Before you snigger at yet another tiger story, let me assure you that I understand your point. Yes, it is our national animal and yes, it is quite a sight even in the zoo. But in a country that is wracked by poverty, unemployment and terrorism, does the tiger deserve prime ministerial intervention?
No wonder you just don’t get this thing about the tiger.
The queen: Machhli, the famous tigress in Ranthambhore, has raised nine cubs in four litters. According to the latest national census, there are only 1,411 wild tigers left in India. Photograph: Jay Mazoomdaar
The more compassionate among us might spare a thought for it were we not repelled by rabid environmentalists who seem to value all living beings except humans. But for most, the tiger does not make the cut. It does not even make a legal pet. Is there, then, a valid case for saving the tiger?
Years ago, I was with some children at the Dhikala Complex in Corbett National Park. When I asked why they were there, they told me they had come “to see a tiger”. Why tiger? “It’s so big and powerful…even elephants are scared of it…”
At this point, a proud father prompted his seven-year-old to say “We must save the tiger” and a few other children echoed the same thought. But when I asked them why they should do so, even the parents looked foxed.
Suddenly, a tiny girl threw up her hand and said in a sing-song voice: “…because it is the king of beasts”. With a few children protesting “nooo, that’s the lion”, the parents broke into indulgent laughter.
But I had my answer. This whole thing about the tiger is not about the tiger.
Though it is indeed the king of the Indian forests, having won the territorial battle with the Asiatic lion long ago, let us not meddle with traditional titles. What children understand as king of beasts is, in fact, the ecological equivalent of the apex predator or the animal at the top of a food pyramid. In that sense, both lions and tigers are kings.
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Common sense tells us that to keep the top block in place, every block down the pyramid must be in place. So a healthy tiger population typically indicates that everything is fine with the rest of the forest. The same is true of the lion, but it can serve as an indicator only for Sasan Gir National Park, Gujarat. The tiger roams much of India’s best forests. So this thing about the tiger is really about the entire forest.
In talking to children, few can match Mumbai-based environmentalist Bittu Sahgal, who runs the Kids For Tigers campaign. Some of his ploys are dramatic. One of his routines is to call two children on stage (usually a boy with cropped hair and a girl with a thick mop). He asks them to bend over, then pours a glass of water on their heads. Then he takes out two white handkerchiefs to wipe their hair dry. He demonstrates how the handkerchief used by the boy gets less wet than the one used by the girl. It’s Sahgal’s way of telling children how forest cover is essential for our water security.
Our forests are the source of 300 rivers and perennial streams; without forests, these water bodies would dry up.
There are many other reasons to value our remaining 64 million hectares of forests. A few years ago, the Centre put a conservative annual estimate of Rs40,000 crore as the value of assets exploited from forests— from biggies such as timber, medicinal plants and salt, to lesser derivatives such as tendu leaves, or firewood. This figure does not include minerals (around 75% of our mines are inside forests), encroached plantations or illegal wildlife trade. A more realistic estimate, based on independent studies, of the annual value of our forest produce would be around Rs75,000 crore.
Water babies: Two tigers relaxing at Naalghati, Ranthambhore. Photograph: Jay Mazoomdaar
The thing about the tiger is about protecting this treasure trove, ensuring our water security, and enjoying an annual dividend of around Rs75,000 crore. Anyone who has fathomed this has a very selfish reason to bother about the big cat.
The thing about the tiger is about us.
When I uncovered the local extinction of tigers at the Sariska National Park, Rajasthan, in January 2005, the government’s initial response was that of denial. But later, the Prime Minister’s office, the Supreme Court and the Central Bureau of Investigation got involved. There was a new Central legislation (the Wildlife Protection Amendment Act, 2006) and two new Central agencies (the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau). The budget for tiger conservation was increased fourfold to Rs600 crore in the 11th Plan.
Why then are tigers still dying frequent unnatural deaths? Why the disturbing headlines from Tadoba, Kanha, Pilibhit, Sunderbans or Corbett in the past few months? We can blame the lacunae in the system. But on the ground, the biggest threats are habitat loss, conflict with people and poaching.
The tiger is a territorial animal. There are gender concessions as the larger territory of a male overlaps with several smaller territories of females. But no two adult males or females usually share space.
If they are lucky to survive their first two years, tiger cubs leave their mothers and go looking for their own territories. However, these sub-adults (known as floaters) don’t easily find space unclaimed by adult tigers.
At this stage, a floater may kill or chase away a resident tiger or get killed or chased away. If alive, the displaced weakling or the young floater moves towards the forest periphery and may circle the forest till it gets lucky and finds a slot. Otherwise, it may find a patch that connects its native forest to an adjoining forest where it may try to shift. If there is no peripheral forest (known as buffer) or connecting patches (known as corridors) to temporarily accommodate these displaced weaklings or young floaters, the animals run into people. Such encounters usually trigger conflict and the animals are eventually killed or sent to zoos.
In natural circumstances, dispersal and deaths maintain the balance in a tiger population. But external disturbance such as mining or highways or habitation inside a forest reduces the size of the prime habitat (known as core area) and pushes too many tigers towards the buffer. These dispersed tigers are doomed if we allow agriculture, hotel resorts and other human activities right at the edge of the forest, if we cram the animals for space and pushes them into conflict. Over time, this combination of a disturbed core, a non-existent buffer and no connectivity between forests makes a tiger population locally unsustainable. Then, the remaining few are taken out by poachers, as in Sariska.
Poaching tigers is a highly specialized job that only a handful of traditional hunting communities are capable of. Without them, no poaching mafia can run the trade. But while the syndicates make Rs20-50 lakh per tiger, these hunters do the high-risk job for merely a few thousand rupees.
I know several tiger poachers who struggle to support a family of 8-12. When not hunting, they earn less than Rs50 a day if they get work as daily wagers. Their amazing jungle sense is a rare gift but it has little use in our legal economy.
The emphasis of our anti-poaching strategies has been on guards and guns. But guarding thousands of hectares of forests is physically impossible and financially draining. Targeted empowerment of the hunting communities is more feasible and effective. For foolproof protection, we need a carrot-and-stick policy that combines incentives for reforms with strict enforcement.
Most communities living around tiger forests are hostile to the tiger because the protection regime restricts their livelihood options and they also end up as victims of conflict. Such hostility not only leads to frequent retaliatory killings but also allows poaching mafias to make easy inroads. Our conservation policies need to be inclusive and offer these people enough incentives to support the tiger.
We cannot altogether deny the need for forest land to meet the demands of economic growth. But we must learn to distinguish between forests, between what is still pristine and what is already degraded. India’s conservation efforts will remain ad hoc till the government formulates a national policy for land use, decides what percentage of land we can afford to leave aside as inviolate forest, identifies and prioritizes the best forests within that ceiling, and protects the designated areas uncompromisingly.
Forget the government for a while. What can you do to save the tiger? Of course, you do not buy products made from wildlife. Yes, some of you send your children to rally for the tiger. But you can do a lot more:
• As an individual or a small organization or business, you can directly support effective conservation projects. Not only money, your specialized skills could help and you could devote a few weeks a year on the field.
• You can visit a hostel near Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan, and teach the children of a traditional hunting community, the Mogiyas. A project here (www.tigerwatch.net) also trains Mogiya women in handicrafts, markets the products and employs Mogiya men as forest guides or anti-poaching informers.
• Another project, run by the Corbett Foundation (www.corbettfoundation.org) in collaboration with World Wildlife Fund-India, provides on-the-spot compensation (in addition to the government compensation that usually takes months) for any loss due to man-animal conflict around the Corbett National Park.
• You can choose from other innovative models of change such as setting up biogas plants or subsidizing LPG to cut dependence on firewood. But check if the projects are sound before investing time or money. Typically, any project that does not start showing results by the mid-term is suspect. It always makes sense to visit the project site, even if as a tiger tourist, once a year.
• While holidaying in the wild, you could opt for hotels that follow the ethics of wildlife tourism and generate local employment. Travel Operators For Tigers (www.toftigers.org), for example, is one such international movement that promises a light carbon footprint.
• If you have the power to decide for a big business house, why not trigger a turnaround? Why not buy strategic tracts of private land between adjoining forests, settle the rights of landless people residing or depending on those tracts, and hand over the land to the government to serve as undisturbed forest buffers or corridors?
• You can also just keep it small and simple by saying no to plastic, switching off appliances that are not in use, opting for a carpool to school or work, planting trees in your backyard—every little act that helps your future helps the tiger too.
If nothing else, talk about the big cat once in a while. And tell those who do not get this thing about the tiger.
Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist. He won the International Press Institute award for exposing the extinction of tigers at Sariska Tiger Reserve in The Indian Express.
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