Okay, since it is festive season, I will try keep to the spirit of things and be optimistic when I give you a picture of the year that was—for the tiger.

So, let’s begin with the positive—perhaps the best thing that happened at the cusp of 2007-2008 was that we were able to declare ‘Critical Tiger Habitats’, about 32,000 sq km of our tiger reserves, out of the deadly ambit of the Forest Rights Act—a law that has the power to decimate our tigers, and wildlife completely, as it essentially seeks to transfer forest land to private ownership. Another good move on the part of the government was to enhance the relocation package given to forest dwellers living in tiger reserves to Rs 10 lakh per family, thereby giving a signal that it recognised the basic premise for saving tigers: That tigers need inviolate habitat. And to make this possible, Homo sapiens must be given the best possible deal to make forests inviolate for tigers; and a new life for themselves, away from the hardship that they must face living in the depths of the jungles, away from even basic facilities.

A moment I felt proud to be Indian was when we fought—like a tiger—in the CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species) Conference of Parities against China’s proposal on farming for tigers for their skin and bones. We battled too, against pressures of the highest level, and refused to be part of the World Bank’s Tiger Initiative. The Bank has caused immense damage to tiger habitat, and is now indulging in conservation games that smack of green wash, rather than any sincere attempt to save the tiger.

2008 also saw the return of the tiger to Sariska, albeit ones borrowed from neighbour, Ranthambhore. The good news is that nearly six months on—the tigers (a male, and a female) are doing well in their new home-despite myriad of problems that still confront Sariska; the bad news is that even as we wait with baited breath for them to unite and give the reserve its first generation of tigers, cupid is yet to strike this star-crossed couple.

Frankly, though, there is very little to cheer about, 2008 was a landmark year, when it was declared, courtesy a comprehensive, all-India census, that the number of wild tigers in India was 1,411, an all time low, lower even than what we had at the beginning of Project Tiger—finally acknowledging, officially, what conservationists feared all along.

The situation on the ground is abysmal. That Sariska happened is a tragedy. Worse, we did not learn from the mistake, and the echo of Sariska is today resounding in reserves across the country—most notably Panna, where just one tiger remains. Yes, you read that right. One. Even as the government was alerted repeatedly, by an imminent scientist researching in the central India reserve way back as 2004. Fact is, if we had taken measures then, Panna tigers would not have gone extinct; but the officials ignored the dire warnings, claiming fecundity when there was none. Now they seek to ‘start afresh’ by flying in tigress’ from another reserve. This seems to have become the new fad, a glamorous solution to local extinction, problem is—why do we scurry for solutions only after we are at a point of no return, rather than protect our remaining, fragmented populations? Secondly, where are the reserves with a flourishing population to feed our sterile habitats? Bandhavgarh, which is the first choice to give tigers to Panna, has reportedly a mere handful-no more than 20,.

Another very disturbing trend this year was that the tiger’s best protected fiefdoms like Kanha, Corbett , Kaziranga have also been invaded by poachers. Traps were found, and poachers arrested in the heart of Corbett, and its periphery, and poachers confessed to killing atleast three tigers in and around the reserve. Kanha has become very vulnerable too, with traps being found, repeatedly, in the reserve, a tiger was poached in November, and those in the know vouch that no more than 60 tigers exist in the reserve that held 127 in 2002. Two tigers were poached, with another skull being recovered in adjoining forests in Kaziranga, which boasts amongst the highest density of tigers in the world. Sundarbans has the single highest population of wild tigers at 274—mainly existing on paper. We would be lucky if 50 survive, given the very low prey base and the high incidence of poaching. There are again worrying reports that about ten tigers have gone missing in Ranthambhore, the western part of Rajaji has lost all its tigers, and in parts of Orissa, tigers, elephants and leopards are being slaughtered for trade, and in part to finance insurgency.

Truth of the matter is—the tiger is at its most vulnerable today-poaching has peaked, killing it is more lucrative than ever. The toll this year has been 19 till November, and that is the recorded cases, a mere fraction of the real numbers.

Another grave worry is the continuing ruthless assault on the tigers habitat. To name just a few instances—there is a six-lane highway proposed through Pench Tiger Reserve (even as tigers are ruthlessly mowed down on roads and railway tracks across the country), an observatory in Madumalai TR, diamond mining within Panna, an irrigation project in Nagarjunasagar, denotification of Valmiki in Bihar…the list is endless. We cannot profess to save tigers, unless we protect their home.

It is especially difficult for me to keep the spirits high for even as I write this (on Christmas Day), hunting parties are combing the forests of the Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh to kill a ‘man-eating’ tiger. Awards have been announced to the one who gets the bag, but it is a case of being condemned without a trail. The tiger is believed to have injured a man in the forests of Pilibhit but the teenage boy he is supposed to have ‘devoured’ had been missing for the past four days. It is a dacoit-infested area, and the tiger had had a huge meal-a buffalo just the night before, making it very unlikely that he would have been hungry enough to hunt again. Thankfully, the tiger might yet get a reprieve, thanks to some forest officers—more power to them—who have decided to first try tranquilize the tiger, and also, because the state got a rap from the centre.

It angers me that the chief wildlife warden, on whom rests the responsibility to protect wildlife, would take such a hasty decision without proper investigation, whether under political pressure or otherwise. It angers me that there is no political will to address the issue of conflict which is escalating at a frightening level-with both conflict zones and mortalities on the increase—around Tadoba in Maharashtra, Bandhavgarh and Kanha in MP, Dudhwa in UP. If we continue to destroy, degrade and fragment tiger habitat and subject forests to ill-planned development as has been happening in before, during, and all probability, after 2008, then such conflicts will only accentuate.

In February 2008, Dr Manmohan Singh made a statement that “the government is fully committed to tiger conservation.” Pleased to hear that, Mr Prime Minister, but it is time to translate your words into action-else it stinks of political double-speak—as you sign away tiger habitats to super-highways and observatories, and to the vote bank.

We need real political will to save the tiger, a motivated armed force for its protection, a separate service to manage our wildlife, to fill the huge staff shortages (and pay them), to give the tiger inviolate forests with no compromises. Make this the agenda for 2009, else be ready to bid our national animal adieu.

Appeared in The Pioneer on December 31, 2008