades.

Last year in January, while visiting the extremely dense and scenic Kanha National Park after a very long time, the realisation struck us that the preservation and protection of the wildlife in our country, particularly those on the verge of extinction like the tiger, in these extremely beautiful and dense forests over the years has not been an easy journey.

As we mark the Golden Jubilee and success of ‘The Project Tiger’ in April this year, while celebrating the exemplary contributions of the various stakeholders, ignorantly the commitment of the judiciary and legal system has been left unacknowledged. 

Launched by the then government in April 1973 from the Jim Corbett National Park, the 4 crore Project Tiger went from nine reserves in an area of 9,115 sq km to 53 tiger reserves today covering an area of 75,000 sq km. 

Today, as India flaunts its national animal, Tiger’s success story to the world, it looks like a dream that in the 19th century, India had close to 40,000 tigers at the start but only less than 1400 in 1970.

So the urgent need to protect and preserve the wildlife, especially the tigers, was desperately felt in the 70s and thus the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, was implemented, which controlled the hunting, smuggling, and illegal trade in wildlife and where, for the first time, punishments and criminal prosecution were introduced if one was involved in the hunting of a tiger, a leopard, an elephant, and/or other endangered animals.

If we look at the first 25 years of the project, the tiger count by the end of 1998 had reached a subtle number, and we surely managed to save the tigers from extinction.

India’s success in doubling the tiger population from 2004 to 2023 is largely because of marathon efforts on the part of eight to ten states, the role of the judiciary and the civil society.  (Photo: Shutterstock.)
India’s success in doubling the tiger population from 2004 to 2023 is largely because of marathon efforts on the part of eight to ten states, the role of the judiciary and the civil society.  (Photo: Shutterstock.)

The initiation of Project Tiger was a huge effort on the part of the Indian government to fundamentally challenge how the tiger and its habitat will be protected in India henceforth.

The judiciary, of course, through its first Forest Bench of the Supreme Court in the 1990s, was already working towards the protection of the environment, forests, and wildlife.

Tracing through the journey of saving the tigers and their survival, in fact, some of the specific cases that decided the survival of tigers by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India were its landmark intervention in a case of financial irregularity relating to park management issues at the Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar in 2001, where the entire field staff had once left the Tiger Reserve, leaving 43 tigers at the mercy of poachers due to non-payment of their salaries, which was in fact a problem all over the country. In order to appreciate the efforts of the field staff, the Supreme Court ordered the Bihar government to pay salaries to its employees at the Valmiki Tiger Reserve on an urgent basis.

Further, the Hon’ble Supreme Court intervened in 2003 to stop a road going through the Corbett National Park with respect to the proposal of realignment between Kalagarh and Phekanala to protect and preserve the National Park in the matter titled Naveen M. Raheja vs. Union of India (Writ Petition (C) No. 47 of 1998). The questions of the non-release of funds by the states and the averment of diversification of those funds specifically allocated for tiger conservation under Project Tiger, as well as the question of filling up vacancies in the Forest and Wildlife Department of the state, were also considered by the Hon’ble Court, along with the matter of the road in Jim Corbett National Park. The Hon’ble Court further directed the implementing agencies to take the requisite steps, in particular with regard to providing water to the animals as summer had set in and their protection from fire hazards. 

The author, who was assisting the Apex Court in both of these matters, had filed applications for Corbett Tiger Reserve and Valmiki Tiger Reserve and can safely say that there were dozens of other instances where the Hon’ble Supreme Court and other lower courts monitored the on-ground situation in a tiger reserve.

However, it was the summers of 2005 when there was a complete frenzy, hopelessness in the tiger conservation efforts due to the sudden loss of faith following the death of the last tiger and a complete wipeout at the Sariska Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan, due to the activities of poachers like Sansarchand. Following the report in Sariska, the findings of missing tigers started pouring in from elsewhere too, such as Ranthambore in Rajasthan and Panna in Madhya Pradesh. 

Most of us felt that we were suddenly back in the 1970s, when the survival and existence of Tiger became a fundamental question and thereafter led to the launch of Project Tiger in 1973.

However, the complete anhelation of tigers in Sariska Tiger Reserve led to renewed efforts on the part of Project Tiger, the political establishment, foreign aid, international collaboration, as well as judicial intervention such as the Scheduled Tribes Bill, which is in debate, and the constitution of a special five-member tiger task force (TTF) on the status of tigers in wildlife parks, etc. This also led to the formation of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in 2006, when the tiger population was estimated to be as low as 1411.

Following the crisis in Sariska, the country’s finest tiger reserves sent their directors to the United States under the International Visitors Leadership Programme (IVLP) in 2005 to learn about habitat conservation and species protection during a one-month sponsored programme, and the author, Mr. Sudhir Mishra, was fortunate to be one of the nominated visitors.

The government was desperate, the conservationists were disappointed, and the judiciary started taking fundamental steps through its forest benches to intervene in the tiger conservation story on a regular basis.

I think what fundamentally changed in 2004 was the general recognition of the tiger as a definitive indicator species for the thriving forest and its habitat and a desperation to finally protect it.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NCTA) has been very effective in the tiger census since 2006 and has used innovative mechanisms like camera trapping and also assessed the status of tigers, co-predators, prey bases, and habitat. Every four years, NTCA conducts an elaborate tiger census. 

When the Hon’ble Prime Minister now releases the 2022 data on tigers on April 9, 2023, I am sure it will be a promising, futuristic, and full of hope increase in tigers numbers in India. 

However, it has to be communicated that when Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi smiles at the state of the tiger population in India, he can also take a bow for playing a critical role in its survival in the country. 

In 2007, Gir National Park in Gujarat lost many lions to poaching. After a series of lion poaching cases, it was found that the hunters had come all the way from Katni, Madhya Pradesh who were part of a known illegal wildlife trade racket for decades and specialised in tiger poaching and tiger hunting as well. In a swift move, Mr. Narendra Modi, who was the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, created a robust legal team and appointed an IPS officer, Mr Keshav Kumar, to oversee wildlife investigations and ensure the conviction of such poachers. What is significant here is that the author, Mr. Mishra, was appointed a special wildlife counsel to the State of Gujarat to provide assistance to the police and forest department. The conviction in this case happened because of state-of-the-art wildlife forensic support, which ensured that all the poachers remained in jail for years in this landmark case.

This particular case involving lion poaching received recognition across the country and abroad for its remarkable use of wildlife forensics as a tool to connect the death of a wild animal and a poacher. 

The judgement of the trial court in the Gir lion poaching was widely circulated from 2007 onwards in all the tiger protected areas through a series of workshops, a wildlife training programme, and interactions with judicial magistrates and led to a perceptional change in the lower judiciary that wildlife offences don’t have to be treated in a lenient manner as they used to be earlier.

The biggest poachers and other wildlife traders were repeatedly convicted following the Gir lion poaching case, through a new culture of conviction in wildlife cases. 

While at the grass-roots level poachers were getting frightened and discouraged, and the confidence of field officers was boosted at the same time through the forest bench of the Supreme Court, every Friday series of orders were passed on important habitat issues from 1996 onwards. 

On a typical Friday at 2 pm the Apex Court would listen for hours to the recommendations of the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court, which used to bring hundreds of wildlife issues before the court in a meticulous manner. It is no surprise that the success of habitat conservation protection of endangered species was a top priority for the Indian Judiciary and their role can only be appreciated if you realise that a lawyer as eminent as Mr. Harish Salve was the amicus of the Forest Bench. 

In fact, in 2010, a second forest bench was further constituted 15 years after the creation of the first, when it was a golden period to protect the environment and wildlife. Issues as diverse as the creation of a memorial park in Noida, the setting up of a cement unit in Meghalaya against forest norms, the felling of trees, the alteration of park management techniques, habitat conservation, wildlife protection, the coastal regulatory zone, and other issues were debated for hours on every Friday. 

Despite all the criticism of the Forest Bench in the Supreme Court, which sustained itself for more than 15 years, the Apex Court ensured that it would continue with the Forest Bench as there was no alternative mechanism to fully protect the forest and wildlife. In this manner, the judiciary played an exemplary role as far as can be recalled in those years, and thus its contribution cannot be ignored for Tiger conservation.

India’s success in doubling the tiger population from 2004 to 2023 is largely because of marathon efforts on the part of eight to ten states, the role of the judiciary, and the civil society. 

The shining states in the Tiger Protection revival were Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerela, as they have been part of a huge turnaround. 

Without mentioning any particular political party, the effort of different state governments in putting their best officers in charge of tiger reserves was commendable, far-sighted and created a perfect synergy on the ground for the local communities, park management, and the wild animals. 

But what do the next 50 years hold?

While we celebrate the success of Project Tiger and saving the stripes during this Golden Jubilee, it is also important for us to foresee the challenges ahead. 

While India races towards a 5 trillion economy, the face-off between the tiger and development and man-wildlife conflict will be fierce. Several new highways are being expanded, road networks are being planned, and the metropolitan cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad are being further expanded. Most of these new roads will unfortunately criss-cross through tiger conservation corridors, and there is a likelihood that it will affect their survival.

The proposed expansion of new railway lines in Central India involves dozens of tiger reserves and forests. And fears of accidents involving big cats cannot be ruled out, as we have seen in the past near Bandhipur tiger reserve, Corbett tiger reserve, Rajaji national park, and Pench tiger reserve. 

If we truly want India to remain the biggest Tiger attraction in the world that it is, then non-violative tiger habitat is an absolute must. Secondly, for the next 25 years, we should also reintroduce tigers into empty tiger reserves in West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Telangana, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh.

Despite this glorious past, conservation and development can overlap, but they must remain strikingly separate, and the tiger as an indicator species can ensure go and no-go areas for human civilization and its activities. 

Sudhir Mishra is a noted environmental lawyer and Simran Gupta is an advocate at Supreme Court of India.

The views expressed are the authors’ own.

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