As each TigerLink drew to a close, Fatji’s (Fateh Singh Rathore) calls would get more frequent. When was the issue out? Had we covered (the latest crisis!) from Ranthambhore? What did the editorial—and the director’s note-say? Was it strong, delivering the requisite punch? As I write now, I miss Fatji. Apologies, Fatji is sorely missed, always. But it is the tiger who is the worst loser, who has lost their staunch champion. For us, he was a tiger among men, for the tiger, he was one among them..
Last year we lost Billy (Arjan Singh), this year, Fatji passed away. Two stalwarts gone…
To move on to species they lived for: What ails the wild tiger?
We know the answer, we know the cure.
We also know that the tiger’s last, and only, hope is India.
But we refuse to take the tough call that will stem its rapid decline. Inspite of the backslapping and self-congratulations, somewhere, we are failing the tiger.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s divide the problem into two broad heads: One category is the larger picture, the tiger, in context of the ‘society’—for want of another word—it lives in. These issues are seemingly insurmountable, chronic, the ones those overwhelm you in their enormity. Where is the room for wild tigers in India, with her rapidly increasing population (1.3 billion, 50,000 added annually), and her thirst for growth and a consumerist lifestyle? How do you counter the incessant threat of highways, coal mines, power projects and expanding human habitation in tiger habitats and corridors? How do you convince politicians hungry for votes, and corporates greedy for money that the highway cuts into a crucial tiger corridor or that the coal mine sits on prime tiger real estate?
While we, doggedly, try, try and try to keep the bulldozers away, there are other issues that demand urgent attention. These, perhaps, are more workable, more immediate. Poaching is the single biggest reason for rapid population declines, indeed local extinctions. Yet, what have we done to curb this slaughter? Sure, we cannot overnight convince the Chinese that tiger penis soup isn’t the magic mantra for manhood, but what has India done to control the supply? Why isn’t there sufficient, well-trained and equipped frontline staff to take on poachers? Why don’t we strengthen our Wildlife Crime Bureaus along the lines of the agency to control narcotics smuggling?
Mismanagement, or is some cases, no management is another concern. I was part of an exercise to assess tiger reserves. Of the eight I surveyed, only one reserve had a dedicated field director and deputy director—the rest divided time between commercial forestry and conserving tigers. Incidentally, only two of the reserves had any protection strategy in place, and functional on the ground. There must be an honest, exhaustive assessment of what ails our tiger reserves, and the all-important next step to act on the concerned issues.
Why is crucial tiger habitat-deemed to be inviolate, being pillaged not by outside agencies but by the forest department themselves? The Bhanwar deh waterhole, a prime tiger nursery, waterhole in Berda in Ranthambhore was destroyed for an anicut. This is just one among the other such construction (or destruction) in Ranthambhore, and reserves across the country, where civil works reach a peak when the financial year comes to a close.
Tiger reserves are meant to serve tigers, not officers or people.
Conflict: That is killing not just the tiger, but also tolerance for the cat, is one of the most complex issues. Yet we can put in place simple mechanisms to ease the suffering. Like speedy, fair compensation for loss of cattle, and life. Have rapid response teams in place, depots to meet the local need for fuel and fodder.
The failure of the state governments to come on board on tiger conservation has been repeatedly stressed. Very true, but the centre cannot be absolved of responsibility either. The push for coal mining and highways into tiger habitat is mainly from the centre, with the PMO pressing for mining to be allowed into the recently-demarcated ‘no-go’ areas. The budget for the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which funds protection initiatives on the ground, was been cut by a fourth. The next economic superpower, India, does not have enough money for her tigers.
But the worst onslaught is brewing: by changing laws and policies, we are striking at the very foundation on which our glorious (but all-too-short) conservation history is based. The Forest Rights Act weakened the Wildlife Protection Act and largely stripped away the sanctity of Protected Areas. Its impact on wild habitats has been discussed in detail in previous issues (look for it also under ‘Focus’), but a new set of recommendations for FRA rules by the very influential National Advisory Council will be disastrous for wild habitats as they open up ‘rights’ in PAs even further.
India announces her tiger estimates shortly. But reports from the field indicate that the exercise was not a thorough one—in some cases cameras didn’t work. In others, cameras have not even been set up. Why are we rushing then to announce numbers at a grand tiger mela? Indications are that tiger numbers have increased, but the relevance of numbers diminishes when we consider that a chunk of it is tiny, fragmented populations with little genetic viability. Corridors connecting these populations are crucial to their survival.
To end on a positive note, the tiger reserves we assessed fall in India’s ‘red corridor’ impacted by left-wing extremism. Most, like Nagarjunasagar, Valmiki and Similipal were previously written off. But here, far from the spotlight, lie India’s untapped treasures, with tremendous potential.
Let’s put in our best efforts to raise these-and other such-reserves.